Last week, I went to an evening with a Holocaust survivor that was like no inspirational evening you have ever been to.
It was billed as a concert, but this was no concert. As the organizer, drummer David Fenster, said when opening the event, this was a celebration. A party. I would call it an extended, joyous, jam session, led by a beaming nonagenarian who had too much energy to stay sitting down while he played.
Saul Dreier is 93, and a survivor of three concentration camps. He says that he only survived because of the music he made in the camps. What came through at his special concert is that he is a man who has learned the hard way to fully live the moment — and he does, more than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Just four years ago, at the age of 89, Dreier had the idea of starting a Holocaust Survivor Band. The trouble was, there aren’t many Holocaust survivors who are musicians. Eventually, Dreier found Ruby Sosnowiec, and the two played together for three years. But he couldn’t find anyone else, so the rest of the Holocaust Survivor Band is made up of the children and grandchildren of survivors. The full story has to be heard in his inimitable European accent — I wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate it in print.
The camps, in Dreier’s words, were “Very rough. But we all survived. And we survived because we were young, and energetic, and when we returned to the barracks we sang to forget our troubles. And that was our salvation.”
I asked Dreier if there was any song that is too painful to hear, that brings back the terror and trauma of the Holocaust? Dreier looks puzzled by the question. “Music is what kept me going,” he says.
It’s clear that this is the truth. When he starts playing, Dreier comes fully alive. He bounces up and down in his seat behind the drums, a huge grin on his face.
The opening number had Dreier jamming with the whole Clark family — seven children together with their mother, Judy. It’s an emotional experience for Dreier. He himself came from a musical family, like the Clarks, but he lost them all in the Holocaust. He never had the opportunity to accompany his own family in a concert piece.
This was followed by what you could call a “spoons duet” — Dreier and Fenster each played a set of spoons, accompanied by a guitar. Sounds unusual? It definitely was.
In between acts, Dreier sat down in conversation with Davida Fenster, to share some stories about his life, his liberation from the Nazis, and the founding of the Holocaust Survivor band.
When Dreier was 16, he was sent to the concentration camp at Plaszow, where he was set to back-breaking labor. At night, all 30 men in his work detail were herded into a barracks and left till the morning. Together with Dreier was a musician — cantor David Werdiger. In the barracks at night, Werdiger would sing, and the other men sang along with him.
“I was a rich man in the camp,” says Dreier. “I had two spoons. Not just one. So I turned one spoon around, and I played the beat along with the singing. And that’s how I learned how to play.”
Dreier glosses over his concentration camp experiences, telling just one other story — about how he saved the lives of hundreds of camp inmates just before liberation, by blowing a shofar that was pushed into his hands by a Nazi Kapo.
Scared of being discovered by the approaching American troops, the Nazis led their prisoners on a forced march. At the end of the march, they herded the Jews into a cave in the mountains not far from the camp. Suddenly, three prisoners who had escaped a few days earlier appeared and began shooting. In the chaos, the Kapo ran over to Dreier, who hadn’t yet entered the cave, and handed him the shofar.
“Blow! Blow! Save everyone! Get them out the cave!” the Kapo shouted.
Confused and scared, Dreier began to blow the shofar. He’d never blown the shofar before and had no idea how to do it, but somehow he did. People begin running out the cave and in all directions. Three minutes later, the cave blew up.
“I don’t know how many people died, but we saved many, many lives,” Dreier concludes.
When Dreier plays, he does it with all of his being. There’s no way to describe his massive smile as he plays. Cymbals crash, the bass drum booms, side drums rattle. There’s no weakness or frailty here. It’s full-on, rocking drumming that has everyone clapping along.
The program for the evening was extremely varied. The age ranged from Dreier’s 93 years down to 11-year-old Amiad Coleman, who also plays the drums. Women and men, girls and boys, played instruments that included the accordion, the flute, the trombone, the double bass, the guitar, the violin, the saxophone, a wooden recorder, and the keyboard, as well as a few vocalists and a whole host of percussion instruments, alongside the full 10-piece drumset manned by Dreier.
None of the performers had the chance to rehearse with Dreier, and none of them rehearsed the grand finale together. All the performers filed onto the impromptu stage, squeezing on together to sing Al Kol Eileh and Leonard Cohen’s Halleluyah, conducted by Saul Dreier with loads of energy and — yes — a huge grin. The audience joined in, with Dreier turning round frequently to include us all.
This was not an inspirational evening showcasing a Holocaust survivor musician. It was a chance to be touched by the personality of a drummer who has learned to live in the moment of music.