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‘The Cello Still Sings’ tells of former Minnesota Orchestra cellist’s family connection to the Holocaust

Janet Horvath’s late father George had once played cello in an orchestra at a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II. He told her the story of when Leonard Bernstein guest conducted.

Janet Horvath’s eloquent memoir is the story of three generations of Horvaths, intertwining tales of courage and devotion.
Janet Horvath’s eloquent memoir is the story of three generations of Horvaths, intertwining tales of courage and devotion.

Janet Horvath recalled the moment her life changed.

She was chatting with her 87-year-old father about conductors he had worked with as she drove him to a doctor’s appointment on a snowy day in Toronto in 2009. Both looked back on distinguished careers as cellists. George Horvath had been a member of the Budapest Symphony and the Toronto Symphony, and Janet was at that time in her 29th year as associate principal cello with the Minnesota Orchestra.

When she asked whether he had ever worked with Leonard Bernstein, George shifted in his seat and placed the palm of his hand on his cheek. Several moments passed. A whoosh of air escaped from his lungs.

“Yes,” he said, as if gripped by memory. “It was a very hot day. He came. To conduct Jewish orchestra in DP [displaced persons] camps. In 1948. After war. He played George Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ He was just a kid and was fan-tas-tic! I talked to him in German. I said, ‘I want to come to America.’ So warm Bernstein was. He said, ‘I am great Jewish musician. I should go to Palestine.” George’s face glowed as he spoke.

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Janet was startled. She had never heard this story before. Her father, a defiantly taciturn man given to outbursts of anger and sobbing that often exploded behind closed doors late at night, had just revealed a long-held secret, one of those memories about which she and her brother Rob had learned it was forbidden to ask.

Though George died in November of that year (of heart failure) – Janet’s mother Katherine, a pianist and singer, had died in 2008 – Janet spent much of the next decade eagerly and sometimes apprehensively filling in the blanks in her parents’ history, discovering how, as Hungarian Jews, they and several other relatives had managed to survive the Holocaust, George being forced into slave labor in the copper mines of Yugoslavia, while Katherine, in exchange for food, was salvaging pieces of wood and wire on the streets of Budapest, and finally, how, in post-War years,  the two of them migrated to Canada – penniless – with just a few small bags and George’s ever-present cello.

The result, the summation of 10 years of persistent and sometimes painful research, is Janet’s eloquent memoir, to be published this week, “The Cello Still Sings,” subtitled “A Generational Story of the Holocaust and the Transformative Power of Music.” The book is the story of three generations of Horvaths, intertwined tales of courage and devotion including a recounting of Janet’s own life and career starting with her earliest childhood memory, lying on the floor next to her father in their house in Toronto as he practiced the cello. In a fitting climax, the book concludes with her performance as soloist in 2018 at the Landsburg Town Hall in Bavaria in a concert that duplicated the program that Bernstein had conducted there with George Horvath as cellist exactly 70 years earlier. 

George Horvath
George Horvath
Early in the book Janet recalls hearing her father’s breakdowns in his room, his sobbing, late at night. She asks him the next day, “What were you sad about, Papa?” “Lesson to me,” he says in his thick Hungarian accent. “Lesson now. Not your business. Nothing happened, never.

“He was suffering from PTSD, but we didn‘t know that back then,” Janet said in a recent interview. “As a child, I thought this was my fault. But we weren’t allowed to ask questions, and this is typical of my generation of children of Holocaust survivors. We tried to protect them by never causing them any more pain and trying to be the best-behaved children, not even letting them know if we had fallen and scraped our knees; and they, in turn, closed themselves down about their previous lives because they wanted to protect us. They were over-protective.

“Much later, I met a violinist whose parents were also Holocaust survivors. He said he was never allowed to have sleepovers. I said, ‘Oh, really? Nor was I.’ The thing was, if you slept away from your family, they might never see you again. They still had that fear. And before I was married, my father took my being a single woman much harder than any normal parent would. The worst fate for him was being alone, separated from family.”

Back in Toronto in 2009, after George divulged his recollection of the concert with Bernstein, Janet sought out any information she could find about her parents’ early lives. First, she looked at the Bernstein website, which corroborated her father’s story. On May 10, 1948, Bernstein had, in fact, conducted at the Landsberg and Feldafing displaced persons (DP) camps in Bavaria, Germany, in what was then the American zone, for thousands of Holocaust survivors, spectators and American military personnel.

Bernstein described the experience in a letter he wrote to a friend the next day. “Almost more exciting were the two concerts in DP camps. I was received by parades of kids with flowers and the greatest of honors. I conducted a 20-piece concentration-camp orchestra and cried my heart out. It’s all amazing and horrible and beautiful and ugly and messy and inspiring.”

Working deep into the night, Janet found a newspaper clipping saying that Bernstein had donated and autographed the printed program of the concerts to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. She emailed the museum, identifying herself as the daughter of one of the participants in the concerts and asked if she could see the signed program. The response from the museum the next day was “Yes,” you can make an appointment to see the program, and we also have photographs of the event.

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“Howie,” she shrieked to her husband, Howard Kleyman, a retired lawyer. “They have photographs!” 

As it happened, the Minnesota Orchestra was scheduled to play a concert at Carnegie Hall just a few months later, in May, and so Janet made an appointment to visit the museum on that day. With just a two-hour window before the rehearsal that morning at Carnegie Hall, she cabbed down to the Battery in lower Manhattan and arrived at the museum just as the custodian was unlocking the main doors for the day. The head archivist escorted her to the museum’s main office and soon returned with a shoebox-sized container. Wearing white calf-skin gloves, she gently opened the lid and lifted four tiny, 60-year-old black-and-white photos out of the box, each encased in a protective sleeve, and laid them in front of Janet.

On May 10, 1948, Leonard Bernstein had conducted at the Landsberg and Feldafing displaced persons camps in Bavaria, Germany.
On May 10, 1948, Leonard Bernstein had conducted at the Landsberg and Feldafing displaced persons camps in Bavaria, Germany.
“That’s him! That’s my father!” She squealed. There was no doubt in her mind that this debonair figure with a mustache and a full head of hair standing next to Bernstein and the other musicians was George Horvath. She got copies of the photos and hoped that showing them to her father might jog his memory. She had the photos enlarged and showed them to her father during her next trip to Toronto. George stared at the photos for several minutes, then identified several of the musicians: Stupel the Polish concertmaster, Chaim Arbeitman, the 18-year-old violinist.

“All the time we sat together on bus,” he said. “We played two concerts together every week, sometimes more. For survivors, for American soldiers, for people in sanitariums. Jewish orchestra saved us after we left Hungary.” 

Soon she learned about a documentary that had been made about the orchestra titled “Creating Harmony: The Displaced Persons’ Orchestra from St. Ottilien.” Produced by John J. Michalczyk and Ronald A. Marsh, the film was premiered in 2007 at the Jewish Heritage Museum. The documentary mixes archival footage, both film and still photos, with present-day interviews. Janet ordered a copy on DVD and returned to Toronto in July to show it to her father.

“Are you ready, Papa?” she said, having loaded the DVD player. Father and daughter sat close together, holding hands and braced themselves. A lone, melancholy violin plays the famous “Meditation” from the opera “Thais” as the camera spans the barbed wire surrounding Auschwitz and then pans over a group of musicians huddled together on a bus, then zeroing in on a young George Horvath.

“There. There I am again,” George said. “Look! I had so much hair then. And there is conductor Hofmekler.” Janet took notes as fast as she could. She didn’t want to lose these memories.

The camera pans over the large crowd gathered for a concert on an open field, a mix of military personnel and concentration-camp survivors, “a wan and cadaverous group,” as Janet describes the scene, “men, women and children with shaved heads and sickly hollow cheeks and grainy faces. Some of the survivors had been carried in on stretchers. Others, swaddled in blankets, stood shoulder to shoulder. They wept and grieved as the music transported them.”

The orchestra was initially named for St. Ottilien, a Benedictine abbey near Munich that had served during the war as a hospital for German soldiers. After the war, the Americans moved the Jews in and the Germans out. St. Ottilien became an understaffed haven for gravely ill, emaciated survivors of the Holocaust. A handful of musicians ended up there, and that group became the core of the Displaced Persons’ Orchestra of St. Ottilien – eventually the Survivors’ Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra – which played its first concerts in May of 1945, many of the musicians still clothed in the tattered, striped pajamas of camp prisoners. The performances were eventually sponsored by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

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Though Germany didn’t invade its former ally Hungary until late in the war, Jewish life in Hungary in March 1944 was already severely restricted. George had hoped to become an engineer, but by the time he was of age, Jews were barred from attending the University in Budapest, so he took up his second love – though perhaps his first – the cello and enrolled at the Franz Liszt Academy, where his future wife, Katolina Horvat, was studying voice and piano.

In 1939, the government imposed forced labor for Jewish men 21 to 48. By 1944, Jews weren’t allowed to sit on park benches or use public transportation. On May 26, 1944, George and Katherine were married. The next day George was put on a train with hundreds of other Hungarian Jews and sent off to Bor, Yugoslavia, the alternative to being shipped to Auschwitz. It was a two-day trip without food or water. The cars were nailed shut. 

In the copper mines in Bor, he worked with a crew building the railroad between Bor and Belgrade, breaking up boulders with a pickaxe and loading wheel burrows with dirt, sharing a loaf of moldy bread for dinner with five other men. When they were liberated by Serbian partisans in September, George’s clothes were in shreds, and he weighed 115 pounds. A Russian soldier stole his boot.

On one of the lists of survivors put up on walls, he saw his name: “Horvat Gyuri:  we are alive at the Swedish safe house in Pest.” When Budapest was liberated in February, 1945, he was reunited with his mother and his wife. They slept on the dining room table. Nandor, Katherine’s father, showed up a couple of months later from the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had smuggled a small square of sugar into the camp. Each day, despite being famished, he ate a tiny square of the sugar, which saved him from starvation. Seriously ill, he could barely walk, but after three months of medical treatment, he was able to stand up and make his way home. Katherine’s brother Tibi escaped from one of the camps. Pursued by dogs and dodging bullets, he made it back to Budapest.

In the final tally, only 30 percent of Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust.

The goal then for this war-weary, exhausted band of survivors was escape – escape from Europe. George, Katherine, Tibi and his wife Edit pooled their money to get to Munich, where they could obtain exit visas. They bribed a Russian truck driver and hid under heaps of straw in the back of the truck – the four of them plus George’s cello – trying not to cough or sneeze as they crossed the many checkpoints approaching the Austrian border. 

When the truck made a sudden stop in the countryside on the outskirts of Vienna, they were fearful. Perhaps the driver wanted to steal their few possessions. “Quickly,” whispered Tibi, “throw everything off the truck and jump!” They jumped. Tibi, a good swimmer, dove into the Danube, planning to seek help in Vienna. The others, less at home in large bodies of water, walked to Vienna that night. As had been planned, George’s twin sister Magda, who worked for the American army in Munich as a translator, met them in Vienna and took them to the consulate and got them a Jewish pass to Salzburg. They took a truck to Munich, where they stayed briefly in a DP camp, Windsheim, then moved into an apartment. Soon after they arrived, Magda took George to meet the members of a Jewish orchestra of Holocaust survivors that she had heard about, and it happened they needed a cellist. Membership of the orchestra fluctuated in numbers – sometimes as low as 15 – because many were anxiously awaiting exit visas and expected to sail away at any moment.

A Munich 1948 recital poster.
A Munich 1948 recital poster.
The Horvaths waited two years for their exit papers. George continued cello lessons, practicing six hours a day. Their kindly landlord loaned George money to buy a good cello, an exquisite 18th-century Italian instrument, which Janet played as a teenager for her first recital in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

By late 1947, Magda had made her way to Chicago, having married a relative in that city, and she soon found Hungarians in Canada who would sponsor George and Katherine. (U.S. doors were closed to Holocaust survivors.) George signed as a farmer. Canada needed farmers. George recalled, “The inspector said to me, ‘These hands have never worked on a farm,’ and I said to him, ‘But I can learn.’ They gave us white bread on the train. I thought it was cake.”

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Settling into a furnished flat ($4 a week) with no heat in the small farm town of Hamilton, Ontario, they did what they had to do: washing cars, cleaning office buildings, scraping paint, scrubbing floors. And their English was poor. They were discouraged.

Finally, Katherine, an expert seamstress, secured a higher-paying job as a fur finisher in the sweatshops of Toronto, which allowed them to move to that city. Then a friend told George of auditions for a cello position with the Toronto Symphony that would take place the very next morning. Refugees weren’t welcome, but George showed up anyway. He played all morning for the conductor, who liked what he heard and offered George a contract for the 1950-51 season. It was just a 24-week season, so, to make extra money, George accepted every engagement he could get – commercials, weddings, picnics. And once his reputation grew, a local synagogue invited him to play Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” on Yom Kipper, which he was to repeat for many years. 

Surrounded by his family, George Horvath died on Thanksgiving night, 2009. Janet had hoped to interview him on film and had made arrangements with a crew sensitive to recording a Holocaust survivor, and George had agreed to it. But it was not to be. At his bedside on that November night, she hummed a favorite cello melody and prepared to let him go.

In the ensuing months, as she gathered and organized her notes and thoughts on her parents’ lives, Janet realized that this could be the material for a book. She was already an experienced writer. Her book “Playing (Less) Hurt – An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians,” published in 2002, is considered an essential text in what has been called the Music Medicine movement, which treats the medical problems of performers. 

But a book about her parents as Holocaust survivors was a bigger project, she thought, and more personal. “Many sections brought back painful memories, things that still make me cry, things that, as a child, I didn’t understand. Also, I felt this need to reinvent myself,” she said.

Janet and George Horvath in an undated photograph.
Janet and George Horvath in a photograph, circa 1980s.
Reinvention seemed an appropriate word because, after 30 years with the Minnesota Orchestra, where she had been a prominent figure, Janet resigned because she was suffering from a rare condition in her left ear that turned out to be hyperacusis, wherein most sounds become painful. She finally received treatment – and what is almost a cure – at the Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Ore., where she was put on a de-sensitization strategy to teach her brain to accept sound again. 

Thinking about the book and how to organize it, she took classes at the Loft in Minneapolis and eventually applied for and was accepted into the MFA program at Hamline University in 2012 with the book her thesis. She completed the degree in creative writing in 2017.

A year later Janet closed the circle. The local council of Landsberg, the German town that was the site of one of the largest DP camps after the war, hosting thousands of refugees in often desperate conditions, decided to organize a concert that would commemorate the program that a young Leonard Bernstein presided over at the local DP camp in 1948, leading an orchestra of Holocaust survivors. Janet was invited to perform as soloist with the Landsberg School orchestra, playing at the same place her father had played with Bernstein 70 years before. The concert also acknowledged the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. 

Appropriately, the piece she played that day in Germany was “Kol Nidrei.”  Her words to the audience were translated into German. “I described the importance of this piece to the Jewish people and particularly to my family. I told them my father played ‘Kol Nidrei’ every year in our synagogue for 30 years, and I‘ve continued that tradition another 30 years, and to this day, ‘Kol Nidrei’ represents our obligation to ask for forgiveness and inspires our resolve to lead better lives of teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah, which is empathy, compassion and justice.”

She recalled the final moments of the performance on that day. “Fading away in tranquility, the concluding high A drifted upward, morendo. A mist of tears onstage and a lingering sigh from the audience restored us to this earthly plane. My entire body quivered as I slowly rose to my feet. I acknowledged the extraordinary playing of the young musicians and the enthusiastic applause, a testament to the unifying sentiments we experienced. Together we had ascended through the tenth dimension of infinite possibilities.”


Janet Horvath will participate in a book signing and conversation with Minnesota poet Deborah Keenan at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University Club of St. Paul, 420 Summit Ave., St. Paul.

Book signing and reading: 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 2, at COMMA bookshop, 4250 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Book signing:  Excelsior Bay Books, 7 p.m. on April 4, 37 Water St., Excelsior, Minnesota.