Violin helps tell family’s story of survival during Holocaust

Mischa Braitberg and daughter Tova Braitberg perform on Sunday at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center during a program about their father and grandfather, Gregor Braitberg, a Holocaust survivor. ‘Gregor’s Violin’ is the title of a new exhibit at the museum. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

St. Louisan Tova Braitberg’s father and grandfather tried to shield her from some of the painful parts of their lives.

She never heard her grandfather, Gregor Braitberg, talk about how performing music helped him survive the Holocaust. She thinks it was “probably very painful for him and not something appropriate to talk to a young child about.”

Her father, Mischa, a violinist, also tried to protect Tova from the tremendous strain that comes with trying to succeed as a professional musician. He discouraged her from pursuing music when she was a young girl, she said.

But despite those efforts, on Sunday Tova performed on her grandfather’s violin, alongside her father, during a telling of Gregor’s story at the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center. The goal of the program, Mischa said, was to commemorate Gregor’s story and offer a contrast to the terrible things that occurred during the Holocaust. They also aimed to show that “not all the Germans were bad,” he said.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

“The country was misled by Hitler and by National Socialism but not all people were subject to this. There were some who resisted, some who tried to help,” said Mischa, who also became a professional musician. 

Gregor Braitberg, who was born in 1915 in Piotrkov, Poland, played the violin during his adolescence. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he and his family tried to flee to Warsaw, but amidst attacks from German airplanes, they learned that the city had already fallen. So they returned to Piotrkov, explained Dan Reich, the museum’s curator and director of education, during Sunday’s event.

While at a train station with hundreds of Jewish refugees, German soldiers appeared and started to attack people with sticks and rifle butts. One German officer approached Gregor and his brother Leon. 

“Noticing my violin case, he stopped and asked what was in the case,” Gregor wrote in his memoir, “A Wartime Odyssey.” “When I told him it was my violin, he ordered me to play for him. I played a Mozart concerto. While playing, I observed his face change, becoming more human. Tears appeared in his eyes and ran down his cheeks.”

Gregor continued to perform music during the war as he scurried around the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan. He arrived in Stalingrad in March 1943 and “was able to trade music for food and shelter,” Reich said. Gregor became concertmaster of the opera and drama theater.

While there, he also met Szyfra, his future wife, and they gave birth to Mischa. 

Mischa thinks his father and his violin were able to survive the war because “music is a language that is understood by everyone alike. I think it softens the hearts of people who are perhaps in a murderous rage.”

In 1959, the family left Poland — where they had returned after the war — for the United States and eventually landed in St. Louis. Mischa married Natasha Rubinstein, a professional cellist. 

Growing up, Tova heard her parents perform in concert halls in New York. Over the summer, they would return to St. Louis and stay at Gregor’s home. He died in 2009.

“I’m sure hearing my grandfather practice the violin — which he did every morning for two hours — influenced me, but I also grew up in concert halls and backstage in New York City,” said Tova, 34, who lives in Olivette.

Now concertmaster with the Muny Orchestra here, Tova said she did not pursue music out of rebellion but rather because of her exposure to music through her family. (Her mother, who was the principal cellist with the Muny and Webster University Symphony Orchestra, died in 2010.)

Tova also eventually learned her grandfather’s story by reading his memoir. 

“I think that he and my grandmother were able to escape is a miracle — I think it’s a miracle that I’m even here today,” she said.

As is Gregor’s violin, which is also the title of the exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. On Sunday, some 200 people gathered outside the exhibit at the Kaplan Feldman Complex of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to hear Tova and Mischa — and Gregor’s story.

The duo performed pieces from Mozart and Bach and a melody from the Roma, who were also killed in large numbers by the Nazis. They also played the “Hatikvah” and “America the Beautiful.” 

Tova said her grandfather’s instrument is a French violin from the 1850s. It has “an even, smooth tone, with a nice sweet sound. It’s not a harsh sounding violin,” she said.

Szyfra, 99, also attended the performance Sunday. Her son and granddaughter will hold a second performance at the Holocaust Museum at 2 p.m. on March 17, two days before her 100th birthday. 

She and Gregor once helped Lester Goldman translate Yiddish letters that his aunt had saved. He also listened to Gregor perform at his home. 

He attended the concert and described it as a “beautifully put on production.”

“I think it reaches the soul a little bit more directly than a lecture would,” said Goldman, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona. “When you have the music and you see the people” from Gregor’s story “it adds a dimension.”