Music of Remembrance`s concert connects a lost Jewish community to Seattle Whenever Mina Miller plans a new concert season for Music of Remembrance, Seattle`s arts organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians, the goal is always to create a musical program that personalizes the Holocausts and pays tribute to its victims.
Yet, even by those standards, MOR`s concert at Benaroya Hall on November 8 has a unique connection to Seattle ` to the surprise of nearly everyone involved.
`It`s really amazing what we`ve been able to uncover for one of the works that we are doing,` says Miller, MOR`s music director for nine years. That work is `Rodas Recordada` (2005), written by Canadian composer Sid Robinovitch and debuting in the U.S. with MOR.
The `Rodas Recordada` story begins 73 years ago on the island of Rhodes, Greece. In 1933, a young Spanish scholar named Guillermo Diaz-Plaja visited the island, then occupied by Italy, on an ethnographic mission to collect Hispanic folklore.
On Rhodes, Diaz-Plaja met an old woman who called herself Mazalt` de Jacob Israel, a member of the island`s large Jewish community. At the time, Rhodes was an important center of Jewish life, nicknamed Chica Yerushalayim, Little Jerusalem.
Mazalt` assisted the young scholar in his work, reciting a ballad called `Three Doves,` which Diaz-Plaja recorded.
Forty years later, after making a name for himself as a scholar and poet, Diaz-Plaja returned to Rhodes and discovered that the city`s entire Jewish community had been nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. The Germans took over the island in 1944, deporting 1,673 of its Jews by ship to Athens and then on to Auschwitz. Only 151 would survive. Diaz-Plaja assumed that Mazalt` was among the murdered.
Diaz-Plaja preserved the memory of Mazalt` in a poem that weaved together his recollections of Rhodes with his sadness over the destruction of its Jewish community. He called the poem `Rodas Recordada,` or `Rhodes Remembered.` Part of it reads: `My memory has become black/from tears and gall/But your remembrance I keep/Mazalt` de Jacob Israel.`
Robinovitch would eventually adapt the poem into music.
What Diaz-Plaja didn`t know was that Mazalt` was one of the few surviving members of Rhodes` Jewish community. In 1939, Mazalt` traveled by ship to New York where she met up with her grandson, Ike Alhadeff, who had been born in Seattle. Alhadeff brought her by train to Seattle to live with the city`s large Sephardic community.
The Rhodes Jews were among the first in Seattle. They moved to the city at the beginning of the 20th century, following their non-Jewish Greek neighbors and plying the same trades as they had back home, such as fishing. When Mazalt` emigrated, three of her children (she was married at 13 years old and had 11 kids) were already living here, as were many grandchildren.
When MOR decided to perform `Rodas Recordada,` none of these connections were yet known. Everyone assumed, like Diaz-Plaja, that Mazalt` had likely died at Auschwitz. MOR chose the piece, Miller explains, to connect to Seattle`s large Sephardic community. The work also reflected the theme of this year`s program: the diversity of the Holocaust`s victims.
Then came Lilly DeGean, a Sephardic woman whom MOR asked to help publicize the performance.
`My interest was piqued when I read about Mazalt` de Jacob Israel,` DeGean said. The name sounded familiar to her and she called up her good friend and neighbor Irene Eskenazi.
Irene knew the name well. Mazalt` was her grandmother. Ike was her first cousin.
`What is amazing is that our Seattle Sephardic community is so large and has such a long history that there was this connection. It was just totally amazing,` said Miller.
Irene remembers Mazalt`, who boarded in her family`s Seattle home, as a heavyset woman who would dress in black.
`She was charming,` Irene recalls. `She loved spending time with us. She would laugh and giggle. We couldn`t understand her and she couldn`t understand us.`
Ike, who like Irene still lives in the Seattle area, also remembers a `really lovely lady` who didn`t speak a word of English. When she arrived in New York, she and Ike spoke Ladino together.
Mazalt` spent the last six years of her life in Seattle. She died in 1945 and was buried at the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery.
In addition to `Rodas Recordada,` November`s concert will also feature works by two Israeli composers, Betty Olivero and Aharon Harlap.
`Israeli composers have a very special connection to the Holocaust,` says Miller. `They live with it every day. If you think about the population of Israel now, many survivors and many people who escaped the Holocaust came to Israel.`
Olivero is a prominent Israeli composer who has won numerous awards, including the Israel Prize for music. She is known for molding traditional melodies into a modern style.
Three of Olivero`s compositions will be performed, including two choral works, and one orchestral piece originally written for the 1997 film The Golem.
`The Golem legend has served as a metaphor for the struggle to survive in times of persecution,` says Miller. `The vibrancy in that music makes the message very clear.`
In May, MOR`s second concert of the season will continue to honor the Holocaust`s many victims. One work, commissioned by MOR, depicts the stories of the homosexual victims of the Holocaust. Another work is about the love affair between a Roma (gypsy) and a Jew.
`I think what`s important here is`to remember not to think of Holocaust victims as statistics,` says Miller, `but as individuals.`