14 min read
A story of survival and a libretto for six million.
Peter Gary was a nice Jewish boy. He was an only child living with his parents in Budapest, 1937.
And he was busy.
He studied languages and music. He spoke Hungarian, German, and French – he learned those languages at school – and after school he studied English (his father loved everything English).
His mother loved music – she came from a musical family and a long line of musicians – and encouraged him to attend the Franz List Royal Academy of Music. He studied piano, composition, and even attended a series of Béla Bartók’s master classes. He wanted to be a conductor.
He was educated, cultured, and Jewish. Not that he knew much about being Jewish. His Bar Mitzvah was his only Jewish experience, and that was terrifying. (He was given a crash course in Torah reading a few months before his 13th birthday and performed in front of a packed house at Europe’s largest synagogue. Not that anyone warned him before he showed up.)
His father was a successful businessman – the family was comfortably upper middle class, they owned a car! – and he was often away on business. Life was great.
And then came Christmas, 1941.
Peter was pulled from his comfortable life of languages and music and sent into hell.
Peter was 17. He was home alone with his mother – his father was away on another business trip – and there was a knock on the door. It was the Nazis. They barged in, brutalized Peter and his mother, forced them out of their home, and loaded them onto a truck. The truck was sent up north and Peter was pulled from his comfortable life of languages and music and sent into hell.
Just like that.
About 10,000 Jews were rounded up that Christmas in Budapest. And although the Nazis didn’t officially round up Hungarian Jewry until 1944, Peter was “lucky” (as he tells it). He was born in Poland in 1924 – his parents were traveling when his mother gave birth – and that made him “Polish” as far as the Nazis were concerned.
Peter and his mother were herded onto the last truck out of Budapest. They were taken to the middle of nowhere, along dirt roads, and into the woods. They heard machine gun fire. His mother told him, “Everything is going to be fine.” And she told him that over and over again. Maybe she believed it. He wanted to believe her. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the Nazis were up to.
They got off the truck and were ordered to hurry up. There was another truck parked in front of a ravine. A machine gun was mounted to the back of that truck. They were ordered to take off their clothes – something horrifying to the spoiled, pampered, sophisticated Peter – and told to line up in front of the ravine.
And just before he heard the commander yell, “Fire!” he felt something hit him. It knocked him down. He heard screaming and gun fire. And then it was over. He was dead and under a pile of bodies.
It was late and the soldiers wanted to get home for Christmas dinner with their families.
“What if some of them are still alive?” one soldier asked.
“They’ll either freeze or the locals will get them,” another one answered.
And they left. Just like that.
His mother had taken two bullets, one for her and one for him.
Peter pushed his mother’s body off him. She had knocked him down. And she had taken two bullets, one for her and one for him.
Four people were still alive: Peter, two men, and a woman.
They walked. And they walked. They got off the dirt road and walked in the woods, it seemed safer. Peter clung to the woman. She was his only hope. They approached a town. It was Christmas day. They watched the town and waited for the locals to go to church. Once everyone was gone – and the streets and homes were empty – Peter and one of the men broke into a house. The man took booze. Peter took blankets.
And then they were back in the woods and walking. They walked for three and a half days. They were somewhere in Poland. They approached a town – it seemed familiar – and they sent the woman into town to see if she could find something, help, anything. They could only send the woman. In those days in Europe Jews were the only people who were circumcised. It was too dangerous for a Jewish man to be out and about. Plus, she spoke Polish. Peter spoke many languages but Polish wasn’t yet one of them.
And the woman knew someone. He owned a store and he wanted to help. He had a car. He would meet them, pick them up, help them get warm, and help them figure out what to do.
The two men weren’t interested. They didn’t trust anyone – could you blame them? – they hugged Peter and the woman and said goodbye. And they were gone. Peter and the woman waited for the ride.
The car arrived. The woman’s friend was a good person. He wanted to help. He brought them to his home, fed them and helped them warm up.
He spoke with the woman and tried to figure out what to do. They decided it was best – and safest – to go behind the German lines to Warsaw. The woman rode in the car but it was too dangerous for Peter to ride in the car, too. He was a liability – he was a circumcised man, he didn’t speak Polish – so they kept him in the trunk. Once in Warsaw, the safest place for Peter – at least it seemed that way at the time – was the Warsaw Ghetto. The man bribed a Polish cop and Peter was smuggled into the Ghetto. He was brought before the Jewish committee, they heard his story, and they took him in. He was set up with a nice family with boys his age.
And that was that.
Peter’s host family was shocked that he didn’t speak Yiddish – what kind of Jew doesn’t speak Yiddish? – but at least they could communicate. Peter was fluent in German and German and Yiddish are close enough. But his host mother warned him, “You have to learn Polish. If you don’t know Polish you’re dead.”
So Peter learned Polish. Fast. Polish is a difficult language. But it isn’t that difficult if your life depends on it.
After four and half months Peter was called up for a transport to the East. His host mother gave him a bundle and said goodbye. He was lined up and marched through the city with a thousand kids his age. The Polish locals lined the streets to watch the parade. The local women pushed through the police lines to harass them. They wanted the Jewish children to know what they thought of them. They hissed.
“You rotten kids will get what you deserve.”
Maybe they didn’t know that Peter was born in Poland. He was Polish, too. He was just like them. Or maybe they didn’t think like that.
Peter was sent to Majdanek, a camp set up just outside Lublin. It was built to house POWs and then converted into a death camp.
Peter raised his hand. He doesn’t know why he raised his hand. But he did. Maybe someone raised it for him. Somehow – whether he was conscious of it or not – Peter was claiming to be a locksmith. And the Majdanek guards needed a locksmith.
The monster handed Peter a number of broken locks and ordered him to fix them. He didn’t know how.
Peter was taken from amongst the new arrivals. A Kapo escorted him – and hit him too, to earn extra points with the guards – and brought him off to a hut lorded over by a Ukrainian monster. The monster handed Peter a number of broken locks, ordered him to fix them, and left.
But Peter was a musician. He was good at languages. He had never seen the insides of a lock in his life. He didn’t know how to fix a broken lock. He didn’t have a clue.
He fiddled with the locks. He was aware that he was dead. Again. The monster was going to call the guards. It was just a question of time.
The monster returned and Peter fiddled with the locks. It was hopeless. The monster whacked Peter’s hands – his soft, pampered, musician hands – and hissed in his ear, “You have never seen a lock in your life!”
And it was over. Peter was going to be hauled off and shot.
“Shut up. I’ll teach you,” the monster whispered. And Peter was saved.
It was a question that was to remain unanswered.
Members of the Sonder Commando received extra food. And that was welcome news to Peter. He found a way to get himself into the Sonder Commando. His first job was greeting the new arrivals. He lied to them. What else was he supposed to do?
His next job was unloading trucks. Majdanek was not yet a fully functioning death camp. The gas chamber was still under construction. Children were gassed in trucks – the exhaust was fed into the back of the truck – and Peter’s job was to take the bodies and bring them to the crematorium.
His third job was at the warehouse. He sorted books, underwear, teeth, hair, jewelry – the Nazis saved and used everything – and complied a careful inventory of items that came in. His comrades took things as they arrived, before they were inventoried, and hid them under their clothes. Peter didn’t have street smarts – he was a rich kid, he never had to hustle – and didn’t take anything.
But he learned. Quick.
Booty from the warehouses was traded. It was bartered to buy time. Jewelry was traded for food or aspirin or sulfur (and he needed aspirin and sulfur, he was sick with typhus). Survival was a commodity. Peter traded his way up to a better job. Construction.
The construction crew was a group of about three hundred men. They marched one hundred kilometers to a railway siding, were loaded into a cattle car, and sent on a long journey. From Poland to Dachau.
His job at Dachau was building an underground factory for BMW. But he was sick and he was getting thin. He still had typhus. And he heard they were trading Jews for trucks. Someone was. He was able to get transferred – or traded as part of a swap – to Bergen-Belsen.
Was Peter joyful? “Are you kidding?” he told me. “That word doesn’t exist.”
And at Bergen-Belsen he met the new Hungarians arriving from Auschwitz. He was an old timer. They wanted to know his secret to survival.
His secret to survival? He didn’t know.
He was 76 pounds. He couldn’t walk. He knew the Allies were on their way (he could hear the guns). And on his 21st birthday – April 15, 1945 – the Nazis were gone. The British drove into camp to liberate it. Was Peter joyful? “Are you kidding?” he told me. “That word doesn’t exist.”
The British wanted to help but they were overwhelmed. The situation was not one they expected or planned for. They set up two small hospitals and tried their best to save the survivors. But those they felt weren’t going to make it they left to die. They didn’t have a choice.
One doctor walked the camp looking for people to save. He decided Peter was beyond saving. He was too thin, too sick, and couldn’t stand. “This one isn’t going to make it,” the doctor said to his comrades in English, not wanting to offend any of the survivors.
“Thanks a lot,” Peter answered back.
The doctor didn’t realize he was speaking about the son of an English-speaking Anglophile. “Did you just say that?” the doctor asked.
“Yes I did.”
He picked Peter up gently and brought him to the hospital. Peter was deloused and nursed back to health. The doctor came to visit and they became friends. He wanted to know what happened. He couldn’t believe what he heard.
Peter heard that the Americans were looking for interpreters. They needed people who knew English, German, Slavic languages. Peter knew them all (he picked up Russian, too, in the camps from the Russian POWs). He got the job – the Americans probably couldn’t believe their luck – and was sent to work in Paris.
Through his job he was able to find his father. His father had returned from his business trip to find his family gone. Friends took him in and hid him. He spent the war on the run. Two weeks here. Three weeks there.
After the war, Peter went to the Sorbonne and earned a degree in the humanities, letters, and music. He wrote his thesis on ethnomusicology, inspired by his classes with Béla Bartók from before the war (Bartók had recorded over 3,000 folks songs and was determined to bring music back to the people, away from the trends he didn’t approve of in classical music).
Peter moved to Germany but soon moved again, to the U.S. MGM – the movie studio – hired him to write music. He worked for them as a staff composer. But after about six months his boss told him, “We love you. But you are fired. Don’t take it personally.” The studio developed a way to churn out schmaltz at a fraction of the cost. Peter’s department was liquidated.
And Peter was unemployed. And unemployable. He was a musician, an educated man of letters, and a survivor of the death camps, but he was never taught how to earn a living. He didn’t know what to do. He tried selling books door to door. He was lost. He cried. Was this the best he could do? After everything?
But Peter is resourceful. He isn’t one to sit around crying. And after a few fits and starts he built a business and did well. He made enough money, quit, and moved to Vancouver Island just north of Seattle in Canada.
Why hadn’t anyone written a piece of music for the six million?
And every summer – for years – Peter went to a music festival in Carmel, California. He brought a copy of the score with him (of whatever pieces they were performing that year), sat in the audience, and conducted along with the orchestra. One year – 1974 – he forgot his score. He just listened. And it occurred to him that the music he was listening to – like a lot of classical music – was written for the church. It was religious music. And it was a story about the life and death of a Jew who lived two thousand years ago.
What about the six million Jews who died during his lifetime? Why hadn’t anyone written a piece for them?
He was inspired. He jotted a few thoughts on the back of his program. And when he got home he went to work. By the time he was done, he had written a Twentieth Century Passion: a massive composition about the lives and deaths of the Jews of Europe.
Peter’s Oratorio is 14 Librettos and takes up 562 pages of score. Some of the Libretto comes from poetry written by the children imprisoned and eventually carted off to their deaths from Terezin. Others are original. One is based on his own experience.
Peter donated the score to the University of Victoria and it will receive its world premier on his ninetieth birthday, April 2, 2014. (Almost his ninetieth birthday. His real birthday – April 15 – is the second day of Passover.)
And life goes on. Peter is a ray of sunshine and a beacon of positivity. He never lost his sense of humor (according to an article written to promote the premier, he claims that his wife says, “If I die before then [the premier], she’ll kill me.”). But his music isn’t funny. Not this piece.
“It is something for the six million. Something to mourn with.”