- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

By Frances Brent
Atlas and Co., $24, 224 pages, illus.

Lev Aronson is not exactly a household name in nonmusical circles, but the story of his survival in Nazi Germany and eventual emigration to America, where he became a respected orchestra cellist and teacher, if not the soloist he had once aspired to be, is gripping. Frances Brent, a poet, doesn’t attempt to weave her material together like a true biography, primarily because her sources — Mr. Aronson’s unpublished memoir and oral history and interviews with his relatives and associates — are fragmentary and sometimes conflicting.

Instead, the author has concentrated on vividly conveying how a young Jewish musician from Latvia was swept up in Hitler’s mad efforts to exterminate every Jew in Europe and survived to reclaim his life and profession. Twenty-five members of his family perished in the Holocaust while he did slave labor under the Nazis in Riga, Danzig and the nearby camps for four years until, in 1945, he managed to flee the approaching Russians and take refuge in the U.S. sector of Berlin.

Lev Aronson was born in 1912 in Mitava, a provincial river city in the duchy of Kurland on the Baltic. He grew up in a family that settled in Riga after deportation to Russia during a pogrom (Hitler wasn’t the first to use cattle cars to move Jews from place to place). Lev’s father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress. Lev began cello lessons at age six. He became a student and, eventually, a close friend of Gregor Piatigorsky in Berlin, where Lev had gone to study law; both musicians studied, at different times, with the famed Julius Klengel in Leipzig, whose students also included William Pleeth, Janos Starker and Robert Hofmekler (well known and beloved in the Washington area as a cello teacher in McLean, Va., and at the D.C. Youth Orchestra).

Before the war reached Latvia, Mr. Aronson performed and recorded in that country (he was principal cello in a provincial orchestra) and elsewhere in Europe. Then, during the first week of the German occupation in June 1941, the authorities summoned him to turn over his two precious cellos, one of which was said to be an Amati cello, and bows, including a Tourte. He never saw them again, and never got over their loss. In 1986, at age 74, he was still petitioning the West German government for reparations. He died two years later.

The account of Mr. Aronson’s experiences during the war is typically horrendous but occasionally relieved by acts of human kindness. When in desperation he answered a call in the camp for experienced welders (there was no call for musicians), he was sent to work at the submarine shipyard in Danzig. There, one fellow worker, an Italian prisoner of war who had heard that Mr. Aronson was a musician, approached him with, “You’re not a welder, and you’ll be in danger if they find out. You must learn right away — I’ll teach you.” Whereupon he coached him in a relaxed-wrist welding technique “similar to bowing.”

A fellow prisoner, a part-German, part-Polish clarinetist, assessed Mr. Aronson’s welding skill as hopeless and volunteered to do all the work in exchange for music instruction, asking questions such as “What is a cadence? What are harmonic tones? What is a mode?” Mr. Aronson taught him the history of music, century by century, while they knelt on the steel plates. “With a piece of chalk he kept in his pocket, the clarinet player took dictation, writing on the newly welded steel.” Occasionally, writes the author, to impress others within earshot, the clarinetist would scream out, “Goddamn swine, why can’t you do this better?” After a few weeks, the clarinetist was called up to “the Reich’s work service” and Mr. Aronson never saw him again.

Sometimes, as the prisoners were marched from their barracks to the Danzig railway station to transport their food and water, Mr. Aronson saw people from his prewar life in Riga. One day, the author says, he noticed “a well-known violinist who had once been a friend”; the man was wearing a “heavy black coat with a fur collar,” and upon being recognized, instantly turned away.

Mr. Aronson’s barracks were eventually liberated by the Soviets, but that was not good news. The Soviets decided that because the cellist and his fellow musician from Riga, Gregor Shelkan, were Jews who had survived when millions had died, they must be spies who had “helped the German machinery,” and promptly interned them and prepared to ship them off to the Soviet Union. The two musicians, with the aid of a friendly Polish officer, managed to escape by train and on foot and headed west.

After four years without a cello, Mr. Aronson never ceased trying to find an instrument to play along the way, and apparently followed up a number of rumors about cellos buried in fields of the war-torn landscape. There were many narrow escapes before both men separately made their way to West Berlin; Lev Aronson and Nina Bukowska, a dancer and fellow refugee, were married there in 1947.

It was Piatigorsky who helped Mr. Aronson find a worthy cello and emigrate to the United States. He auditioned in Europe for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and once he had reached America, conductor Antal Dorati hired him to share the principal cello stand with Janos Starker. Mr. Aronson remained there for some four decades, honing the skills of an army of students. Unfortunately, this book offers almost nothing on Mr. Aronson’s life in Dallas; the acknowledgments mention that a stepdaughter provided documentary assistance, but there’s no mention of a second wife.

Ms. Brent has written a sensitive Holocaust memoir of a musician who survived with his humanity in tact and deserves to be remembered beyond his circle of friends and colleagues in Dallas. Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean. One of her daughters, a professional cellist in London, studied with Robert Hofmekler in McLean and with William Pleeth in London.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean. One of her daughters, a professional cellist in London, studied with Robert Hofmekler in McLean and with William Pleeth in London.

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