St. Louis native mines relationship with Holocaust survivor father for rock opera


Jeremy Schonfeld premiered his rock opera “Iron & Coal” at the Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md.

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Jeremy Schonfeld

The day Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, a Holocaust survivor and Washington University physician, died in 2011, his son Jeremy finished mastering his album, which aimed to tell both his father and his stories.

The studio album, “Iron & Coal,” depicts parallel journeys: Gustav’s search for answers after surviving the Auschwitz extermination camp; and Jeremy’s effort to “come out from underneath the long shadows of the Shoah,” Jeremy explained to the Jewish Light.

“It was a very up-and-down journey from the point of finishing the album, which was this huge project that I never got to celebrate because you can’t shill and mourn simultaneously,” said Jeremy, who grew up in St. Louis.

The singer and composer, who now lives in Beacon, N.Y., has since encountered other hurdles in his effort to share the music inspired by his father. But a few weeks shy of the 10-year-anniversary of Gustav’s death, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will screen a recording of “Iron & Coal,” which Jeremy adapted into a rock opera and premiered in 2018 at a theater in North Bethesda, Md.

The virtual event, which will also include a live panel discussion featuring Jeremy, starts at 7 p.m. April 29. For more information, click here.

Gustav Schonfeld was born in Mukachevo, Ukraine. When he was 10 years old, he and his parents were taken by cattle car to Auschwitz and separated, the Jewish Light reported in 2011. The three never saw Schonfeld’s younger brother Solomon (Shlomo) again, but they survived.

A father-son relationship also played a pivotal role in Gustav’s life, with Alexander Schonfeld putting Gustav to work in the dispensary. He treated sick prisoners and gave food to his son, according to Gustav’s memoir “Absence of Closure.”

After the war, the two recovered in Czechoslovakia while relatives in St. Louis tried to acquire immigration documents to bring them here. A year after the January 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, Gustav and his parents, who had reunited, moved to the United States.

Jeremy, 51, grew up attending H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Clayton High School. After graduating, he attended the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington and then the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has lived in New York for 27 years.

Gustav Schonfeld in an undated Jewish Light file photo

In 2008, as Gustav was finishing his memoir, he told his family that he was entering a double-blind study for an experimental drug to try to halt the spread of myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer that sickened him for many years.

“We all knew that there was a ticking clock, so that’s when I began the process of creating the work,” said Jeremy. “I always knew that there was something that I needed to say, that I wanted to say.”

He initially thought that he would just focus on musicalizing his father’s memoir, but he then decided to write from an emotional perspective and incorporate his own story. The iron refers to Jeremy’s grandfather saying that, “With his will, he could break iron, so he was a very strong-willed man,” Jeremy explained.

And the coal?

“Growing up with all of these survivors and all of these accents around me, I was keenly aware of this darkness, the charred remains from what these people had been through,” he said.

After Gustav’s death, even the family didn’t want to hear Jeremy’s work because they were still mourning.

“It took a long time to get the machine rolling,” Jeremy recalled.

In 2018, Jeremy was able to perform the rock opera at the Maryland theater with 230 people on stage, multimedia and animation. SIUE will screen that performance.

Jeremy was supposed to perform selections from “Iron & Coal” in March 2020 at Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building near Creve Coeur, but the show was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A year later, Jeremy remains excited to share his work with a local audience — even if it’s virtual.

“There is a mix of the harsh and the lush” in the show, Jeremy said. “I think everyone can relate to these family conversations and issues.”