Musician Janet Horvath knew her father, George Horvath, was a brilliant cellist — she took up the instrument herself because of him — and then their shared love of music opened a closed door to his past as a Holocaust survivor.
“My parents refused to speak of their tragic past,” said the Toronto-born cellist, who spoke to the Star in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Janet Horvath was 56 when her dad first discussed his Holocaust years. She was too afraid to ask questions as a kid because of what she might hear. It was a question about music that ended the hush.
“It was a slushy, yucky, snowy day in Toronto. I was driving my father to see a doctor,” she said, reflecting on the day in 2009 when secrets began to unfold.
“He was a brilliant cellist, performed under the batons of all the greatest conductors and loved to talk shop. So I asked him, ‘Dad, have you ever played with maestro Bernstein?’”
Leonard Bernstein was regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. For decades, he served as music director of the New York Philharmonic and composed numerous popular musicals, including “West Side Story.”
George Horvath, then 87, was taken aback by Janet’s question, until a memory blossomed.
“He looked as though he was passing out. I didn’t know what precipitated this kind of reaction. He opened his eyes and said, ‘Yes, it was a very hot day at a displaced persons camp. He played the “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano and it was fantastic.’”
Leonard Bernstein led an orchestra of 17 Jewish musicians, concentration camp survivors, in two concerts in May 1948 at the Landsberg and Feldafing displaced persons camps. Horvath found photos of her father with the young conductor from that era and tracked down a printed program of the Bernstein concerts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
“I started screaming, I was so excited (to see his photos). There my father was with a full head of hair, looking very young” Janet said.
Horvath also managed to glean some recollections in Hungarian from her father, who died weeks after his initial revelation. Her mother, who had been unable to speak due to a stroke, died the previous year. Horvath discovered a tape recording of her mother telling Holocaust stories as well as her father’s testimony, and old ID cards and immigration papers.
She spent 10 years in total travelling across Europe and trying to piece their story together. In her new memoir, “The Cello Still Sings,” she depicts the harrowing history of her family under Nazi rule during the Second World War, as well as her family’s passion for music.
As described in the book, her parents married hastily hoping to avoid being deported from Budapest in 1944, when he was 22 and she was 17, only to be separated a day later. Her mother went into hiding in bombed-out buildings while her father was sent to Bor, a town under German occupation in Yugoslavia, to do forced labour.
In 1944, Hungarian authorities deported more than 440,000 Jews on orders from the Nazis. Most of them ended up in Auschwitz, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“My father thought it was a death sentence to be discarded as a slave in the mines, but it saved him from being sent to Auschwitz,” said Janet Horvath, who believes her father evaded death more than once by being a musician. “The Germans loved their music, there were orchestras in all the concentration camps. Music was my father’s lifeline.”
When the Budapest government moved for a peace agreement with the Allies later in 1944, the Arrow Cross, a far-right Hungarian ultranationalist party, intensified its attacks on the Jewish community. Nearly 80,000 Jews were killed in Budapest according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.
Horvath’s book details the siege of Budapest and its aftermath as it relates how her parents reunited. The couple first made it to Munich where George played morale-boosting concerts in an orchestra of survivors in displaced persons camps all over Bavaria.
When they left Europe for Canada in 1948, all they took were a wicker trunk and his cello.
George washed cars and cleaned offices in Toronto before landing a position with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with whom he performed for 38 years. Katherine started out working in sweatshops, then taught piano to children. The classic tale of an immigrant.
“They believed they could build a beautiful world through music and communicate beyond words,” said Janet Horvath.
“I played the cello to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
The Horvaths’ story came full circle in 2018 when Janet was invited to perform in Landsberg, Germany, on the 70th anniversary of Bernstein’s concerts.
She played the soulful cello solo “Kol Nidre,” which starts the Atonement Day service on Yom Kippur.
“It was like an out-of-body experience. I played with German youth, for German people, where my father had played 70 years ago,” she said.
Horvath hopes the message of “The Cello Still Sings” will resonate with readers despite the book’s deeply personal narrative.
“We see hatred rearing its ugly head again. Many places in the world are turning authoritarian and we must protect people against complicity,” she said.
“It is essential to understand what happened and how, to prevent history from repeating itself, to educate people about what racism and hatred can do. We know what’s going on in the world, so we’re all bystanders. I am hoping that my book will help people see the parallels.”
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