The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson. It sounds like the title of one of those wistful, purposely sentimental novels that seem to be pouring out of publishing houses by the barrel-full these days. But, in reality, the work, written by poet Frances Brent, is another heartbreaking Holocaust tale, this time about a real artist who was brutalized by his experiences on several levels, but who, after liberation, managed to reclaim his career and, indeed, triumph. (He became the principal cellist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and, by all accounts, was also a masterful teacher). Still, none of these accomplishments quite fit the way he'd first envisioned his creative life in Europe, which seemed so promising before the outbreak of World War II.
Aronson, who studied with Gregor Piatigorsky, spent time imprisoned in the Riga ghetto and various brutal camps, but even earlier on in the war, lost his beloved Amati cello, which was confiscated by the authorities in Riga in 1941. This elemental and psychologically devastating loss was just the first of many crimes committed against him, though its long-term effects may have made it the harshest of them all.
Like many another musically gifted Jewish child born in the first half of the 20th century, Aronson longed to study in all the great capitals of the world, and to have performing and teaching careers during which he would interpret the stellar works of the repertory, then pass on this legacy to the next generation. Unfortunately, he was born in 1912, not a fortuitous moment for a Jewish child enamored of Europe's cultural riches.
Born in Germany, Aronson was raised in Russia and Latvia (though he returned to Berlin for much of his musical education), and one of the most fascinating sections of this always engrossing book is Brent's rendering of the period from the turn of the 20th century until World War I ended, since it shows how Jews, in all dangerous periods, managed to find the means to survive.
Aronson's father, Zorach, was a master tailor, trained in Berlin (at the Fachhoschule — the School of Fashion Design), who eventually returned to Latvia with his wife (herself a seamstress) and their young son to take over the family business, a tailor's shop in Mitava. As a prosperous merchant, Zorach "acted as a lawyer and a banker for the Jewish townsmen who kept cash savings in his store." Husband and wife also happened to be fairly talented amateur musicians who filled their home with music-making and influenced their son deeply.
Zorach actually did well enough financially to return to Germany for a "cure" to relieve a leg injury he'd suffered in childhood. "That was where he was," writes Brent, "in the summer of 1914 when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. With trains suddenly converted for military use, it took weeks for [Zorach] to return home, sailing from Sweden to Norway and Finland, then making his way down to Petrograd and Riga to Mitava. There must have been music making in the young household when the large family, perhaps 30 relatives, turned out to celebrate his homecoming as well as the birth of a daughter, but six months later Mitava was inundated with war refugees and wounded soldiers. On April 18, 1915, they received the Decree of Expulsion. The German army was advancing and Russia was scapegoating the Jewish population for humiliating war losses. The Jews … were allowed 24 hours (then as a reprieve they were given 48) to prepare to leave their homes. In the following days, nearly 40,000 Jews were deported east on long lines of trains that had been sent to the provincial stations."
What follows is a description of people of all ages crammed into cattle cars, their meager possessions strewn about them. It all reads like a terrible premonition of what the Nazis would do so efficiently and brutally nearly 40 years later. These cattle cars moved east toward Riga and eventually the Soviet Union.
Writes Brent: "The Aronson family unloaded in Voronezh, about 500 kilometers from Moscow. It was a gloomy city on the upper Don, bare and cold, with seemingly endless fields, the hunting grounds for the family of the tsar. There was already a drafty brick synagogue built in basilica form by the small community of Jewish pharmacists, lawyers, doctors and shopkeepers who had come before them. At first the refugees were settled in an enclave of the Jewish community, in houses made of bare wood planks, heated by iron ovens lit with kerosene. Water ran off the roofs and down the walls, collecting into barrels when it rained. Somehow, in those bewildering and primitive surroundings, Zorach formed a partnership with another tailor and began the arduous process of repairing his life."
It was in Voronezh that the young Lev began taking cello lessons after his father bought him a small-sized instrument. But once again, politics stepped in. The White Army invaded Voronezh Province in early 1918 and brutally slaughtered and tortured the Jews. The young Aronson may have been enthusiastic about the Revolution which followed, but when the Bolsheviks arrived in Voronezh, they routed the city yet again.
Notes Brent: "This time Jews were rounded up as counter-revolutionaries and Lev's father was taken to prison, where he remained until an epidemic of typhus fever swept through and he was released to come staggering home with the disease. While the family tended to him, Lev's mother and aunt developed the mulberry rash and fever. The baby Gerda was sent to another Jewish family, but Lev remained to take care of the sick. In the bitter cold, he stole logs to make a fire in the iron stove and dug potatoes and turnips from the field. When the others recovered, he also came down with the fever."
The Aronsons were permitted to return to Latvia the following year. But most of the Jewish property back in Mitava had been ransacked or destroyed in battles, first between the Russians and Germans and then between the Bolsheviks and Latvians. So the family decided this time to settle in Riga, where Zorach's sister had already established a home. At the border, the family was robbed by soldiers of their belongings. It's not clear, says Brent, whether Lev's small cello survived these lootings.
Back on Their Feet
Zorach's ingenuity and connections in Mitava allowed him to re-establish his business for the third time and to thrive as a tailor and furrier. He did well enough to send his son to Berlin at age 16 to ostensibly study law. But at the university there, Lev heard music coming from a building and entered to find an orchestra rehearsing.
This was a group composed of physicians. Dr. Ferdinand Levi insisted that Lev play, then praised him, insisting that the young man not think that law would interfere with his musical training. And he had to begin immediately. This advice put him on the road to studying with Piatigorsky, who became Lev's friend, mentor and his champion in the United States.
The depiction of the musical life of Berlin in the early 1930s — which included Aronson's acquisition of his Amati cello — constitutes some of the most moving passages in the book. But politics again stepped in and destroyed Lev's burgeoning career.
Aside from a love of music, Lev also inherited his father's strong will; and no matter the horrors he faced, memories of his studies with Piatigorsky and internally playing the concertos he most loved allowed him to persevere through the worst abuses.
Aronson lost much and suffered greatly, but he remade himself each time — even in the camps — just as his father had done in the early years of the 20th century. But there was one loss that he may never have gotten over: Until his death in 1988, his longing for his Amati cello never ebbed, and he remained convinced that somewhere in Germany or Austria a lucky musician was making music with it.