At 97, Holocaust survivor and mandolin player Emily Kessler gets her Lincoln Center debut

For Emily Kessler, a Holocaust survivor, the prospect of performing at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall is less worrying than figuring out what to wear for the occasion.

“I came to the conclusion,” she said, in an interview at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “that what is the difference between playing in front of three people instead of 300?”

At 97, Kessler is short and slightly hunched. Along with old photographs and birthday cards, prescription pill bottles are scattered throughout her apartment.

“Age is not easy,” she says.

Nevertheless, the soon-to-be 98-year-old is still sharp. And although she moves at a crawling pace to retrieve old black-and-white pictures, when she sits down to play the mandolin, her fingers work just fine.

Kessler will perform and sing songs in Yiddish and Russian Monday night at the 80th Anniversary Benefit Gala for the nonprofit organization Blue Card — the only organization in the United States solely dedicated to providing assistance to Holocaust survivors like herself.

Kessler has been a Blue Card client for almost two decades. They’ve arranged free dental work, orthopedic shoes and even all-expense-paid retreats in the Berkshires. Masha Pearl, Blue Card’s executive director, approached Kessler about playing at the gala several months earlier. Kessler, who likes to be prepared, started practicing right away.

“To be prepared,” she says, “is to respect other people, and to respect yourself, your dignity.”

She had no chance to prepare in 1941, when Nazi officers came to her home in Khmilnyk, Ukraine and shot her parents and brother in front of her. And nothing could have prepared the young widow (her husband, a Soviet soldier, was killed during the Nazi invasion) to care for her 2-year-old son in a Ukrainian labor camp, to treat the open sores on her wrists and arms with nonexistent medical supplies, or to gather the strength for work — construction and toilet cleaning — without food or water.

Somehow she did, however. And her survival, which she calls a “miracle” still confounds her today.

“How did we manage there without food or water? I don’t know, for that, I try not to explain, because it’s difficult.”

Kessler eventually escaped the camp, bringing her son along, using false papers. She lived on the run for two years before relocating to Kyrgyztan. There, in her late 20s, she tried to reassemble the broken pieces of her life. She graduated from university and worked as an editor in a publishing house.

But the damage was done. After the war, the “catastrophe” as she calls it, Kessler was plagued by guilt, sadness. She lived in a constant state of mourning.

“I was very sad, not smiling. I thought, ‘I don’t have the right to smile’. It felt like a crime, like I was guilty of smiling.”

The mandolin, which she began playing at age 10 in her school band, symbolized a time of happiness, so Kessler avoided it entirely.

In Kyrgyztan, where Kessler lived after the war, anti-Semitism was still rampant. So at 60 years old, knowing no one in the U.S. and speaking scant English, Kessler immigrated to the United States (her son, who now lives in Michigan,  immigrated several years after her).

“I was happy to leave,” she said. “I had an opportunity to go, and I took it.”

For five years though, she was still “not ready” to play music. But walking in Manhattan one day in 1985, she saw a mandolin in the window of a music store.

“After time, you think to yourself, ‘how long should I be in mourning?’” she said. She bought the instrument, and has been playing for the last 30 years.

“It helped just to go away from the sadness,” she said. “It is not always good to feel this sad. I used to be on the street, and without any thinking, I would feel my heart to be full of tears. No more, now it’s okay.”

Things move slowly these days for Kessler. A cancer survivor who grapples with various health problems and relies on a pacemaker, she spends a good deal of time with doctors, but nonetheless manages to live on her own. She likes a light beer every so often, and going to Upper West Side cafes, although she thinks the portions are always too big.

She still goes on walks around the neighborhood, and is often asked what her secret is for living a long time. She shrugs, “I don’t know. My secret is that there is no secret.”

Avi Avital: The Mandolin Rock Star

Avi Avital plays the mandolin sitting center stage in a hard-back chair. He curls into himself, his face turned downward, and nestles the small stringed instrument on his lap. His intense concentration draws a listener in, whether he’s performing a piece composed by mandolin virtuoso Yasuo Kuwahara or by Israeli composer Avner Dorman.

Avital received a 2010 Grammy nomination for his recording of Dorman’s haunting “Mandolin Concerto” for solo mandolin and string orchestra in the category of best solo performance with orchestra. He will be performing, along with two other young Israeli virtuosos — violinist Asi Matathias and pianist Victor Stanislavsky — on May 22 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The concert and reception are part of a fundraising event for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF).

Avital, 32, said he approached many institutions and organizations when he was starting out, asking —unsuccessfully — for help to further his education and build a career. Then he went to the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Avi. I play the mandolin. Can you help me?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ ”

The organization offered him a grant, allowing him to study in Italy, enter international competitions and buy instruments.

“That opened a lot of doors for me,” Avital said, speaking by phone from Berlin, where he is living now. “The AICF is essential for every Israeli musician. There’s probably not one Israeli musician who was not part of the AICF family at some stage of their musical lives.”

Now the organization is helping Avital release an all-Bach CD, already recorded, that includes two of the composer’s harpsichord concertos, arranged for mandolin by Avital.

David Homan, executive director of the AICF, called Avital extremely charismatic. “He’s a rock star of the mandolin,” Homan said. “He’s on tour at least half the year and makes a full living as a performing mandolin player. Because of Avi, the mandolin is beginning to be seen as a valid solo instrument.”

Homan, also 32, proudly reeled off a list of some of the esteemed artists the AICF has supported — Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman,  and Gil and Orli Shaham, along with younger Israeli performers like violinist Matathias and pianists Inon Barnatan, Benjamin Hochman, Shai Wosner and Stanislavsky. And that’s just the short list.

“Among the younger generation, these pianists are in line to become the next Joseph Kalichstein or Yefim Bronfman,” Homan said. “Ask any member of the Israel Philharmonic or ask Yefim Bronfman: What was the most influential thing that happened in your career when you were growing up? The AICF is the answer every time for every major Israeli classical musician. It isn’t, ‘Here are five of the top 20 pianists.’ It’s 20 of 20.”

Avital’s “romance with the mandolin,” as he put it, began at age 7 in Be’er Sheva. His parents, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the 1960s, were not musicians. But music, he said, was always present in the house, and there was singing in synagogue on Friday nights.

There was also a mandolin youth orchestra, and, at the local music academy, Avital was taught by a world-class violinist who had just emigrated from a Soviet-bloc country. “There was no job for a violinist,” Avital said, “so he was asked if he could teach the mandolin. Because the mandolin is tuned like a violin, he began to teach it, but with a violinist’s mentality. It was kind of strange. We played the great violin repertoire with him, including Bach’s ‘Chaconne.’ ”

Despite the youth orchestra, Avital said he felt isolated from the mandolin world in Be’er Sheva. “I was 7, and I couldn’t just go on YouTube and find out how other people played the mandolin. My reality was the mandolin orchestra. Luckily, it was a very high level, but when I arrived in Italy, everybody played Vivaldi concertos.”

Avital said his unusual training has had advantages and disadvantages.

“On the one hand, I had to catch up with all the traditional repertoire and original pieces from the Baroque era,” he said. “On the other, my advantage was that I never saw the mandolin as a limited instrument.”

Audiences are often surprised after his concerts, he said. “Usually, when they hear the word ‘mandolin,’ they don’t know what to imagine. Some remember a grandfather playing in an orchestra, or hearing an amateur perform folk songs from Italy. But it’s refreshing when you hear a mandolin playing classical music. The sound is so sweet and familiar, yet new to the ears. It has the right combination, and it’s why people immediately connect to it.”

For his part, Avital connects deeply to the universal qualities of Bach’s music. “Whether you play his work on organ, piano, harpsichord, accordion or mandolin, you instantly recognize that this is Bach, and it’s always touching. It goes beyond the instrument. That’s why I’ve been playing him my entire career.”

But, he said, he quickly realized that arranging Bach for mandolin isn’t enough to build a big career, and that the repertoire for new mandolin pieces is still relatively small. So at least once a year, he commissions a new work for his instrument.

“I came to the conclusion I have to create new repertoire that responds to the development the mandolin has made in the last 300 years,” Avital said, “and that brings the most out of the instrument and myself as musician and performer. Dorman did that, so that’s why the piece got all this amazing recognition and success.”

Although based in Berlin, Avital maintains his ties to Israel. “I just played in Lucerne with the Israel Camerata,” he said. “All the rehearsals were in Israel. It was a good excuse to go back.”

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.