German-born composer turns talent to Yiddish music

Lothar Bandermann has been composing and arranging music since he was a teenager in postwar Germany — but never Jewish music, and certainly never Yiddish songs of hope.

In fact, growing up in a large Roman Catholic family, he had no contact with Jews, and his wartime memories are mostly childhood associations: collecting bomb fragments to turn in for reuse, and swimming in water-filled craters created by the bombs.

Though today he is an accomplished composer of organ, piano and choral music, Bandermann never anticipated arranging music for Yom HaShoah — but that was before his wife, Billie, became director of the Jewish community chorale HaShirim seven years ago. Bandermann’s choral arrangement of “Arum dem Fayer” (Around the Fire), sung in Buchenwald, will be on the program of the Yom HaShoah service at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 11 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

photos | allen podell Lothar Bandermann, at the piano, frequently accompanies wife Billie, a singer and choral director.

“Arum dem Fayer,” associated with the HaShomer HaTza’ir Zionist youth movement and also sung in the DP camps, offered hope of better times to those who had endured the unimaginable.

Members of HaShirim and the Yiddish Choristers will perform the piece as well as “Zol Shoyn Kumen De Ge’ulah” (Let the Redemption Come), another Yiddish song of hope.

“I feel what I’m doing is just a tiny little bit of making up for what my people did,” Bandermann says, tearing up during an interview in his Cupertino home. “What else can I do? That’s where my talent is and I use it.”

Karen Bergen, director of the Yiddish Choristers and choral conductor for the service, describes Bandermann as “a real jewel,” noting that he also donated his time to arrange “HaFinjan” (The Coffeepot) for the October opening of Palo Alto’s Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

Born in 1936, Bandermann, the third of seven children, grew up in a small town near Dortmund, an industrial city in northwest Germany. His father, like his grandfathers and uncles, worked in the coal mines and was spared from serving in the military, but not from other hazards. “He hacked coal underground on his knees from the age of 14,” Bandermann says, “and he died of silicosis.”

At age 7, because of the bombing raids, Bandermann and his older brother were sent to a safer rural area. While living with a foster family who owned a piano, Bandermann discovered his musical talent.

After returning home, he began piano lessons, practicing in neighbors’ homes until his father traded a radio for an antique rectangular piano. At age 14, he began playing the organ in church. He also began composing.

The first time he remembers confronting the Holocaust was in a documentary produced by the Allies. “It was so devastating. I couldn’t stomach it. In school, people didn’t talk about it. A lot of people belonged [to the Nazi Party] and a lot of people went along, like everybody else. … It was not a big topic in history class.”

Bandermann’s family invested heavily in his piano studies, and they assumed he would become a musician. They were not happy with his decision to pursue physics and were devastated when he left for Canada in 1958 and later became a U.S. citizen. After receiving his undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley and his doctorate from the University of Maryland, he got a job at University of Hawaii. While there, he met and married Billie, a native Hawaiian.

A retired Lockheed physicist since 1998, Bandermann has since devoted himself to his music, playing, composing and serving as organist at St. Joseph’s Church in Cupertino, where he is a member. One of his pieces received world attention at the 2005 International Russian Music Piano Competition in San Jose.

He credits Billie with introducing him to Jewish music. He has frequently filled in as a pro bono accompanist at HaShirim. “My first impression was that [Jewish music] was mostly sad, mostly in a minor key,” he says. But there is also “an inner joy that you discover after a while.”

Arranging music for Yom HaShoah returns him to thoughts of his homeland. “It’s hard to live with this knowledge of the terrible atrocities that my people committed,” he says. “Evil arises when good people don’t oppose it.”

“Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah 2010: Emergence from the Ashes”
is 5 p.m. April 11 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Information: (650) 847-1716 or [email protected].


Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].