Strains Of Remembrance After More Than 50 Years, Violinist David Arben Returned To Warsaw To Play For His Family - As Its Only Member To Have Survived The Holocaust.

Posted: May 15, 1997

WARSAW — This city is full of the ghosts of murdered war victims, and violinist David Arben came here to confront his own.

Yesterday, he played in the only synagogue left in Warsaw.

Arben, the only member of his family to escape the Holocaust, survived six concentration camps because of his early gift with the violin. Still a teenager, he was freed by American troops in 1945, and eventually made his way to America to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and to make a career, mostly in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He retired in 1993 as associate concertmaster.

He had never returned to his birthplace.

Once, early in his career, the Cleveland Orchestra was preparing to tour Poland. He was then a member of the orchestra, but the State Department dissuaded him from going for fear that he might be detained. ``It wasn't the right time for me to go,'' he says.

He might never have found the right time had the Shoah Foundation and Israel 50 not begun to talk to him. The foundation, a creation of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, is hurrying against time to film the stories of those who escaped annihilation in the Holocaust. Israel 50 is a consortium of groups sponsoring cultural ties between Israel and the United States in preparation for Israel's 50th anniversary next year.

The organization raised the money to fly Arben to Warsaw this week, the same time the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing its European tour, which opened last night in Warsaw.

Arben, 69, flew to Warsaw on Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, accompanied by five close friends from the orchestra, plus orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger, two camera crews and representatives of the Shoah Foundation and Israel 50, Arben took his violin to Synagogue Zwiazek Gmin Wyznaniowych Zydowskich.

There, standing on the bema - the railed, raised platform in the center of the synagogue - he said in a husky voice: ``I want to thank my dear friends from the Philadelphia Orchestra who are here to share my memories of my family. . . .''

On the word family, his voice broke, and he had to pause.

``It was 56 years ago that my family was separated and murdered. Their only crime was being Jewish. Here I feel close to my family, who do not rest in peace. I dedicate the Hebrew Melody by Joseph Achron to the memory of my family.''

The cuffs of his blue blazer quivered perceptibly, betraying the emotion surging through him as he picked up the violin. His first notes were hollow, but strength and color grew as he tucked more firmly under his chin the instrument that had saved his life.

The melody, with its melisma and ornaments, begins in the middle strings and gradually moves upward. In his elegant, inflected hands, it began as a cry of pain in the lower strings and, in the highest reach of the E string, gradually arrived at plea for peace.

In the hush that followed, he laid his violin on the blue velvet covering and, before the tabernacle, began to walk to and fro. He put on his glasses, then took them off to wipe away tears. He kept pacing. No one moved. Then he walked to a lectern and read in Hebrew from the Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and is said in memory of the dead.

Arben walked back to retrieve his violin and seemed to take strength from the familiar routine of putting the violin back in the case, loosening the bow, covering the instrument, closing the case and zipping its cloth cover.

Then his friends surrounded him: resident conductor Luis Biava and his wife, Clara; clarinetist Donald Montanaro and harpist Margarita Csonka Montanaro; violinist Larry Grika; Kluger; and cellist Ohad Bar-David, point man for Israel 50.

They moved him toward a waiting car and returned to their hotel. A few hours later, in his hotel room, Arben said he had just gone through the most moving experience of his life.

* Until last month, Arben was firm in his belief that the past was buried. After his retirement from the Philadelphia Orchestra, he settled into a routine of playing, teaching, traveling - and enjoying the occasional fine cigar.

Arben seems to have friends everywhere. When he played in the orchestra, messages and invitations were in his mailbox at every tour stop - Hong Kong, Florence, Helsinki, Tel Aviv.

The decision to go back to Warsaw has released waves of memory. He seems driven to recall, to remember, to taste what he can of a life that seemed so rich to the child, then so barren to the adolescent.

``Three weeks ago, I wasn't going,'' he said, just before leaving for Warsaw. ``Now I am. I realize it is important.

``I am doing it for my family. . . . Our name was Arbeitman, really Arbajtman,'' he says. ``My father took me to the Grand Synagogue. It doesn't exist now. He used to take me to the big streets to see the houses, the big hotels, just to stand in front of them. The people in fine clothes, the guy in the red coat and brass buttons I remember. My father used to tell me that if I wanted to live like that, I had to practice. I didn't know what he meant then. Practice?

``Years later, I met a guy who had known my father. He told me we had had money. I said he was crazy. We had enough to eat, but no luxuries. He said we had money, but that if we had lived as if we did, the whole family would have moved in. It sounds funny now.''

Arben began violin early. He had mimicked playing when he was 2 or 3, using sticks. When his father took him to the Chopin Academy to find a teacher, Arben was accepted quickly, and advanced by leaps. He was playing in public at 9. His big debut was scheduled when he was 12 - but the Nazi invasion killed that. ``The debut,'' he says, ``that never happened.''

Instead, his family was rounded up and, except for Arben, killed. He was sent to the camps - Lysakow, Budzyn Nos. 1 and 2, Wieczka, and finally to Flossenberg in Bavaria. In 1945, he was on a train to Dachau when the Americans stopped it.

His ability with the violin had saved his life. Once, as he stood on the edge of a grave he and 104 other prisoners had dug for themselves, the Polish commandant of the camp - a fan of violin music - told him to run away. Arben said he was in a daze, running in a circle until the commandant caught him and guided him back to barracks.

``The ghetto uprising. You remember Mila 18 - the address where it started?'' - and the name of Leon Uris' book recounting the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. ``My grandparents lived at Mila 24.''

For someone with such a childhood, Arben seems surprised to hear himself say he has had a wonderful life. ``My father took me to hear Efrem Zimbalist. I thought I wanted to play like that and decided I would study with him. Well, then came the camps, and afterward I studied in Salzburg at the Mozarteum, then a Catholic family in Geneva took me in, and eventually [in 1949], I was brought to America by Leonard Bernstein and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. I was still looking for Zimbalist. When I found he was at Curtis [Institute of Music], I said, `Fine. Philadelphia's where I want to study.' ''

He worked with Zimbalist, then joined the Detroit Symphony before jumping to the Cleveland Orchestra for four years. In 1959, he returned to Philadelphia and the orchestra.

Going back to Warsaw when the Philadelphia Orchestra would be there was the element that tipped the balance for Arben. ``This is something you should do with your family,'' he says, ``and the orchestra is my family.''

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