Beethovens hair linked to WWII Danish Jews, says San Jose expert

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Who could ever imagine that more than a century after Ludwig van Beethoven composed his greatest masterpieces a snippet of his hair would help preserve a Jewish life during World War II?

As strange as it may sound, that story took place 50 years ago, when a Jew in Nazi-occupied Denmark gave a framed bit of Beethoven's hair to the Dane who helped that Jew escape to safety in Sweden.

Now a group of Beethoven aficionados is searching for the grateful Jew's identity as they piece together the fascinating path traveled by the German composer's lock.

"The concept of Beethoven, who was a great lover of liberty, being instrumental in helping to save a Jew's life is inspirational," said Ira Brilliant, who founded the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University in 1985 and is now leading the effort to untangle the story of the strands.

The Jewish twist to that tale unfolded after Brilliant and Dr. Alfredo Guevara, an Arizona urologist and another Beethoven aficionado, together purchased the hair remnant for $7,300 at a 1994 auction at Sotheby's in London. They wanted to know the artifact's background before donating it to the Beethoven Center, so Brilliant asked Sotheby's to forward a request for information to the consignor of the lock.

A month later, Brilliant received a letter from Thomas Wassard Larsen, a young man living in northern Denmark. Larsen's family owned the snippet for half a century.

Larsen told the story of his grandfather, Dr. Kay Alexander Fremming, who during World War II practiced medicine in Gilleleje, a small Danish fishing village separated from Sweden by only 10 miles of water.

In the letter he explained how Fremming, like several of the doctors practicing in Gilleleje at the time, was involved in the remarkably successful underground movement to rescue Jews.

One of those Jews gave him the strands, either as payment or merely as thanks.

Fremming's family held onto the hair as a keepsake since the war and was finally forced to sell it for economic reasons, the letter said.

Who was the Jew who gave the valuable relic to Dr. Fremming, and how did he or she acquire it?

Brilliant theorizes that the individual may have been one of three sons of a German named Paul Hiller, who died in 1934. Hiller's father Ferdinand was a noted 19th century Jewish composer and conductor whose own music teacher, Johann Hummel, also taught Beethoven.

It is documented that shortly before Beethoven's death in 1827, Hummel took the German-born Ferdinand Hiller — then a teenager living in Vienna and one of Hummel's favorite pupils, according to Brilliant — to visit the ailing composer.

Hiller, in fact, visited Beethoven several times during the composer's last days.

Beethoven died on March 27, and the next day Hiller visited the composer's deathbed. This time, he snipped a lock of the musician's hair to keep as a tangible reminder. "That was done by other people too," Brilliant explained. "It was a sort of custom then."

Hiller kept the lock until 1883, two years before his own death, when he gave the hair as a 30th-birthday present to his son Paul, a journalist.

From the time Paul Hiller died in 1934 until the hair resurfaced in Gilleleje in 1943, the lock's whereabouts are unknown.

Those nine years are of particular interest to Brilliant, a retired commercial real estate developer who lives in Phoenix and who is Jewish. The Jewish angle to this saga, he said, "was sort of a bonus when we bought the hair. We had no idea of its origin."

Since beginning to unlock the history of the hair a year ago, Brilliant, Guevara and a team from the Beethoven Center have been busily checking into German, Swedish and Danish sources in hopes of locating information on the grateful Jew.

"We are interested in tracking the whole story down so we can put it into the center," Brilliant said. "Hopefully, we'll have a complete story in 1996."

To date, the researchers have located the names and birthdates of Paul Hiller's sons and are currently trying to determine where they lived in 1943. Should it emerge that one fled to Denmark to escape Hitler, Brilliant said it is "95 percent" likely it was he who passed the hair on.

The researchers have also located Fremming's wife, but she is senile and unable to offer any information. They have, however, contacted a Gilleleje church pastor who has offered a number of leads, including one that led them to a man in Sweden who reportedly possesses a list of all refugees who escaped Denmark during the war.

Meanwhile, to further broaden their knowledge of the hair and the man from whose head it grew, Brilliant and Guevara last month took the sample to a team of forensic specialists at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson.

When the wood-and-glass frame was unlocked, the team found that the hair had been shellacked into place on a piece of dark cardboard. Once the strands are separated from the cardboard, they can be counted, measured and weighed. For now, though, the forensic specialists estimate that the curly wisp is four to six inches long and comprises some 125-150 strands, among which can be discerned dark brown, light brown and gray hairs.

A cursory examination by forensic anthropologist Dr. Walter Birkby revealed the presence of cellular molecules on the hair that would allow for DNA testing. Also scheduled, according to Brilliant, are porosity tests that may reveal nutritional information and toxicological tests that may show whether Beethoven had been taking any drugs for medicinal purposes.

This bit of Beethoven is not the only such relic extant. According to Brilliant, the Library of Congress houses 26 locks of the composer's hair, the University of Hartford in Connecticut possesses two and several more belong to private collectors.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.