A group of survivors from Lodz formed the Happy Boys in 1945 and played in displaced persons camps. (Photo/Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-Henry Baigelman Collection)
A group of survivors from Lodz formed the Happy Boys in 1945 and played in displaced persons camps. (Photo/Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-Henry Baigelman Collection)

A Lodz family’s musical legacy becomes story of resistance

Part Three of a three-part series (Read Part 1 and Part 2 here)

J. Senior Editor Sue Barnett traveled to Poland in June with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the S.F. Federation’s Young Adult Division. She documents the experience in a series of reports.

When stories of resistance against the Nazis are told, the name Baigelman doesn’t usually come up. But it should.

The Baigelmans were members of a dynastic family of classically trained musicians in Lodz, Poland, dating back to the 18th century. The most prominent was David Baigelman, an esteemed composer, conductor and violinist who was forced into the Lodz Ghetto with his family in 1940 and fought back the only way he knew how: by creating beautiful music.

David, who had conducted the orchestra at the Lodz Yiddish Theater, written for operettas and arranged music for “The Dybbuk,” brought all of that creative energy into the ghetto. He became a leader in its underground cultural life, conducting the Lodz Ghetto’s first symphonic concert in 1941, and he continued to write songs, scores, librettos and tangos. Some of his songs are still performed today as part of the “canon of resistance.”

The music of resistance took other forms. David’s younger brother Henry (Chaim) Baigelman, one of eight siblings, was a talented violinist, saxophonist and composer in his own right. After the liberation, Henry carried on the family legacy by bringing music into displaced persons camps, performing for survivors who had lost everything.

Henry’s daughter, Riva Berelson, a Tiburon resident and active Jewish lay leader, has been looking into this fascinating history, using government and Jewish archives to learn more about her father, who played jazz and popular music in Lodz’s cabarets, theaters and clubs. She is also finding out more about the gifted musical family she never knew, one that made up nearly two-thirds of the Lodz Symphony Orchestra before the war cut their art and their lives short.

“Entertainment — music, songs, comedy — were all uplifting, escapes, giving them a tiny spot of relief in their miserable lives,” Berelson said. “They used every strength they could muster singing, telling stories and trying not to think about how hungry, exhausted and isolated they were.”

The Lodz Ghetto was liquidated in 1944 and the Baigelmans and 60,000 other Jews who remained were deported to Auschwitz. David died in February 1945. Henry was one of only three survivors in his family.

In the war’s aftermath, with 250,000 Jews from all over Europe living in displaced persons camps in Germany, Henry chose to share an apartment with survivor friends from Lodz. “I didn’t want to go to another camp,” he told his daughter. “I wanted to start living my life.”

And that life was music. He soon joined with seven fellow musicians from Lodz to form a touring jazz and swing band, performing at American military bases and in DP camps for the next four years, playing to audiences who especially identified with the songs about displacement, about being unwanted, and finding home.

The group’s name? The Happy Boys.

“They were happy because they survived Auschwitz,” Berelson said, simply. “My father only thought about returning to the world of music, starting his life again.”

While much Holocaust-era music was lost, some does live on, unearthed by musicologists and historians and preserved in archives and manuscripts — and even in the instruments themselves.

In 1944, when David Baigelman heard the Nazis would be liquidating and destroying the ghetto, he somehow had the presence of mind to hide some of the family’s instruments in a factory attic.

After the city was liberated by the Soviets in June 1945, a family member went back and retrieved two violins and a saxophone. Berelson and her brother Simon later donated them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Like many American Jews with roots in Poland, Berelson is going back to the source to connect with her family history and ensure that the stories are preserved. She’s been to Lodz four times, most recently in June with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, and is working with researchers from the Holocaust museum, Berkeley’s Magnes museum, UC Berkeley, the Taube Jewish Heritage Initiative, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and others to gather everything into a family “vessel,” as she calls it, while the story unfolds.

“My father gave me a tremendous love of music,” Berelson said. “That musical heritage and passion he passed on are very important to me. It’s important not to let the legacy go.”

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is interim editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].