The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
This book is gripping, valuable and humbling. Gripping, because although it adds to a mountain of reports and memoirs of survivors of Auschwitz, it so starkly depicts human depravity that one cannot help but be horrified anew. Valuable, because Clare Galambos Winter’s biographer, Sarah Gaitanos, is so scrupulous: keenly aware of the unreliability of memory, she has researched the background of her subject thoroughly, and at every point substantiates her story with independent historical data, some gained at considerable pains; her book is also richly documented with photographs.
Humbling, because this story is of a young woman who, wrenched from a contented life, successively endured the hells her German tormentors devised for her, came to terms with the murder of her parents and brother, and determined to put the nightmares behind her in order to begin a fresh life in New Zealand. After reading the first half of the book, this reviewer wondered if, rather than comment, he should not simply bow his head in respect.
These are the experiences described in that first half. Born in Hungary in 1923, Klára Galambos was raised in a cultivated middle-class Jewish family, showing musical gifts from an early age. Although from 1939 Jews in Hungary were subjected to punitive legislation, they believed they were safe, and discounted rumours of genocide beyond their borders.
When, on 19 March 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, Klára was a 20-year-old student studying the violin in Budapest. Arrested with other Jews, she was jailed then released. She returned to her home town of Szombathely where she and her family were forced into a cramped ghetto, whose inhabitants were then, on 4 July, squeezed into cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There, her mother and younger brother were sent to the gas-chambers (though Klára did not know of their existence), while she and her aunt Rózsi, her mother’s younger sister then aged 35, were selected for slave labour. After over five weeks of squalor and near-starvation, on 13 August they were transported to a munitions factory in Hessen, where they worked as slave-labourers until 27 March 1945 when, the Allies approaching, the camp was evacuated and its prisoners forced to march north-east. With other prisoners they escaped; on 31 March they encountered American army tanks, and were free.
The “they” is significant. The most decisive circumstance ensuring Klára’s survival in conditions which destroyed others is clearly that she had Rózsi, and Rózsi had her. If they had been separated, one wonders whether either would have survived. Her story thus affirms the vital value of love and solidarity. Other factors in Klára’s favour were a tough physical constitution, and a robust self-esteem.
Unforeseen kindnesses also counted much. A “turning point in Klára’s morale” came when an SS officer at the labour camp whispered to her in English, “Hang in there, girl, it won’t last long.” It made a huge difference.
When this happened, Klára was playing the violin for a dance at the SS barracks. This brings us to a crucial factor in her survival: music. The possession of a violin, Klára explains, gave her back her identity, helping her to endure the worsening conditions in the camp. This theme continues through the second half of the book, amply justifying its title, The Violinist: for there we learn how, after the emigration of Klára and Rózsi to New Zealand in 1949, Klára (henceforth Clare) was “rescued” by music. Auditioning nervously but successfully for the fledgling National Orchestra in 1951, she attended her first rehearsal in trepidation:
I opened the music and it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and it was somehow as if I was in a dark room and suddenly the window was opened and there was brilliant sunshine outside, because I remembered it. I remembered the Fifth Symphony. I thought, Oh yes, I’m home. I’m home. Suddenly for those few minutes all the terror and horror and murder and everything fell away and it was only Beethoven’s Fifth and me … . I have never forgotten that wonderful liberating feeling that I’m home. I’m playing in an orchestra. I’m happy.
Thus began a 32-year career with the orchestra, which provided the emotional mainstay of Clare’s subsequent long life in New Zealand, supporting her through tribulations some of which had their roots in the trauma of 1944-45, while others are the normal lot of human beings. Clare’s life brought her professional success, two happy marriages, and a comfortable old age.
It is a life well lived, and it is well described. It does not detract from Clare’s achievement to observe that she was among the more fortunate of European Jewish refugees to New Zealand. This is a context the book might have discussed. I think particularly of the roughly 1100 who arrived here between 1933 and the outbreak of war and who, if German or Austrian, bore the stigma of classification as Enemy Aliens, and were identified by many New Zealanders with a reviled aggressor nation.
Some were, moreover, middle-aged or elderly (Clare on arrival was 25); or could not speak English (Clare was fluent); or knew not a soul (Clare and her aunt had relatives who took them in). Most cruelly, professionals who came here with high qualifications – often doctorates – in law, economics and medicine, were faced with unemployment or manual labour and the daunting prospect of years spent learning English and sitting qualifying examinations. Clare had the fortune to be a practising musician, who in music soon found an ideal employment.
For music is a universal language which crosses national borders. In redeeming the life of Clare Galambos Winter, music equally enabled her to contribute to her adopted country, through her playing and her teaching. A fitting emblem of that contribution is her generous gift of her two precious violins to the New Zealand School of Music, and of two annual music scholarships in her name. By these, and by this book, a valiant woman is memorialised.
Peter Russell reviewed Freya Klier’s Promised New Zealand: Fleeing Nazi Persecution in our Summer 2010 issue.