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Sean Kirst: Tale and video of a melody that lifted over Auschwitz

The original idea, the way Robbie Hausmann always pictured the moment, was to perform outdoors at Auschwitz. He wanted his music to drift toward every barbed and jagged corner of the place.

Last month, once he arrived, that was impossible. The air was bitter enough to numb his hands, and a cellist needs his fingers to perform.

Hausmann, a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, had a day off from a BPO tour of Poland. He used that time for traveling to the memorial built from the lethal Nazi concentration camp. He was thankful for Edwin Deskur, a friend from their days together at the Eastman School of Music, who now lives in Warsaw.

Deskur provided a ride for Hausmann and fellow BPO musician Nancy Anderson. It gave Hausmann time to think quietly of his destination, instead of needing to worry about finding his way there.

The camp was used for slave labor and mass murder during World War II. Of the 1.3 million people who passed through, most of them Jews, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 200,000 survived.

Sean Kirst: He saved 3,000 Jews in World War II, now lives quietly in Buffalo

When Hausmann arrived, snow was falling on a gray March day. Pawel Sawicki, a staff educator at Auschwitz who knew of his plans, had a suggestion. He led Hausmann and his friends past the railroad tracks where the able-bodied would disembark and be put to crushing work, while the fragile or infirm were taken off and killed.

Sawicki brought his visitors into a building in which the Nazis once required their prisoners to take packed communal showers, forcing them to strip in public humiliation. That was followed by a change into camp uniforms before the start of the ordeals that almost always led to death.

In that space, Hausmann thought of his own great-grandmother, Toni Marcus, an older woman alone amid such savagery. She died in 1944 in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"All of it," Hausmann said, "was to dehumanize people."

The visit to the camp was his quiet response. Since his childhood in Amherst, music has been his passion. Sawicki looked around and came up with a wooden office chair for Hausmann, who set up a stand, placed a photo of Marcus and his mother on top of his sheet music, then took out a cello he has owned for at least 40 years.

In a room that was more of a barren concrete chamber, he performed the Kaddish, a melody that is part of the Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead.

"When I played, it was a personal gesture in honor of my great-grandmother," Hausmann said.

In an overwhelming way, bow and strings moving in his fingers, he felt the aura of the men, women and children lost at Auschwitz.

"Whenever I say it," Hausmann said, "it still gives me a chill."

At Auschwitz: left to right, Robbie Hausmann of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; Pawel Sawicki, a camp educator on the Auschwitz staff; Nancy Anderson of the BPO; and Edwin Deskur, an old friend of Hausmann's. (Photo courtesy Nancy Anderson)

Sunday, he will again perform the Kaddish, this time for an audience that will include elderly holocaust survivors. The Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo invited him to play at 10:30 a.m. at its annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration at Temple Beth Tzedek, on Getzville Road in Amherst.

At Auschwitz, a BPO cellist to pause for a poignant – and personal – prayer

Hausmann was raised by a mother and father whose parents fled Germany, just before the war. Many relatives were lost to Nazi genocide. It was his mother, Britta Hausmann, who told him the story of Marcus, Britta's grandmother. As an adult, Marcus converted from Judaism to Catholicism. While much of the family left Europe for the U.S. in the 1930s, Marcus chose to stay.

She was close to a priest, Rev. Joseph Emonds, later honored by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to shield many Jews from capture. Marcus believed he would find a way to shelter her, but it was a time when grace and courage were not enough to stop the Nazis.

Marcus was sent to Auschwitz. She was in her late 60s. Her family learned she died in the camp.

In a way of such certainty Hausmann struggles to describe it, he felt the presence of his great-grandmother in that quiet room.

"She knew I was there," he said.

In Buffalo, the theme of Sunday's gathering will be "Memories of Courage." The ceremony will honor six men and women, living or dead, recognized for their bravery in protecting Jews during World War II.

The list recalls such figures as the late Oskar Schindler, the German businessmen credited with saving 1,200 Jewish lives, and Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary before he died in Russian custody, after the war.

It also includes Tibor Baranski, 95, of Buffalo, who as a young man was a friend of Wallenberg's. Baranski risked his life to save 3,000 Jews in Budapest. He was honored this year by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, whose directors took advantage of a program available to Israeli citizens and commissioned some stamps carrying Baranski's image.

Tibor Baranski, with the Israeli stamp - carrying his image - that he received as a gesture of appreciation from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. (Image courtesy Danny Rainer)

Tibor Baranski Jr. and Dr. Peter Forgach, Baranski's sons, say their father may be the last living person to have seen Wallenberg, among the reasons he was honored last autumn at a series of events in Sweden. Baranski was greeted by dignitaries and diplomats from Israel, Sweden, Hungary and the U.S. He met Wallenberg's 97-year-old sister, Nina von Dardel.

As always, he said the credit was overblown. Thursday, seated at his kitchen table, Baranski used the word "gangsters" to describe the Nazis, as well as the Soviets who seized Wallenberg and nearly starved Baranski to death on a forced march. He deflected any praise for his own heroism in Budapest.

"I don't need any compliments," he said. "God gave me the idea of what to do, and I thank God they didn't kill me."

The selfless magnitude of his achievements are seen differently by those who run the Holocaust Resource Center. To them, Baranski is one of Buffalo's living treasures, and they asked his family to play a major role in Sunday's remembrance.

"We knew he had saved so many Jewish lives, and we thought, as a member of the community, he should be honored," said Rachel Kranitz McPhee , chairperson of the YomHaShoah event.

Among the guests will be Dr. Agnes Szekeres, who hopes to travel from California to see Baranski honored. Szekeres lost both her parents in the Holocaust. Her husband Gabor, who died in 2010, was among the thousands Baranski shielded from the camps.

"Tibor was like a second father to Gabor," Szekeres said. "Through my husband, I love the whole family very much."

The ceremony takes on particular importance amid concern about fading national awareness. Based on interviews with more than 1,300 American men and women, a new study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany determined that 41 percent of all respondents, and 66 percent of those considered Millennials, could not even identify what happened at Auschwitz.

The trip to Poland gave Hausmann a painfully intimate understanding. He said the ruins of the gas chambers still exist within a "stone's throw"of where he played the Kaddish.

If anything, the horrific power of the memorial gives him confidence about longterm memory. He said his own experience pales beside the perspective of those who made it through the camps, "all these extraordinary people with such suffering in their lives."

Robbie Hausmann's mother, Britta Hausmann, playing violin as a child and on the lap of her grandmother, Toni Marcus, who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hausmann kept the second image on his sheet music as he played Kaddish for his great-grandmother, at the camp. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

What he finds consoling, and especially meaningful, is the local reaction after he returned from Poland. Strangers who read about his journey ask specific questions about what he encountered. They express both their horror and a tangible compassion.

"My experience is that people care," Hausmann said. "They want to know and they want to know more."

Recalling the sound of his cello at Auschwitz, he searches for the words to give it proper meaning. He knows the pilgrimage would have mattered deeply to his father, Ernest Hausmann, who died in January. His mother, at 89, may be the last person on Earth with living memory of Toni Marcus. She still remembers the ultimate gift from her grandmother, the sense of absolutely unconditional love.

At Auschwitz, Hausmann said, the Nazis attempted "to toss all these people into nothingness."

That effort failed. He felt them there. He believes they heard the Kaddish.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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