Beautiful Memories of Bella
A preview by Marc Shulgold
For many of those who are generations removed from the Holocaust, the pain still lingers: the heartbreak and loss of family members and the unending, unanswerable question, Why?
And yet, amidst the horror of that dark time in history there are also uncountable tales of survival among those who faced extermination. And it’s those stories that give us hope and lift the spirit – stories such as the remarkable saga of Bella Berliner.
For Barbara Hamilton, artistic director of the Colorado Chamber Players, Berliner’s tale is a personal one: Bella was the violist’s maternal great grandmother.
Hamilton will honor this remarkably resilient woman in an intriguing concert by the Chamber Players that combines music (by several of Bella’s favorite composers) with projected photographs of the Berliner family and, most dramatically, with spoken excerpts from the 500-page diary that the 60-year-old woman kept during her dangerous years of solitary hiding.
“It’s partly a memory – an homage,” Hamilton says of the program. “But it’s also an interesting perspective on that time,” the violist notes, adding that she has been working on a book about Bella and others who were affected by the Holocaust.
This dramatic story of survival will be outlined in admission-free afternoon programs, presented Sunday (JANUARY 11) in the Boulder Public Library and Tuesday (JANUARY 13) at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver. Actor Mare Trevathan will read excerpts from Bella’s diary, alternating with chamber-music pieces by Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Marin Marais played by Hamilton and Andrew Cooperstock.
Bella’s diary began with a family tragedy, the violist says. “It starts with the suicide of her older brother, Rudolf. Like hundreds of other German Jews who’d relocated to Amsterdam, he took his life rather that face the possibility of dying at the hands of the Nazis. Those people refused to let others decide when they would die. For Rudolf, it was a political as well as a personal decision. But Bella said, ‘I want to live.’ And so, she went into hiding.”
Berliner had moved to Holland in 1934 to be with Rudolf, but the Nazi invasion in May, 1940 forced her into hiding three months after her brother’s suicide.
This sounds like a familiar story, as it parallels the tragic tale of Anne Frank, who similarly hid with her family in Amsterdam. Unlike that other young diarist, Bella survived, traveling to Sweden after the war’s end, finally reuniting with her family in St. Louis in 1946, and living another 16 years.
Her diary tells of her fears as well as her joy in hearing and seeing nature unfold outside her window. She also wrote of the aid she received from members of the Dutch resistance and others who secretly brought her food, much of it obtained by trading many of the 400 pieces of needlework and crochet she made while in hiding.
She also wrote about a local fellow named Gustav who lived a mere five blocks from her hide-out. “He figured out where she was hiding, and would walk by her window, whistling a melody from (Weber’s) Freischűtz,” Hamilton says. That aria, a playful courting song that Bella knew, let her know that a friend was near. The two would occasionally take short midnight walks together when all the city lights were extinguished.
Hamilton was 3½ when Bella died in 1961, but retains brief memories of sitting on her great grandmother’s lap. Bella continued to embrace her love of music, encouraging her daughter (Hamilton’s grandmother) to study piano and pursue a musical career while still in Germany. That love of music was then handed down to succeeding generations. The violist recalls playing through Beethoven’s Op. 8 Serenade with her grandfather on violin and her mother playing cello. Fittingly, a movement from that work will be included on the concert program.
For Hamilton, this presentation is one she’d wanted to assemble for years. “I think people will relate to the story,” she says. “Bella always found a positive view wherever she was, and I find that so inspiring.”
“She was a great music lover, and for me, using music to help tell her story is a direct expression of my feelings. Bella was just a German hausfrau who always kept looking for beauty wherever she was, even when she was cut off from the world for so many years. She’s really my family hero.”
The Colorado Chamber Players will present ‘Testament: The Diary of Bella Berliner’ at 2 p.,m. on Sunday in the Boulder Public Library’s Canyon Theater, 1001 Arapahoe Ave., and at noon on Tuesday in St. John’s Cathedral, 1350 Washington St. Admission to both programs is free. Information: (303) 355-2224.