October 19, 2018

Songs of hope at Auschwitz

When Judith Schneiderman was 14, she was taken from Hungary and sent to Auschwitz. It seemed that all hope was lost — that is, until she opened her mouth.

A naturally talented vocalist who was never formally trained, she began to sing, and it probably saved her life. The wife of an SS commander overheard her, then taught her German songs and how to entertain Nazi soldiers, who would give her food. 

Her story was self-published in the book “I Sang to Survive.” Co-authored by Jennifer Schulz, Schneiderman’s granddaughter, the German version was presented in May by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in Berlin. 

Schulz, an acting teacher in Los Angeles who is credited in the book by her maiden name, Jennifer Schneiderman, said that although there are many Holocaust books out there, her grandmother’s is unique because it’s “about hope and human kindness and that there is more good than evil in the world. Even though there are a lot of terrible things in the book, it’s a small aspect of what the story is about. It’s a love story more than anything else.”

Instead of placing emphasis on the tragedies that befell Schneiderman — who turns 85 this month and now lives in Columbus, Ohio — the book aims to be uplifting. It takes a look at her life before the war, her time in America, her family and her 66-year romance with Paul, a fellow survivor she met at a displaced persons camp who died earlier this year. They settled in New Jersey and had four children together.

Schulz said that the theme of “I Sang to Survive” is how “we really can survive anything if we believe in our hearts that there is goodness in the world.”

In her book, Schneiderman wrote that her time in the camp taught her about human nature and changed her perspective forever. 

“During the Holocaust, I learned the most important lesson of my life: that nothing is purely good or evil, and that both reside in the best and worst of us and our intentions.”

The book begins in Rachov (part of Czechoslovakia at the time), where Schneiderman was born in 1928. She was one of eight children in a very religious family. They lived in the back of the grocery store that they owned on the main street of their town. However, Rachov was economically depressed and, despite her vocal talents, she was never able to afford lessons.

“We were not poor, but we didn’t have enough money for such luxuries,” she said via a phone interview. “My father had a beautiful voice, and that’s where I got it. But I was the star in the house.” 

One of her daughters, Helene, was more fortunate in taking the next step in musical training. When she turned 18, Helene Schneiderman started taking voice lessons at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. There, she excelled, and eventually got into the renowned Stuttgart State Opera in Germany. When the mezzo-soprano told her parents, however, both had mixed feelings, Schneiderman said. 

“We decided for her future that she would go,” she said. “It was a little difficult visiting the first time [in Germany], but the second visit was much easier. We supported her 100 percent. She is very special girl not only as a singer, but she’s an unusual human being.”

Although Helene Schneiderman also had her hesitations about going to Germany, she knew it was the best decision for her future. 

“There is a very good system for young opera singers, where you get paid by the month and you perform often, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be in one place for years at a time,” she said. “My parents struggled with the thought of my coming over, but they love me more than they could hate anyone, and so things went smoothly.”

Recently, Helene Schneiderman, who has performed in Austria, France and Italy, put out a CD of Yiddish songs, “Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh” (“Close Your Little Eyes”). It includes four tracks of her parents singing together.

“I always enjoyed singing Yiddish songs because my mother taught them to me as a child,” Helene Schneiderman said. “The lullabies were especially beautiful.”

Although Judith Schneiderman never got the chance to sing professionally, to this day, she still does it for fun, especially with her family. Her favorite tunes are, of course, in Yiddish. 

“Sometimes when I’m alone and I’m in a fairly good mood, I feel like singing them in my room,” she said. “My daughter Helene and I sing duets. I still have a voice. I’m very surprised at my age, 85, I’m not wobbly, not yet.”