Pianist George Horner to play with Yo-Yo Ma

George Horner plays piano at Dunwoody Village, the retirement home in Newtown Square where he lives.
George Horner plays piano at Dunwoody Village, the retirement home in Newtown Square where he lives. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2013

For George Horner at age 19, music was an escape from the pain that surrounded him and his family in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp where they were imprisoned.

Horner's passion for music endured through several near-misses with death, the loss of his family, and through the end of World War II. Later this month Horner, now 90, a retired physician and a resident of Newtown Square, will commemorate the lives lost in the Holocaust by performing on piano at Boston Symphony Hall alongside legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Oct. 22 performance was arranged by Mark Ludwig, the head of the Terezin Music Foundation, a Boston nonprofit group that honors the legacy of composers who died in the Holocaust. He asked Horner to perform at the organization's annual concert, then called again to say that the cellist, who was also scheduled to perform, had asked to join Horner onstage.

"I laughed," Horner said last week. "I said, 'You don't expect me to swallow that one, do you?' I didn't believe him."

At Dunwoody Village, the retirement community where Horner lives, he is in charge of keeping the piano in tune, said Nancy Morrison, director of community relations.

"We knew he played the piano, but we were all a bit surprised by this," she said.

Horner was born in 1923 in Moravia. In 1942, he and his family were sent to Terezin, a camp northwest of Prague. Terezin was said to have been used by the Germans for propaganda purposes and presented to the public as a model settlement community. Many middle-class residents of Germany and other areas were imprisoned there as were a number of musicians, composers, and other artists.

Horner began playing piano and accordion and got to know composers Gideon Klein and Karel Svenk, he said. Two years later he and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, at which point his father was killed, and he was sentenced to hard labor. After suffering starvation and beatings, Horner was one of thousands of prisoners ordered to make a "death march" to Buchenwald, in Germany.

Horner was freed in 1945 but learned that his mother and sister had died. He threw himself into his studies in Prague, then relocated to Australia to earn his medical degree, specializing in cardiopulmonology.

"It sounds foolish, but I didn't just want to earn a good living," he said. "I wanted to help people. I really loved it. Now I miss it."

After marrying, he and his wife had two sons before moving to the United States in the mid-1960s. He became assistant professor of medicine and director of the cardiopulmonology lab at Yale and later moved to Philadelphia to work at Lankenau Hospital.

Now, Horner is believed to be one of the last remaining survivors of Terezin. For the gala this month, Horner will play two piano pieces that were composed there - works that Horner himself played there 70 years ago.

"It's a tribute to many lives," he said. "It's an interesting story but such a tragic one."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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