This past April, Saul Dreier, a retired real-estate man now living in Coconut Creek, Fla., read an article about the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, a 110-year-old survivor and accomplished pianist who’d survived a concentration camp by playing music. When Saul read it, he woke up his wife—he had an idea. “Clara!” he cried, “I have to do something!” He told her about Alice’s life story and that he wanted to start a Holocaust survivor band in her honor.
“You’re crazy,” his wife said.
A few days later, Dreier, who was born in Krakow, and survived Mauthausen and two other Nazi concentration camps between 1942 and 1945, approached his rabbi after Shabbat services. He repeated the story he’d told his wife and explained how he’d felt inspired to start a band.
“You’re crazy,” his rabbi said.
After thinking about it, Saul concluded, “I don’t care who says what crazy, how crazy, I’m putting together this band.”
He went to a music store and spent a thousand dollars on a new drum set. Then he went looking for bandmates.
Through a friend, Saul was given the phone number of a musician who sometimes entertained at Café Europa, a social club and support group for survivors. The musician, Reuwen Sosnowicz, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto, escaped, and was then hidden by a Polish farmer in a barn. People called him Ruby.
Saul and Ruby arranged to meet. Saul put the drum set in his car and drove over to Ruby’s house. Ruby’s daughter Chana remembers the day well. Saul walked inside, she said, holding an attaché case and “with a skip in his step.”
Saul sat on the sofa and opened up his case, which contained family photographs. He went into his story about the 110-year-old survivor, and how he’d been inspired by it. He turned to Ruby. “I’m 89, you’re in your 80s. How much time do we have left?” he said. “Let’s donate it to music.”
Ruby led Saul into another room. Saul looked around in amazement. It was filled with instruments, a place “with guitars and more accordions and more everything I ever saw in my life,” Saul said.
Saul set up his drums, Ruby got onto his keyboard, and the two began to play. To Chana, it was a magical and defining moment. Since 2009, she said, when her mother became ill, a house that had once been lively and full of music had become a place of “gloom and doom.”
But now, “all of a sudden it’s like my father came alive,” she said. Saul and Ruby played old shtetl songs they used to sing before and during the war.
Soon after, Saul rented out the South Florida Events Center for a free concert. He and Ruby hired other musicians—descendants of survivors—to accompany the group. And Chana, so moved by what she’d experienced that day, joined as a vocalist.
Ruby was born in Warsaw, Poland, into a large and very musical family. After unsuccessfully fleeing to Russia, his family was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. Ruby’s recollections are hazy: He was 7 years old. German shepherds were released. People were running and dogs biting. “That’s what I remember—the dogs,” he said recently.
He also remembers running fast, jumping onto a wagon, and burying himself under hay. A Polish farmer found him and hid him in a barn and would discreetly bring him food whenever he went out to feed the horses.
Saul was born in Krakow. His father played clarinet and saxophone. At age 7, Saul received a clarinet as a gift from his father. Saul took it to 2nd grade and would play in class—a Polish song he knew by heart. Then came the war, and the clarinet was sold. His father went off to fight for the Polish Army.
A few years later, inside the Krakow Ghetto, a teenage Saul came across a sick, frail man wearing a cloak. “Don’t you recognize me?” the man asked. Saul did not. “I’m your father,” the man said.
His father and sister were sent to an extermination camp. So were his mother, grandparents, and his aunts, uncles, and cousins—30 relatives in total. Only Saul survived.
When the war ended, Saul landed in a displaced persons camp in Italy. One day a truck appeared carrying a piano and set of drums. When no one volunteered to play the drums, Saul jumped at the chance.
At night, Saul and another survivor, a skilled piano player from Yugoslavia whose wife was a ballet dancer, performed dance music. Creating a beat came intuitively to Saul. “I had two sticks, a drum, and a cymbal and that’s it,” he said, “You don’t have to be a musician to feel the beat—you can smell and hear. You know automatically.”
He said he made money playing professional soccer for an Italian club. In 1949, he arrived in America. He married another survivor, Clara, in 1957. Over the next half-century he’d speak little of his experience during the war.
Ruby wound up in New York. He became a hairdresser and gave accordion lessons. He and his wife both played instruments. His daughter Chana remembers her childhood home as a happy place, where “the windows were open and there was always music coming out of the house.” But like Saul, Ruby didn’t speak much of his past. Maybe they could speak through music instead.
The Holocaust Survivor Klezmer and Multicultural Band debuted in front of over 400 people in late July. The Sun Sentinel described the show as “a hit.”
Over the next few months, Saul, Ruby, and Chana played gigs all over the area, in synagogues, community centers, retirement homes—even the Broward County Main Library. They’d get mobbed after performances and recognized on streets and in restaurants. A playbill for one of their shows read, “Yiddish, Klezmer & Freilich Classics. Guaranteed Freilich! Nostalgic!”
Saul and Ruby began holding business meetings at a flea market. And their concerts became increasingly professional. For an October show, they had fog pumped onto the stage and beamed in lights of different colors. Projectors showed movies from Israel and the Holocaust. They set up a concession stand.
Meanwhile, Saul and Ruby had become “like brothers,” Chana said. They spoke by phone constantly and “hung out as if they knew each other their whole life.”
Yet, after seven concerts, the band was losing money. Due to his wife’s health, Ruby had previously gone through his savings, and Chana had moved into the house to help. Now Chana was spending money out of her own pocket to help keep the band afloat.
One night after a show, a woman asked Saul for a business card. Not long after, he got a call from someone identifying himself as The Commander.
The man said little but gave an address in Aventura, near Miami Beach. He told them to bring an accordion.
Chana was worried. “You’re going where?” she asked. “Miami is very dangerous. And who’s this Commander?”
Saul and Ruby drove down to Aventura. The address was in Williams Island, an exclusive and tropical setting. A man in his 80s answered the door. He had a round, bald head topped with a dark blue baseball cap that had a flat brim and Hebrew letters—an Israeli Navy hat. He was retired Israeli Gen. Eugene Lebovitz: former KGB interpreter, undercover Haganah agent, and 1948 war hero who took a bullet in the leg while five units under his command captured Haifa. He was also an old friend of Ariel Sharon as well as a successful entrepreneur and a generous philanthropist.
After bragging about himself, the Commander told them to get into his car, a Lincoln Continental. He didn’t say where they were driving.
For 15 years, he explained, he’d been organizing a gathering of Holocaust survivors in Vegas at the hotel of his friend, Sheldon Adelson. This year’s was sure be the biggest one yet. The Commander himself was being featured in a documentary called The Last Survivor, and a tribute concert of the same name was being held on Dec. 13 at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.
“I want you in Vegas,” he said.
He pulled into a car wash and had everyone out of the vehicle. The Commander seized a hose and cleaned the car himself. Then they went to lunch.
“I’ve got news for you,” he told Saul and Ruby, before parting ways that day. “You’re going to have the time of your life.”
When they arrived in Vegas, Ruby and Saul led an impromptu jam session during a cocktail hour inside the Prestige, a 23rd-floor lounge overlooking the neon-lit city in the desert. With Ruby at the piano, they’d sung timeless and joyous tunes like “Oseh Shalom,” “Moshiach,” “Hava Nagila”—and songs they’d known as young boys in Europe before the war, before everything had changed. Then Saul went downstairs to the casino and sat down at a slot machine not far from the bar. He inserted a hundred dollar bill into the machine. Nothing was happening. “I put in a khundred dollars!” he objected. “What khappened?”
Finally Saul got the machine to work. After a few minutes of pushing the same button, he waved at the machine dismissively. “They don’t pay,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m 13 dollars in the khole. Now I’m going to leave this machine and go to another one.” He hopped up and walked rapidly to a machine that said “Wheel of Fortune.” He went into his wallet and took out some fresh bills, which he fed into the slot. He pushed a button that said “Play Max Credits” multiple times until there was a ringing sound. He pumped his fist, pushed another button that spun the wheel, and squinted upward while screaming, “A Thousand!” It landed on 25. “They don’t let you win,” he said, shaking his head again.
A beautiful marble elevator playing classical music brought them up to their spacious suite on the 24th floor. On a wide ledge separating the bedroom area from a sunken living room were dozens of Holocaust Survivor Band T-shirts, some of them reading “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER QUIT.”
On Friday, Saul and Ruby schlepped some drumsticks and a tambourine from their room all the way across the hotel complex to the Lando Ballroom, located on Level 4 of the Venetian. They’d been told to arrive at around 11 a.m. for the rehearsal. On stage were the director, a 20-piece symphony-style orchestra, and Dudu Fisher.
Five hours later, Saul and Ruby had yet to be called up. Dudu, who starred on Broadway as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, remained on stage, perfecting his act. The noise was deafening. Feeling demoralized—and unsure what role, if any, they’d be playing at the concert—Saul and Ruby returned to their hotel suite and rehearsed on their own.
That night at Shabbat dinner, Saul marched straight up to Dudu, who was enjoying a leisurely meal. When Saul left the table a few minutes later, he looked pleased. Dudu had asked that they perform with him at the start of the concert, with Dudu on vocals, Ruby on accordion, and Saul on drums. Things were coming together after all.
Later that evening, in a huge private suite near the top of Las Vegas’ tallest hotel, the Commander sank into a chair, sipping from a glass of sweet Italian wine. He’d spent most of the past two days barking out orders via cell phone and in person, enforcing time limits by physically yanking microphones from speakers’ grasps, and altogether shooing people away from him. Now was his moment to relax.
He sat in a dark section of the room, his large belly flopping upward, and to three friends he told stories. They were tales from after World War II—tales of intrigue and irony, murder and revenge. He chuckled as he spoke, like about his assignment in Palestine as chief security officer for Shell Oil, when in reality he was working as a spy for the Haganah. The stories continued until after the bottle was empty, and then the Commander said, “My life has been so rich it’s unbelievable.”
Lebovitz himself was a Holocaust survivor. He was just a boy in Czechoslovakia when his family was stuffed into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both of his parents were killed. Despite numerous death marches and people being murdered all around him, Lebovitz somehow remained alive. Following the war he learned that two brothers and a sister had also survived, and they were reunited. After his Israeli military days, he moved to the United States and raised a family. Fifteen years ago, while in Las Vegas, he met the coordinator of a Holocaust survivor gathering. The organizer voiced discomfort to Lebovitz about Las Vegas as a venue, stating in Yiddish that it was “not becoming” of such an event.
“I am now the chairman of the Holocaust gathering,” Lebovitz replied. “I have decided that you are now retiring and whatever the reason is, I’m taking over.”
This year, Lebovitz was featured in the documentary The Last Survivor, clips of which were shown over the weekend. In one scene, a survivor speaks of how her mind still trails back. “It never goes away,” she says. “Because it’s like in front of you—the rest of your life. Good things happen later, but this part of your brain just holds onto this horrible memory.”
On the morning of the concert, Saul and Ruby woke up at 6 a.m. and rehearsed in their suite. Wearing kippahs, they went down to the Sands Expo and Convention Center, to Venetian Ballroom F, for Shabbat services. For a few hours, they were huddled under tallitot, praying. In the wide and elegant hallway just outside, men wearing cowboy hats, in town for the National Finals Rodeo, lassoed the air with ropes, buzzed on Coors Light.
After services and lunch, Saul returned to his suite, changed into pajamas, and took a nap. In late afternoon, he and Ruby put on matching black suits—bright red shirts with dark coats and bow ties—and headed downstairs.
“Tonight,” Saul said to Ruby and Chana, “we either make it or we break it.”
About 300 people gathered inside the Lando Ballroom. In the middle section of the front row were tall brown leather seats reserved for esteemed guests. Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the hotel and one of the world’s richest men, settled into one of them. Commander Lebovitz, wearing his Israeli Navy baseball cap, was in another.
A few rows back, Michael Taylor sat tall in his seat, looking proud. He wore a suit and tie and an old-fashioned military hat stitched with patches and stars. On it was written “1966-67 Commander” and “Jewish War Veterans of the United States.” Around his neck were dog tags from the 1948 War. He sat next to his son and two other survivors.
He was born Michael Teuchschneider in Brussels. His family—strict Orthodox parents and four younger sisters—had fled to Southern France before being placed into a forced labor camp called Agde. Inside, the authorities “divided the family—on the right side was the women and children; on the left side was the men,” Michael said. “Separated and there was a wire in between. There was screaming the whole night. Screaming and impossible to believe.” In 1942, his family was sent to the Rivesaltes Concentration Camp, from which Taylor twice escaped, helping many other families do so as well.
Michael’s three youngest sisters—ages 5, 6, and 8—were given new names and identities and hidden in convents as Catholics. The eldest sister, Sara, remained with their ailing mother. Sara and both parents were transported to Auschwitz.
Michael, unaware of their fate, joined the underground Jewish resistance in France. He blew up German railroads, captured anti-aircraft cannons, and liberated French towns. He was 21 when the war ended. He went to retrieve his three youngest sisters, but they didn’t recognize him and had no idea they were Jewish. Michael obtained custody of them in court. With no money or possessions, the four orphans sailed as refugees to Palestine, where he got the Israeli dog tags.
The lights went down, and Dudu Fisher, with a dome of curly hair and dressed in all black, took the stage. The orchestra played an interlude, and a giant screen flashed old black-and-white footage of Jewish children singing. “I’d like to take you on a memory lane, to a time when everything was so beautiful,” Dudu Fisher said in a deep and eloquent voice. “Music, culture, everything they needed they had. And I’d like to call my friends, the Holocaust Klezmer Group. Give them a big hand.” A spotlight fell on the far right side of the stage, illuminating the two little tuxedo-clad men. Dudu continued, “And we’re going to sing along to some of the real beautiful songs that they remember and you remember from those happy days of the Jewish life…”
Dudu, himself the son of a survivor, introduced the band members, and then together they played fast and happy songs like “Tumbalalaika” and “Mazel,” while the video screen showed drawings of Klezmer musicians in the shtetls. Not having rehearsed, Saul and Ruby closely followed Dudu’s lead, improvising remarkably well. The crowd seemed impressed. A few times Dudu approached Ruby with the microphone and allowed Ruby, while playing his accordion, to sing. After about 10 minutes of performing, Dudu called the trio to center stage, and the band took a bow to a cheering crowd. A beaming Saul waved as walked off.
The show ended on an uplifting note. After belting out songs from Les Miserables, Dudu sang Fiddler on the Roof tunes, “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “To Life.” These had Saul out of his chair, dancing and clapping. For the most part, Ruby was stoic. A few times Saul forced a smile out of Ruby, like by playfully rubbing his head. Occasionally, Ruby would get Saul’s attention and whisper something to him.
After the show, people flocked to Adelson to pay their respects. Then Adelson zoomed off in a motorized cart and the crowd thinned out. Saul and Ruby left the ballroom together. While descending a stairwell, a young gentleman wearing a cream-colored suit stopped them. He’d seen their act and wanted to take a picture with them.
Saul mentioned that the band is broke and in desperate need of sponsors. The man went into his pocket and handed Saul a casino token. It was for $500.
“This is just the beginning,” the man said.
Saul and Ruby walked to a gelateria near the casino entrance that Saul had been talking about all weekend. Then they went to cash in their token. Side by side they walked through the casino, eating their ice cream cones, arms around each other’s shoulders.
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Louie Lazar is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and the Jerusalem Post.
Louie Lazar is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and the Jerusalem Post.