Helen Watson White
The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor, by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, 2011) 280 pp., $40.00.
‘On the morning of Sunday 19 March 1944, Klari was at an orchestra rehearsal in the Heavy Metalworkers’ Trades Hall when a man burst in with an urgent message for the conductor. Obviously shaken, the conductor informed the players that Germany had occupied Hungary, the army had entered Budapest and its tanks were rolling down the main boulevard. As the extreme left wing Trades Hall would be an early target, they must pack up their instruments and leave immediately, taking different routes. “Go, go, go!” he urged the stunned, mostly Jewish musicians.’
‘Klari’ is longtime Wellington resident Clare Galambos Winter, who, having lost most of her family in the Holocaust, survived to reach New Zealand in 1949 and make a new life in which music figured centrally.
Sarah Gaitanos has read and journeyed widely in order to understand and present a complex historical context for what is also a very personal story. Nolar Millar, her first biography, about legendary Wellington theatre director the late Nola Millar, published in 2006, was similarly thorough, running to 408 packed pages. The Violinist, which like Nola Millar, contains an index, copious notes and a full bibliography, is more rather than less interesting for the many different research tracks she goes down. In addition to book and journal sources, a list of websites — such as www.jewishvirtuallibrary — gives readers an entrée into the extensive Holocaust literature, encompassing official records, photographs and oral history recorded over sixty-five postwar years.
The main difference with The Violinist is that Gaitanos was able to develop a relationship with her living subject, Clare. This allowed the recording of invaluable oral interviews and full access to Clare’s own memoirs, letters, as well as a large collection of photographs — not only of her Hungarian relatives, but also of her ‘new family’ of New Zealand friends.
Born in 1923, Clare Galambos Winter was descended from Jewish immigrants who became ‘passionately’ committed to Hungary, after emancipation in 1867, helping form the core of the country’s professional elite. Andor Galambos, her father, had also served in Hungary’s army on the side of Germany in World War I; like the many German Jews who fought for the Kaiser, he felt betrayed by his country when the Hungarian government brought in anti-Jewish laws.
As Clare was growing up between the wars, it was with her mother’s extended family, ‘liberal, well-educated and non-religious’, that she most strongly identified, especially when they gathered for summer holidays. ‘With its parkland and forest,’ writes Gaitanos, ‘the family estate at Nemeskolta belongs to Clare’s dreamtime memories of an enchanted childhood’, with ‘a big annual hunt, wonderful harvest festivals, tennis parties, gypsy music, colourful costumes, dances and concerts. Klari’s father sang and everyone played the piano.’
Music was at the heart of this pre-war life. Klari’s grandmother introduced her to the classics, playing piano music of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms; her great-aunt was a student of Liszt in Vienna. Klari, who sang regularly in the synagogue choir, learnt to play the piano first, and then — what became a lifelong commitment — the violin. As a teenager, she found ‘a beautiful meshing together of people’ in a local orchestra.
Shocking stories started to reach the fourteen-year-old Klari — of Germany’s invasion of Austria, and of ‘people they knew being arrested and not heard of again.’ (Since 1922, the Galambos family had lived in Szombathely, close to the Austrian border.) Hitler — popularly called the ‘mad dog’ — was not, however, considered a threat to ‘civilized’ Hungary. Besides, wrote Clare in her three-part memoir, ‘there seemed to be more important things to think about, such as school, music, violin, boys …’.
Gaitanos makes a very good job of knitting together the parallel rise of fascist powers in Germany and Hungary, with legislation denying Jews’ rights to travel, trade or work other than forced labour, and finally to any kind of citizenship at all. She also describes how personal reports of atrocities in Poland were at first thought not to be credible, since they were so extreme. Elie Wiesel himself did not, she discovered, believe the deportations and slaughter described by one witness who had escaped execution in 1942.
In that year Klari was studying violin, music history, theory and orchestral practice in Budapest at the Fodor, a private music academy. Athough the rumours in her girls’ hostel were ‘terrifying’, few knew of the Nazis’ Wannsee meeting of January 1942, in which agreement was reached on the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. In 1943, even when informed of the many death camps in full operation, Hungary’s Jewish leaders shut their ears and ignored the implications. The subsequent German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 stunned them, along with the whole country.
Gaitanos could not have invented a more shocking and dramatic turning-point to her story. Klari hurriedly prepares to return home to her family, but at the station — wearing a ‘very smart’ blue coat with yellow fox-fur and carrying violin, handbag and hatbox — she is shoved into a concrete room to stand for three nights, crammed in tightly with thirty other women whose only crime is that they’re Jews. In a matter of weeks the recently built ghetto in her town is being emptied out by the first transports of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, in ‘the largest and fastest deportation operation of the Holocaust’.
Maps, diagrams and photos of the complex and of the inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau help make real an experience that Clare can only dimly recall: ‘I stepped out of myself and anything that happened there … was so far from what I was. I never even thought of my violin. I never thought of anything.’ The chance of surviving was, however, greater ‘if you had someone’, and for Klari that was her aunt Rozsi, who ‘slept, sat, stood to be counted, queued for food, cared for’ her through five weeks at Birkenau and seven months at Allendorf, where the pair worked at a munitions factory over a winter that was ‘exceptionally harsh’.
After liberation in 1945, aunt and niece returned home, expecting to be re-united with family members — a hope that proved hollow. Only one cousin remained to welcome them; Clare wrote in her memoir: ‘It was beyond ordinary grief. It was utter nihil.’ There was another cousin, though, who had gone to New Zealand before the war, who offered to help them emigrate here. After two years of intense difficulty in an environment ‘morally, socially, politically and economically bankrupt’, Klari and Rozsi left Europe on a steamship from Marseilles.
At this point (Chapter 7), a second biography begins: the life of 25-year-old violinist Clare, living with her Aunt Rosie in a two-storey art-deco house in Lower Hutt, and artistically ‘adopted’ by a Wellington family, the McKenzies. Because the cousin’s family who helped their immigration did not want to publish their own Jewishness, Clare was at first cut off from Wellington’s Hungarian community, who were mostly Jews. Clare found another community among Wellington’s musicians, when she auditioned for an orchestra within weeks of arrival. There were Jews in this community too, among refugee musicians of the pre-war diaspora, and later among the many distinguished musical visitors to the city.
The book’s final four chapters, or ‘movements’ – Appassionato, Resoluto, Doloroso, Grazioso – follow Clare’s 32-year career with the National Orchestra under different conductors and names, rehearsing, travelling and performing all over the country — and overseas; her ‘joyous and bohemian’ life with Swedish cellist and bandsman Karl Kallhagen, whom she later married; her learning to become a New Zealander, taking citizenship in 1955 and buying a house in Mt Victoria; Rosie’s death in 1965 and Karl’s in 1977; her close friendship with Carol McKenzie and Carol’s illness and death; love and marriage with her doctor, Otto Winter, with whom she returned to the synagogue, and his death in 1990.
Many lives, indeed: not just one, even in two halves.
Music was always important to Clare as representing, beyond language and circumstance, a shared humanity. It was her solace in Allendorf when the officers gave her a violin to play so that they could dance; later, in Wellington, when events like the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann ‘stirred the pot’ uncomfortably, she took to the music with a passion that blew away everything but the playing. It may be said that the Holocaust ‘defined her’; then again it was music which both recalled her suffering, says Gaitanos, and transcended it. Clare herself describes the ‘shattering’ music of Shostakovich as ‘like flying into some absolutely rarefied air’.
This, however, is a biography which is essentially down-to-earth and faithful in the telling of a life-story. However, just as the Nola Millar biography gave a detailed sense of Wellington’s interconnected theatre life in the 1950s and 1960s, and of the development of Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School, so The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor offers, together with its many other strands, a richly interesting take on the development of classical music performance locally, along with an account of the rise of what has become a world-class musical institution: the National Orchestra — now known as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has degrees in English and theology from the University of Otago, and for five years was sole editor at University of Otago Press. She is a freelance editor, writer and arts reviewer.