Music for lost souls
Klezmer concert leads to film chronicling extinguished Polish community
Bucks County videographer Ed Alpern knew he was onto a good story. Sharon Frant Brooks, a resource room teacher at Adath Israel Congregation and an occupational therapist, told him about a trove of klezmer music on handwritten sheets that her grandfather had carried in his violin case from Dubiecko, Poland, to the United States. That music, later performed at Brooks’s synagogue, the Flemington Jewish Community Center, helped finance the beginning of her quest to commemorate the Jews who once comprised 65 percent of Dubiecko’s prewar population.
Brooks asked him to create a short film of her story to be played before a concert of her grandfather’s music at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth; the concert was in honor of her father, Milton Frant, who was 95 and lived in Highland Park.
In Dubiecko, Brooks’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather led the musical group Frant Family Klezmorim, distinctive for its use of only flute or piccolo, percussion, and strings.
Her grandfather came to the United States with his music and Milton in 1925. Brooks told NJJN, “Once he got here, he got a music notation book and, from memory, wrote down more music.”
As Brooks was growing up and through much of her adulthood, her father’s survivor’s guilt — his older brother had sent Milton and another brother to America in his place, and later died in the Holocaust — gave her night terrors that plagued her into adulthood. So on a business trip to Poland in 2006, she made sure to fit in a visit to her father’s hometown.
A police captain walked her to the cemetery in Dubiecko, which had a wall but no gravestones, because the Poles used them for building roads during the war. The policeman also gave her a copy of Jewish books that his in-laws had rescued from a synagogue that was burned down by German soldiers in 1939 during Selichot services, killing 11 Jews. “They knew the books were holy,” Brooks said.
She left Dubiecko wanting “to somehow mark in the town the Jewish community that wasn’t there anymore,” she said. In 1921 there were approximately 1,000 Jews living in the town, according to JewishGen.org, most of them chasidic. “There are no Jews, and no one claims to have known Jews.”
First she tried to put a marker where the large wooden synagogue had stood, but the owners of the property refused. She was similarly unsuccessful in her quest to learn the fate of her father’s brother during a visit the following year. “Everybody claimed to know nothing,” she said. “People who claimed they knew where things used to be all told me something different.”
Disappointed in her lack of progress on the second trip, she decided to focus on putting up a plaque in the town’s square and a similar commemoration for the cemetery. But these projects required money — and that’s where the violin came in.
When Brooks’s daughter, Danielle, was old enough to play a full-sized violin, she got a package from her great-aunt, with the note, “If you’re going to play your grandfather’s violin, here’s his music too.” And that’s when things started to roll.
After a klezmer musician in New York, Binyomin Ginzberg, told her the music was unique, Brooks announced on a Jewish music listserv that she had handwritten klezmer music from southeast Poland and would send it to anyone who promised to play it.
Adrianne Greenbaum, professor of flute at Mount Holyoke College and a pioneer of the klezmer flute tradition, responded to Brooks’s posting and eventually transcribed the music; played it with an ensemble with flute, violin, cimbalom, and bass; and issued a CD titled “FleytMuzik.”
Brooks felt motivated to hold a fund-raising concert in Flemington because of something she had learned when studying at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel.
“What they told her is that first-person accounts are the things that make people move and do things that motivate [other] people,” Alpern told NJJN. “This music was a first-person account of what life was like in Poland before the war,” and she wanted to use the music to accomplish her goal of commemorating Dubiecko’s former Jewish community.
The concert raised enough money to hold a small-scale ceremony in Dubiecko and put up a monument to the town’s Jews. The festivities, which drew most of the town (at the behest of a local priest) and included Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, ended in a performance of her grandfather’s music by Greenbaum and the local, non-Jewish, Rzerzow Klezmer Group.
“The whole town came out that didn’t remember the Jews or chose not to acknowledge them … because the priest told them to be there,” Brooks said.
Coincidentally, the music brought together Brooks’s father and an old schoolmate of his. It also gave Brooks an opportunity to deliver a check from the grandmother of a colleague to the daughter of the family that hid her in Dubiecko during the war.
The film also features Hankus Netsky, a professor of jazz and improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music and one of the top scholars of klezmer music in the United States.
Alpern said he feels the need to travel with Brooks to Poland to complete his film: “I need to do more interviews with her when she is there, feeling what she is feeling, not telling me what she felt.”
Brooks herself is now working on a marker for three mass graves of Jews, documented in a yizkor book — a memorial book about the history of particular towns where most of the Jewish population perished in the Holocaust. She is also raising money to build the cemetery walls around all the Jewish graves.
Brooks’s visits to Poland have helped her move beyond the effects of the Holocaust on the next generation, but her efforts to memorialize the Jews of Dubiecko have changed her more profoundly.
“I feel there is hope to change minds and hearts even among those Poles still entrenched in anti-Semitism,” she said. “I have come to a place in my thinking that we need to learn not [just] about the Holocaust, but need to look at the culture of Jewish life in Jewish Europe.”