Survived 7 Nazi concentration camps to make great music
by Len Lear
“My life was not ended by the Nazis, although they took much of it away by murdering most of my family. My life went on. I was and am a musician, a teacher, a performer and a concert artist who has had a long international career. And that life, too, is part of my story.”
If Marian Filar’s life story had been made into a movie — something he very much wanted to happen — most viewers would probably have believed it was fiction. The Wyncote resident, who miraculously survived seven Nazi death camps while enduring the most unspeakable atrocities imaginable (Filar learned how to disguise his own illnesses and injuries because weak prisoners were shot on the spot), died on July 10 in his home at the age of 94.
Filar, who could be feisty and demanding — not exactly unusual considering his own boot camp-like professional training and the Biblical Job-like personal tragedies he had to endure — was revered by many of his students, first at Settlement Music School, where he was head of the piano department from 1953 to 1966, and then at Temple University’s College of Music, where he was a full professor from 1973 to 1989.
According to Rollin Wilber of Manayunk, “I knew Marian for more than 40 years, first as teacher and mentor in my musical and piano studies, then as a close friend, more like family … He was a remarkable teacher in that he could communicate brilliantly with words and ideas and often with wit and humor to get musical ideas across …
“He could be easily hurt and could not help having distrust at times, I am sure due to his background as a Jew in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. If you could ride those extremes, as many of us did, you were touched permanently with a unique kind of relationship in your own life.”
In addition to his teaching, Filar distinguished himself as a world-renowned piano soloist with major orchestras (the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra and many others), although he never received the recognition from the general public that he deserved. The accolades by critics for Filar’s virtuoso performances could easily fill up several articles the length of this one. Here is just a tiny sampling:
•The Aftenbladet, a newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark: “Marian Filar must be counted as one of the greatest living Chopin interpreters, maybe THE greatest!”
•The New York Times: “Filar’s incomparable technical facility is at the service of his utterly elegant musicianship. His performances are fleet, supple and beautifully nuanced … and just another indicator that exceptional talent does not guarantee wide public recognition in the often unjust world of classical music.”
•Democracia, a newspaper in Buenos Aires: “A brilliant recital. Filar played and interpreted with astounding and faithful skill, impeccable technique and eloquent expressiveness.”
•Arbeiterzeitung, a newspaper in Vienna: “A heavenly, rare, radiant piano hour … Filar belongs without doubt to the most fascinating pianists we have ever heard.”
•New York Post: “Filar’s playing recalls that of the late Josef Lhevinne, which I think is one of the highest compliments it is possible to pay any performer.”
In 2002 the University Press of Mississippi published “From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall,” a poignant, compelling book about Filar’s life before, during and after the Holocaust. Its genesis was a manuscript from a Philadelphia writer, Gwyneth Richards, who had interviewed Filar many times. Because of creative differences between the piano virtuoso and the writer, though, a literary agent passed the manuscript along to Charles Patterson, an acclaimed New York writer who told us last week that he was asked “to put the book in readable form.” Patterson is listed as “co-author” on the book cover along with Filar, but he said last week that Richards is “a heroine … Without her there would have been no book …
“I called Filar last year to find out how he was doing and was glad to find out he was being looked after by a longtime beloved piano student (Charlie Birnbaum) and a caregiver who was living there with him …
“I’m very happy that he liked the book and got a lot of good feedback about it both here and in Poland. He was disappointed it wasn’t made into a movie. That was when ‘The Pianist’ came out and was a big hit. Marian, who had a wonderful sense of humor, would go on about how the pianist in that film spent the war hiding out in the Aryan part of Warsaw and was a lousy pianist to boot.”
The riveting book received unanimously laudatory reviews. A typical comment was this one from Booklist, a magazine from the American Library Association that has been publishing book reviews for more than 100 years: “Among the many astonishing accounts of Holocaust survival, this is one of the most remarkable.”
According to Filar’s book, before the Nazis sent members of his family to Treblinka concentration camp, these were the last words his mother said to him: “I bless you. You’ll survive this horror. You’ll become a great pianist, and I’ll be very proud of you.”
Born in 1917 into a musical Jewish family in Warsaw, Filar began playing the piano when he was four. Even before taking any lessons, Filar, who was always very short in stature, was able to hear a piece of music and come home and play it on the piano. He had perfect pitch.
He performed his first public concert at the age of six. At 12 he played with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and went on to study with the great Polish pianist and teacher Zbigniew Drzewiecki at the State Conservatory of Music.
In his book, Filar compares Drzewiecki to a Marine drill sergeant, insisting that he was constantly screaming at Filar at the top of his lungs but that he was a great teacher in spite of the abuse.
After the German invasion of Poland, Filar fled to another city in Poland, where he continued his music studies until 1941, when he returned to his family in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis murdered his parents, a sister and a brother, but he and his brother Joel survived as workers on the German railroad.
After taking part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Marian and Joel were captured and sent to Majdanek, Buchenwald and other concentration camps. Another brother, George, had gone to Palestine in 1935. After liberation Filar was able to resume his career by studying with the renowned German pianist Walter Gieseking. (Joel also survived the war and died in Baltimore at the age of 97.)
In 1950 Marian immigrated to the U.S., although he spoke no English, and soon afterwards was performing concerts with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He made his Carnegie Hall debut on New Year’s Day, 1952.
Filar literally taught generations of piano students. One student for more than 30 years, Gregg Pressman, a cardiologist, described Filar’s sound in an Inquirer article last July: “It was so gorgeous and so right. So original his interpretation, the time and touch and the emotional pauses, unbelievable. He could transport you in a few measures. I never heard anybody play Chopin like him.”
In his last few years, Filar became very difficult to deal with and suffered from a form of dementia, but he received considerable help from Birnbaum, a piano tuner and former student of Filar’s at the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University. Birnbaum is himself the son of Holocaust survivors and was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.
Filar, who never married and had no children, was buried on July 12 at Montefiore Cemetery in Abington. He is survived by a nephew, Dubi Filar; a niece, Eti Frankel; and a grandnephew, Shai Filar.