Lost Years in the Ghetto

Fifty-eight years after composing a song that became a symbol of the Holocaust Alexander Tamir is willing to talk about it for the first time.

From pianist Alexander Tamir's perspective, it is best to keep all one's skeletons in the closet. In an effort to avoid even the slightest chance of encountering these skeletons, he makes sure to keep to a protected path and stay on secure ground - for example, at his home in the Ein Karem Music Center. Only here, between the flower garden and the piano, and among the pots, plates and home-made herring in plum liqueur cream in the kitchen, he feels protected. For this reason, he also hates to talk about himself. In particular, he hates being forced to remember World War II and life in the Vilna ghetto. He is an expert at memory games. When he wants to, he remembers. When he doesn't, he makes himself forget.

But in this case, he had no choice. Four years ago, film director Raheli Schwartz from Kibbutz Hulata in the north, first came across Tamir's name. "I heard from a friend, Ofer Gavish, a music teacher at Kibbutz Yiftah, that an 11-year-old boy, Alec Wolkowysky, composed the song `Ponar'," she says. "I was quite surprised that a child had composed what became one of the most famous songs in Israel. Later, Ofer said he thought that this boy is now the pianist Alexander Tamir; he had even asked him about it, but Tamir had just smiled and didn't respond. At that moment, I felt that Ofer had passed the torch to me.

"I began to investigate the story, but it was also not easy for me to confirm it. Tamir had not just changed his name by chance, turning over a new leaf in Israel, believing that he could erase everything that had happened. I met only a few people who knew that there was a connection between the child Alec and Tamir. Even those closest to him told me that every time they tried to talk with him about the Holocaust, he totally refused to speak about it.

On Saturday, March 6, 1943, a culture evening was held at the ghetto theater in Vilna, during which the recipients of the ghetto prizes for literature and music were also announced. In the music competition, the musical scores had been sent by mail several months earlier and a special panel of judges had selected the winners. No one remembers who won first prize. The song that won second prize was "Ponar," named for the killing valley 10 kilometers from Vilna, near the resort town of Ponar. The song was sung in Yiddish at the culture evening, to the sound of bells, by a 16-year-old girl introduced as Miraleh. She was accompanied on the piano by 11-year-old Alex Wolkowysky, and the audience in the auditorium wept quietly in memory of the 70,000 Jews who had been murdered there.

On April 8, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel Television will broadcast Schwartz's film "Ponar," starring Alexander Tamir. The climax of the film is a reenactment of the culture evening held at the ghetto theater in Vilna 59 years ago. It is a shared journey rife with internal conflict - of Tamir with himself and with Schwartz, who immediately realized that there was a basic conflict of interest between them. She wanted to expose Alec Wolkowysky, but he wanted to continue to hide and never set foot again on Lithuanian soil.

I'll have to travel to Vilna?

For a year and a half, Schwartz sought to confirm the identity of Alec Wolkowysky. "Up until the last moment, I didn't know for sure that Tamir was the boy. Benjamin Anolick, the former museum director at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, who accompanied me throughout the making of the film, determined that Wolkowysky is Alexander Tamir. Anolick was also at the Vilna ghetto and it turns out that they were neighbors. He knew that there was a Prof. Wolkowysky in the ghetto, a well-known ear-nose-throat physician who had a musically talented son. Anolick, on the other hand, who was so knowledgeable about the ghetto, did not remember this competition and referred me to two Jewish museums in the United States and the Jewish Museum in Vilna. They found the original invitation to the competition evening in Vilna and faxed it to me."

This was two years ago. Schwartz called Tamir and found him in an ambivalent mood. On the one hand, he wanted to talk about the past, but on the other hand, he didn't. She introduced herself on the telephone, said she was a director of documentary films and that she would like to come visit him. "He is a polite man, and that is why, I think, he granted my request. During the first meeting, Ofer was still in the picture. He tried to squeeze out of him an admission that he is Alec Wolkowysky, but Alex didn't go along with this. He kept on saying that he didn't remember."

During this conversation, Schwartz showed Tamir her research. The cover page featured a photocopy of the original invitation to the ghetto competition. "He began to read and became pale," she says. "He began to really become agitated and I was frightened. I had never been in a situation like this where a grown person was so agitated. He turned paled and trembled a bit. I asked him only two questions: whether he had composed the song "Ponar" and he told me that this was so. And then I asked, `Did you also accompany the singer?' and he responded, `So they say.' I asked him, `You suppressed [this memory]?' and he said `And how.'"

Schwartz recounts that in addition to Ofer Gavish, Bracha Eden, who has accompanied Tamir for years on the piano, was also present at this conversation. "I remember that I kicked Ofer's leg under the table and didn't let him speak anymore. The power of Tamir's emotions scared me, but I realized that from a professional perspective, it was not right for this to happen when I didn't have a camera. I said that I wanted to make a film about the competition and was just at the initial stage, and that I also respected his suppression and forgetting and promised that until I found a production group to take up the project I wouldn't bother him with even a single question.

"But if I find a production company, I asked him, you'll go along with me? And then he suddenly said, `Yes.' And Bracha Eden, who sat by his side, said to him, `But Alex, you won't set foot in Vilna. We travel throughout the world and you've also been invited to Vilna and you weren't willing to travel there.' And then he asked me, `Will I have to travel to Vilna?'

"The entire conversation was conducted at the pace of a pendulum. For me, every question like this could determine whether or not there would be a film, and I found myself telling him, `Just one time.' And then he said, `Okay.' As if he were waiting for someone to come and request this of him."

After this conversation, Schwartz was not in contact with Tamir for eight months because she was afraid he would change his mind about agreeing to be interviewed. In the meantime, she continued her research. A year ago, after Passover, she called him.

"I was pale myself, and trembled like he did then, when he saw the invitation, and I started to say to him, `Shalom Alex, this is Raheli Schwartz speaking, you probably don't remember,' and then he interrupted me and said, `Where have you been? I've been waiting for your call.' Then the difficult work began, because he kept saying all the time, `I don't remember a thing. There's no chance that I'm going to remember anything. I'll ruin the film for you, and that will be a shame.'"

`Why awaken all this?'

Tamir actually remembers this part very well. "I remember at the beginning, when she called, I told her that I didn't want any connection with the past, and in this respect I was right. It's like removing the cork from the bottle and the dybbuk gets out, and who wants all of these memories? Who wants to be forced to remember that this is what happened? These are traumatic things that don't carry any positive residue; they are among the worst possible moments, always upsetting - so why awaken all this? Afterward, everyone tried to persuade me that I had to do this in my father's memory. This seemed ridiculous to me. Why do I have to? Let others tell the story of the Vilna ghetto, why must I?"

When you returned from there, did you feel better?

"I should feel better? I just feel worse all the time. I did this to memorialize my father. Nothing more. I have no need to connect with my roots. I could have gone through life very well without traveling there. You don't emerge intact from a journey like this."

Alec Wolkowysky was born in 1931 in Vilna, which was part of Poland during that period. He was the only child of Fania and Prof. Noah Wolkowysky, a native of Lodz who went to study medicine at the University of Vilna. He was one of the few Jewish physicians permitted to work on the staff of the municipal hospital and lecture at the university. He also had a private clinic.

The Wolkowysky family had a bourgeois intellectual lifestyle. Tamir says that he doesn't remember his childhood. His few recollections are like sparks separated by lots of black holes. "We were one of the few families with a private car, and my mother, who was a member of high society, said that when she was learning to drive, she drove onto a traffic divider during one of her lessons and almost ran over a policeman. But after he saw who she was, he apologized about the fact that Dr. Wolkowysky's wife was trying to run him over.

"I only rarely traveled with father in the car. Education was strict, and I had to walk to school so that I would be like everyone else and not like the son of someone with an automobile. I lived my life alone, in my room, with a full-time nanny and tutor. I could enter my parents' room quietly and politely after knocking on the door and addressing them in the third person. Today this may sound like a draconian regimen, but it was not at all exceptional then.

"During the visit to Vilna, we found advertisements for my father's clinic in Yiddish newspapers from that period. My grandfather and grandmother on my father's side had already immigrated to Israel in 1933. Friends? All of them were Jews. My nanny would bring me to them or they would come to my house. Children from good homes didn't play outside, not at all. When I was five years old, my father decided that I was showing signs of musical talent and like every good Jewish child, I had to play."

And you agreed to this?

"Not at all. I was supposed to go to a piano teacher, but it quickly became apparent that I was not going to lessons. So they changed the routine and the teacher would come to our house."

He vaguely remembers only one image from the German conquest of Vilna: The first house hit by a bomb, which looked like it had been sliced with a razor. One part was ruined and the other remained standing, the apartments cut in half lengthwise, without outer walls. A table stood on three legs in the living room. A kitchen in which only the sink remained. Besides this, my memory from that period, whether knowingly or unknowingly, does not exist. I don't remember moving from our home to a house in the ghetto. Now, when we made the film, except for one place, I felt like a foreign tourist walking around a strange city."

Tamir has an ambivalent attitude to the song "Ponar," called in Yiddish "Shtiller, Shtiller" (Quiet, Quiet). Sometimes he remembers that he composed it and sometimes he forgets, depending on the place and time and who asks him. When the Germans captured Lithuania in 1941, there were 250,000 Jews living in the country, including 55,000 in Vilna. The Jews in the Vilna ghetto were determined to maintain a varied cultural life. This was one of the ways to survive, Tamir says.More