Thank you for doing this. It seems you have experienced a roller coaster ride of guilt, anger, fear, and redemption while having to deal with a treacherous Nazi regime. Because you and your family are Jewish you were deprived of careers/businesses, then property, basic rights, and ultimately, for many of them, their lives. I am sure many times you got a reprise from your music skills.
Elise Cooper: Why did you want to become a violinist?
Ada Baumgarten:I think it was always a given. My father was first chair for the Berlin Philharmonic. On my fifth birthday, he gave me a bench made violin, crafted by a one of Germany’s finest violin makers. My father taught me well and from then on, my dream was to play next to him in the orchestra.
EC: Do you harbor any hard feelings toward Wilhelm Furtwangler?
AB: None. Maestro Furtwangler was badly misunderstood and received unjust criticism after the war because he chose to stay in Germany with his orchestra, which had the collateral effect of lending cultural prestige to Hitler and Nazi Germany. But he was never a Nazi and he abhorred their policies. He stood up to Hitler and did his best to protect his Jewish players, including my father. In defiance of Goebbels and Hitler, he continued to conduct music from Jewish composers and he featured Jewish soloists. When my father was arrested during Kristallnacht, it was Furtwangler that contacted me and attempted to make arrangements for his rescue.
EC: What do you think of Rafael Schachter?
AB: He was a remarkable man. With an old piano, he found in a damp basement, he brought music to prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He gave them pride and a purpose – a way to temporarily escape the dread of their confinement. He assembled and taught 160 inmates to perform the technically difficult Verdi Requiem by rote memory.
EC: Can you tell us about Hitler’s plot?
AB: In June 1944, Hitler devised a fraudulent plot to fool the International Red Cross. He boasted that Theresienstadt was a Jewish spa and invited them to inspect. The Nazis quickly beautified the camp and when the Red Cross came to inspect, Rafael’s chorus performed the Verdi Requiem. The prisoners proudly and loudly sang to the Red Cross and the Nazis. Their secret joy was that the Nazis didn’t understand the words that were sung in Latin. The inmates were singing words that condemned the Nazis on Judgment Day: “Day of wrath, day of wrath, when the wicked shall be judged!” Today we call that performance “The Defiant Requiem.”
EC: Did you ever fathom that the German people as a whole would turn their backs on the Jews who were their neighbors, friends, and business partners?
You were overheard saying “Perhaps the most hurtful and inimical result of the campaign as the pervasive acceptance of Nazi policies by German society…while the law did not require our non-Jewish friends to shun us, it became apparent they would no longer stand up for us.”
AB:In the years preceding the war, there was a much smaller Jewish presence in Italy. Forty thousand lived in Italy and five hundred thousand in Germany. Jews were prominent in prewar Germany in several disciplines: the arts, science, finance, medicine. Many middle-class Germans who had suffered during the severe depression years were resentful. Most importantly, Germany had Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, a master at controlling the media and public opinion. As a result, the German people were manipulated into accepting, or ignoring their government’s policy of Jewish persecution. The Italian people did not harbor such prejudice and hatred.
EC: Do you wish your family had the foresight to get out sooner?
AB:Of course, but it’s a mistake to think that the failure of Jews to leave Europe was a lack of foresight. In many cases, they were trapped. Where could they go? Immigration visas were tight or non-existent. Borders were closed. And if we could leave, where do we resettle? How do you pick up and leave everything you know? No one anticipated extermination camps. In my family’s case, we could have resettled in another city with a new orchestra, but my father was loyal to his conductor.
EC: What was it like for you to have Hitler and Heydrich approach after your playing?
AB:I was young and conflicted. They were the two most powerful men in Germany and well-known music lovers. Heydrich was an accomplished violinist. To receive praise for my artistry was flattering for a teenageer, but I also realized that the compliments were coming from detestable human beings.
EC: What are your feelings for Kurt, your childhood friend who stayed a friend?
AB:I always loved Kurt. He was a good person. He never bought into the Nazi ideology. Like many boys growing up in Germany, he was forced to join the Hitler youth and ultimately the army. When the chips were on the table, he proved his goodness.
EC: Are you haunted, bitter, and angry for a life stolen from you as well as loved ones?
AB: As I wrote in my memoir, I have no regrets. I have led a rich and fortunate life. I played music on the finest stages beside the most gifted musicians. My family life was warm and satisfying. I am sad for what happened to my loved ones, but my life was not stolen.
Ronald H. Balson has also written Once We Were Brothers, Saving Sophie, Karolina’s Twins. As an attorney, the demands of his trial practice have taken him into courts across the United States and into international venues. During the early 2000s Ron spent time in Warsaw and southern Poland in connection with a complex telecommunications lawsuit. While in Poland Ron was profoundly moved by the scars and memorials of World War II, which inspired him to write Once We Were Brothers, his first novel. Inspiration for his other novels were provided by his extensive travels to Israel and the Middle East. He also has been inspired by talking with, and meeting Holocaust survivors.