Cardiologist Follows his Heart and Becomes Composer

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jaap Nico Hamburger’s mother gave him two invaluable pieces of advice. 

When he was young, she told him that, yes, he played the piano very well, but he must have a reliable profession. Decades later, after Hamburger had achieved international recognition as a cardiac surgeon, she said he had worked hard enough as a doctor and it was time to devote himself to his first love, music.

So it was that, mid-life, Hamburger gradually wound down his practice in Vancouver in minimally invasive heart procedures, which had begun in his native Holland, and embarked on “the great adventure” of being a full-time composer of classical music.

That transition was completed this year when he left the University of British Columbia where he had been a clinical professor since 2000, and moved permanently to Montreal to be composer-in-residence for Mécénat Musica, a donor-supported cultural program.

The cross-country relocation also meant settling down with his new wife, Kathy Assayag, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal.

His mother’s counsel proved wise – not that Hamburger ever doubted it. Janny Moffie-Bolle, after all, had survived Auschwitz and other camps. This formidable woman died in 2016 at age 95, still a force to be reckoned with.

The Holocaust was not an off-limits topic when Hamburger was growing up, but he has not attempted to give it musical expression – until now.

In advance of Remembrance Day, Hamburger released an album on the Canadian label Leaf Music of two new compositions for chamber orchestra that evoke the Holocaust and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. (His Piano Concerto, featuring Israeli pianist Assaff Weisman, was put out by Leaf in August.)

Chamber Symphony No. 1, performed by Montreal’s Ensemble Caprice conducted by Matthias Maute, is subtitled “Remember to Forget,” a phrase from the Tanach that cautions against the futility, even destructiveness, of second-guessing oneself. Self-criticism should lead to self-improvement, he explained, and the biblical Joseph serves as a model for perseverance.

Hamburger was inspired by the life of Hungarian-Jewish composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), who survived the Holocaust, unlike his father and brother. Ligeti, who later fled communism, became an outstanding classical composer, known for his avant-garde style. The soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed from Ligetti’s work.

Hamburger’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, “Children’s War Diaries,” performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under the baton of the Dutch Vincent de Kort, is also optimistic.

About 20 years ago, Hamburger read the diaries of five teens who had perished in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s was, of course, the most famous. The other four, largely forgotten – unlike Frank, who stopped writing after she was discovered in hiding – bore witness to what they experienced in the death camps.

In 2010, Hamburger’s 89-year-old mother, who was a teen at the start of the war, published her autobiography. With her at Yad Vashem for the book’s launch, he was shaken by the memorial to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children. After emerging from its darkness to the blazing Jerusalem sun, he was impelled to translate his overwhelming emotions into music.

“The contours of a new symphonic work came to mind virtually complete,” he said. “I went home and wrote “Children’s War Diaries” in five short movements.”

The work’s world premiere was recorded at the “Violins of Hope” concert held last November at the Maison symphonique de Montréal in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by the 1st Canadian Army.

The actual Violins of Hope, which belonged to Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, have been restored by father-and-son luthiers in Israel. They are played with orchestras around the world as a symbol of victory over tyranny.

This is the spirit Hamburger intends in his symphonies. He is not, he emphasizes, trying to capture the horror experienced by those who survived the Holocaust.

“That would be presumptuous and impossible,” said Hamburger, who was obsessed with Beethoven at age three and began his music education soon after. “I could read scores before I could read language,” he said.

He earned a soloist degree in piano from Amsterdam’s Royal Conservatory while studying medicine. He became an expert in the development of laser coronary angioplasty at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and travelling around the world. He stopped giving recitals, but continued to compose in his limited spare time.

“The only thing I can do is try to use the language of music to express how I experience what I know, and what I think the Holocaust means for the world today. We always said, ‘Never again’, but we see what is happening all over.”

The release of his album on Nov. 6, fortunately, was not stopped by the COVID pandemic, unlike another of Hamburger’s big projects. His first opera, Goldwasser, was scheduled to premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York in March, featuring laureates of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. All being well, Goldwasser will debut next season.

Typically, Hamburger looks on the bright side. It was at the foundation gala in 2018 in New York that he met Kathy, a fellow opera lover, and would start a new chapter of his extraordinary life in Montreal.

Survivors Seek to Shame Facebook Into Removing Holocaust Denial

Aug. 7, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A new campaign seeks to shame Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into pushing Holocaust deniers off his popular social media platform.

Dubbed #NoDenyingIt, (http://www.claimscon.org/nodenyingit/#clips) the drive is led by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the or Claims Conference), the New York-based agency that pushes for compensation for survivors of the Holocaust.

The effort will see 30-second video messages from Holocaust survivors around the world posted to Facebook and other social media sites urging Zuckerberg to finally take action against Holocaust denial on the site he leads.

“This is something you’d think would be pretty straightforward,” said Conference president Gideon Taylor in a CJR interview. “We’re saying that Facebook has an obligation to history and to survivors to ensure this terrible kind of speech is not being promoted.

Gideon Taylor
Gideon Taylor

“We have Holocaust survivors every day issuing calls for Facebook to take down Holocaust denial,” he added. “We want him to sit down with Holocaust survivors and hear directly from them.”

Taylor added two factors make the campaign especially important now: The ever-decreasing number of first-hand witnesses to the Holocaust, and the steadily increasing number of voices claiming it didn’t happen.

“Facebook is a platform being given to these groups to make the voice of hate louder,” he said. “We’re asking that Facebook not let itself be used as a megaphone for that hatred.”

Survivors taking part in the campaign include famed Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld; Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor and head of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors; Eva Schloss, step-sister of Anne Frank; and Charlotte Knobloch, who survived Kristallnacht.

Joining them are Canadians Pinchas Gutter of Toronto and Sydney Zoltak of Montreal. Both say rising antisemitism around the world makes the effort critically important now.

“A huge amount of people now believe things that are lies,” Gutter said in an interview. “The Internet creates a platform for these lies to be spread and it has to stop.”

Gutter was seven when the Second World War started. His family was eventually confined in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. In April 1943, during the first three weeks of the ghetto uprising, the family was discovered and deported to the Majdanek death camp.

Pichas Gutter
Pichas Gutter

On the day they arrived, Gutter’s parents and twin sister were murdered. The boy, however, was sent to a work camp. He later passed through several other concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, where he was liberated by Soviet troops on May 8, 1945.

Today, he does what he can to educate people about the Shoah, and sees the #NoDenyingIt campaign as an extension of that effort.

“The only thing I can do now is educate people and the program is about educating the world,” he said. “It’s time to deal with all these lies and malignancy before they lead to killings and other terrible things.”

Zoltak is also a child survivor. His family was confined in the Siemiatyzce ghetto but escaped during its 1944 liquidation, eventually finding refuge in the barn of a family who remembered a small kindness once given them by Zoltak’s mother.

Sydney Zoltak
Sydney Zoltak

In an interview, Zoltak said he has “a special dislike for Holocaust deniers,” something he tries to ease by telling his story as often as he can.

“I don’t know what Mark Zuckerberg is thinking by allowing Holocaust denial to go on,” he said. “He says that denying the Holocaust is not hate speech, but it is.”

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a former Canadian representative to the Claims Conference (Farber is also publisher of the CJR), said, “the very fact that survivors have to do this in 2020 is disgusting. Deniers are using Facebook to express ideas that are unquestionably antisemitic and hateful.

“(Facebook) has to say clearly that Holocaust denial is a vile spreading of hatred against Jews and will not be tolerated.” He said the social media giant has been pushed for two years to remove such material.

In an e-mailed statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform will “take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust. The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying about the atrocities, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.

“We know many people strongly disagree with our position – and we respect that. It’s really important for us to engage on these issues and hear from people to understand their concerns,” the statement continued. “We have a team that is dedicated to developing and reviewing our policies and we welcome collaboration with industry, experts and other groups to ensure we’re getting it right.”

A random search of Facebook, however shows such statements still make it on to the platform.

In one public group called “Did the Holocaust Really Happen?” one participant argued that claims of six million dead must be false because there simply wasn’t enough time during the Second World War to kill and cremate that many victims.

Another claims the “Holocaust myth” is nothing more than the theft of “billions of dollars from hardworking German taxpayers…to fund the brutal occupation and genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Since 1952, the Claims Conference has negotiated the payment of more than US $80 billion in indemnification to survivors. This year, the agency will distribute approximately $350 million in direct compensation to over 60,000 survivors in 83 countries and allocate approximately $610 million in grants to over 200 social service agencies worldwide to provide Holocaust survivors with home care, food and medicine.


Steve Arnold