SHIR AMI: AN INSPIRATION
Shir Ami was inspired initially by the story of a great musician whose artistry saved him from certain death.
As a child, I read in the Philadelphia Inquirer the story of David Arben, then associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had, on the occasion of his last tour before retiring, visited his native Poland for the first time since the war. Arben’s childhood struggle included separation from his parents, life in the ghetto and finally deportation to the concentration camp in Flossenberg, Germany. The Jewish commandant appointed to manage Arben’s company saw that the young musician had a violin with him, and Arben was then employed to entertain at Nazi officers’ functions.
One night he was awakened, along with his entire barracks, and ordered into the woods to dig a ditch and prepare to be executed. As the man to his side fell dead into that ditch, the commandant realized that Arben, the Jewish fiddler, was next in line, and saved his life.
When the war ended, young David Arben was left alone, with no family, and after finding his way to study in Munich, eventually played for Efrem Zimbalist in a masterclass at the Salzburg Mozarteum, which led to Arben’s invitation to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and ultimately to a long and distinguished musical career. When Arben returned to Poland on that orchestra tour, he gave a recital at the synagogue he had attended as a child, which was miraculously still standing.
This dramatic story has remained with me always and Mr. Arben has been a mentor to me since we later collaborated in Puerto Rico on a performance of the Schubert Cello Quintet.
Around the same time, my dear friend, Nancy Rubenstein, shared with me her love and knowledge of this repertoire, which finally coalesced into the present ensemble; we gave our first performance on Yom Hashoah, 2007, at the temple my family and I attend in Newtown, PA, Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation.
After the excitement and interest generated by that debut concert, our fledgling ensemble realized we needed a name and were delighted when my own clergy, Rabbi Eliot Strom and Cantor Mark Elson, graciously agreed to grant us the name of our congregation: Shir Ami – Song of Our People.
The musicians of Shir Ami are of course the product of our diverse family histories. From Russia to Poland to Hungary and to Egypt, we seek through the recovery and rejuvenation of this rich musical heritage to pay tribute to those generations of Jewish immigrants whose struggle allows us to make music together.
Of particular interest is the family history of Michael Klotz, who is a first generation American and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. His paternal grandparents came from Lodz and Cracow and, after outlasting the war while at Auschwitz, met in Munich in 1947, where Michael’s father was born. This part of his family then emigrated to Rochester in 1951. Michael’s maternal grandfather, Zelig Friedman, came from a small Hungarian village near the Czech border and lost his wife and children during the early years of the war. After being released from service in the Hungarian army, he spent time in Nazi forced labor camps in Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and White Russia before being freed in Szakeshfeherwar. At the war’s end, Zelig sought out Tauba, the sister of his deceased wife, who was herself a survivor. She had lived in the ghetto in Nunkasz before being deported to the camps at Auschwitz, then to Plasov, back to Auschwitz, and finally to Friedenberg, where she was liberated in 1945. Zelig and Tauba then returned to their shtetl in Hungary and had a family, emigrating first to Israel in 1971 and finally to Rochester in 1974.
Orsolya was born in Budapest, home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities. She became a Bat Mitzvah in the Great Dohány Street Synagogue, once the meeting point of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews before the Holocaust. Her mother's parents came from the small town of Vágselye, now called Sala and a part of Slovakia. They survived the Holocaust together and escaped from Terezin on the night of the liberation to give new life and hope to Orsolya's mother. With their new baby, Orsolya's grandparents risked the dangerous crossing of the Danube, which was still under heavy fire, and settled in Esztergom, Hungary. Orsolya currently lives in Vienna's old Jewish quarter, next door to the Große Leopolstätter Tempel which was destroyed on Kristallnacht.
Jason and Rachel are descended from Russian Jews of the families Carlin and Milstein, who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia and sought a better life in New York and Philadelphia during the initial wave of Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century.
Noah grew up listening to his father, a Juilliard-trained singer, every week at the shul in Chicago where he was chazzan. And as his mother emigrated from Germany in 1970, Noah is a first generation American as well.
Michael Mizrahi is a first generation American through his father, who emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt following the Six Day War in 1967. Michael’s mother is descended from Russian Jews, and Michael grew up deeply involved in Jewish music at the synagogue.
Shoshana's family came from Poland and Germany, having fled to Canada before the horrific events of the 1930s in order to start new lives in Montreal. Shoshana's maternal great-grandparents came from a small village in Poland and were chosen through a lottery of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services to emigrate to Montreal, where five Hebrew teachers were needed. Her grandfather subsequently taught at the Talmud Torah School and gave private Bar Mitzvah lessons, all while operating a grocery store to make ends meet.
Shoshana's paternal grandfather left Germany at age 16 in search of an education. He had already completed his secondary schooling but, as a Jew, was refused entry to the major science universities. As a result, he traveled alone, first to England and then to Canada, where he was finally accepted by the Université de Montréal, from which juncture he went on to become a prominent physician in family medicine and dermatology. Since then, Shoshana has grown up in a household steeped in Hebrew and Yiddish culture.