Monday, November 19, 2012

A Hero's Life

Well, I heard something on the radio today that made me cry -- in a good way. On our local NPR station here in Boston, I heard an interview with Benjamin Zander. Maestro Zander is a major presence in the Boston music scene (and also somewhat notorious after a lapse in judgment cost him his job leading the youth orchestra at the New England Conservatory). I don't think I'd ever heard him speak until today.

He was talking about his new venture, the Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. These kids are the creme de la creme of young instrumentalists, and they gather together in the South End to make music with Zander. On the radio today he was taking them through Richard Strauss's tone poem "Ein Heldenleben," also known as “A Hero’s Life” (it's about a warrior on the battlefield). And before he let them play, Mr. Zander talked to these kids about, well, Life.

What he said was this (I'm paraphrasing): No matter how great a warrior you are, you cannot make it in life alone. We were put here with other people because we NEED each other, and together we can do great things.

That is a message I wholly believe in, and I have written about it on this blog before. No man is an island, you know?

But here's what made me cry. Zander talked about his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He, like so many others (my grandparents included) lost everything in that darkness: family, friends, home, homeland, identity, language, and hope.

So, after the war Zander's father went to England with his wife, and his Dad ended up in a DP camp (I believe they had separate camps fr men and women).  This camp was full of men who had also lost everything, and they did nothing all day but gaze dully at the barbed wire that contained them and the world beyond it.

But Zander's father wanted to Live, and one day he said to the others, "Let's start a university. Here, in this barb-wired camp." They had no classrooms, no textbooks, paper, pencils. They had nothing you'd need to start a university, except for one thing: a collection of learned people. It's no secret that Germany bled itself of much of its intellectual and artistic elite in the 30s and 40s. And here were a bunch of them. Defeated? Maybe, for the time being. Hollow? Probably. But they were still full of possibility if they could recover the will to thrive. And if they could work together instead of standing around, isolated and depressed, each man alone.

The elder Zander must have been as inspiring as his son, because without the physical tools of learning, they all went (or went back) to university. They simply talked about ideas. There were a bunch of "courses" running at any given time, and these men were students and professors. This was something they could only do together, and I have no doubt it kept them alive -- intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. This was a humble thing and a grand thing, all rolled into one.

When Maestro Zander told that story about his father and his fellow travelers I thought of my grandfather with the sad eyes, how he started over with nothing, a doorman in Manhattan. My grandmother working as a nanny to two little girls while relatives looked after her own little girls -- and later, sewing in a factory. They had been crushed in Germany but to a large extent they recovered -- because in New York they found a community of people who shared their goals, and who wanted each other to succeed. These people had each others' backs.

So when I heard Benjamin Zander talking about that very thing today, I shivered.

It was that beautiful.


  1. Oh boy. That made me cry far more than I was expecting. Thanks so much for sharing that story!

    1. You're so welcome, Megan. I loved it, too.