Friday, April 17, 2015




1935-1936 Copenhagen from left:
Brother Milan, mother Helene, brother Gustav,
Leo, father Eugene. Courtesy Leo Goldberger

My father (1903-1989) was born in a small Western Slovakian town in the Nitra River region of what was then Czechoslovakia, the youngest of several generations of cantors.

Leo (Lavoslav) and Gus (Gustav) Goldberger are the sons of Eugene (Jenoe) and Helena (Ilona, nee. Berkovits Goldberger, who grew up in small towns in Czechoslovakia. They met in Vienna, where Eugene was studying music at the conservatory and attending cantorial school. 

Following their marriage, Jeno and Helen moved to Vukovar (Jugoslavka now Croatia), where he was offered a cantorial position. The oldest children, Milan) and Leo, were born there. In 1932 Eugene accepted a new position as chief cantor in Troppay (Opava, Czechoslovakia), where Gustav (Gus) was born two years later. Fearing the rising tide of Nazism. 

Eugene moved his family once again, this time to Denmark, where he assumed the position of chief cantor in the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen.

What comes readily to mind about my father was his prescient response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Already by the following year, he had made the decision to leave the middle-Europe of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and settle in Denmark; its distance from the chronic hotbed of conflict seemed a much safer place to live. 

It was a decision that saved our lives—my parents and 3 siblings—in stark contrast to the rest of my father’s family who chose to remain in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria, all of whom perished in KZ camps. In these pages I describe the likely basis for his foresightedness while I also share a glimpse of our earlier family’s history and our lives in Denmark where I grew up from the age of four.

My father (1903-1989) was born in a small Western Slovakian town in the Nitra River region of what was then Czechoslovakia. The youngest of several generations of cantors, his family situation was unusual in that his father, Emanuel, was already in his 60’s when he was born and his oldest brother, Sigmund (1863-1924), who became an accountant in Vienna, was forty years his senior. This anomaly is explained by the fact that my grandfather had married twice, first to Julie Fisher, with whom he had 4 children and upon her early death, Johanna Klein who bore him 3 more children, my dad being the youngest.

Grandfather Emanuel died when my dad was only nine and his mother died only three years later, leaving him in the care of one of his oldest half-sister Laura (1869-d. KZ camp), who was to marry a school principal in Hungary. 

In view of the complex circumstances of my father’s immediate family and consequent lack of stricter parental supervision, it is not surprising that grandfather Emanuel’s offspring gradually veered away from their orthodox upbringing, with its dreary cheder teaching of a bit of Hebrew, the Torah, some Jewish history and with little else begging on the horizon. 

But it was clearly their early exposure to the secular world of education, from grade school through gymnasium that fostered their religious commitment, their career aspirations and their outlook on life. My uncles Zigmund and Kalman are good examples of this process as are the rest of my paternal uncles and aunts, who left their small-town and heavily orthodox Jewish way of life behind as they grew into adulthood in more cosmopolitan cities. 

In my father’s case, while he, unlike his siblings, remained within the orthodox fold in terms of his strict observance of the Sabbath and Kashrut (the dietary laws), his intense curiosity about the world and his characteristic inquisitiveness and openness to interact with all kinds of people who crossed his path, ultimately led him to embrace the more modern, 20th Century conservative stance within Judaism—rather than the ultra-orthodox life style. But it was having a good neshoma (soul or heart) and performing mitzvahs (good deeds) inherent in tzedakah (the giving of charity) that really became the essence of religiosity for him. 

Shortly after my dad’s Bar Mitzvah, close upon the heels of his mother’s death, he stayed for some years in a Yeshiva dorm in the town of Topolćany (also in the Nitra region) before deciding to become a singer. Blessed as he was with a fine singing voice—his initial impulse was to pursue his dream of an operatic career. He enrolled in the Bratislava’s Music Conservatory and subsequently in Vienna’s Conservatory where, with his prudent backup plan, also enrolled in the Cantor Seminary, to follow in his father’s footsteps. It was to prove an adaptive decision.

Cantor Eugene Goldberger. Courtesy: Leo Goldberger

While in Vienna—being a tall, handsome, and eligible bachelor in his mid-twenties— he was by all accounts quite a man about town, a “catch for some lucky girl,” in my older Viennese cousin’s wistful recollection. As fate would have it, in Vienna he fell in love with the daughter of an ultra-orthodox cantor from Senicća, a small town also in the Nitra region of Slovakia. 

My maternal grandfather, Bernat Berkovits (1878-1970) an authoritarian of the old school, insisted that my dad adhere more strictly to the orthodox Jewish way of life before he would consent to their marriage. His demand was of course in stark conflict with an opera career. But love being what it is, he agreed to the condition as he was determined to marry his beloved Ilona (Helen) --and so he did in December 1927.

Fulfilling his pledge, my dad abandoned his aspirations for the opera stage and began the road to what was to become a distinguished cantorial career, as I will detail below. However this said, my dad never ceased to seek opportunities for recital performances of operatic arias, Hungarian folksongs, and German lieder —in addition to his cantorial and Yiddish repertoire. 

He performed at major concerts, including an auspicious one in Tivoli’s Concert Hall, several Danish State Radio programs, made several recordings and, of course, appeared at numerous Jewish festivities and benefits. Based on the press clippings I proudly kept for him as a youngster, he received wonderful reviews for his warm and richly textured tenor voice, which was further enhanced by his bel canto training that he practiced daily and, in later years, also taught to aspiring singers.

My mother Helena (1906- 1993) was born in Debrećen, Hungary’s second largest city, shortly before her parents moved to Senića, she was the oldest of 8 siblings and, I believe, her father’s favorite. Attractive and charming, she exuded nurturing warmth towards each of us as I grew up in our closely-knit family with parents who were obviously lovingly well mated. 

Remarkable as it seems for an orthodox Jewish young lady, her father’s unwavering trust in her, had allowed her at the age of only 19 to move to Vienna where she, with all the self-confidence required, opened small salon, sewing fancy wedding dresses to order. She was as superb a seamstress as she later turned out to be a wonderful creative cook. 

Despite the obvious temptations inherent in the emancipated atmosphere of Vienna, she never abandoned her strict observance of Jewish ritual and laws, such as the monthly mikveh (ritual bath), the wearing of a headscarf to cover her hair and a scheitel (a wig) after her marriage, when outside the home. Only my father was permitted to see her natural hair, which was cut short and hidden underneath. 

In 1928, my father’s initial position as Oberkantor (chief-cantor) was in Vukovar, Yugoslavia, a small river port with a population of ca. 10-15.000 in the 1930’s located in eastern Croatia at the confluence of the Vuka River and the Danube. Here they established a most pleasant life, with a neat little house on a hill overlooking the Danube near the beautiful synagogue (a landmark building that, sadly, was dismantled by the Communists in 1958 for the use of its bricks.) An affluent, flourishing and cultured Jewish community of about 1800 Jews it was the city of my brother Milan’s birth in 1928 and mine in 1930. My father also served as teacher in the Hebrew School, which my older brother, Milan and I attended.

I seriously doubt my dad would have decided to leave Troppau had it not been for his sensitivity to the signs of growing anti-Semitism, as early as 1933. Specifically, it was the sight of some young Nazi hoodlums (of which there were many in this Sudetenland region) in their brown-shirted uniforms with a red Swastika armband, pulling the beard of an old Jews and spitting him. 

The old man happened to be the shochet (the person who performs the ritual slaughter for Kosher meat) whom my father knew. Witnessing this encounter left him numb with rage, but unable to fight off the hoodlums for fear their reprisal; his psychological reaction was to take flight. But not just from the scene itself, but also from wherever Nazism (or any other violence, for that matter) might be rearing its ugly head. My dad wanted out of there!

By chance, Copenhagen’s Jewish community had a vacancy for one of its 2 chief-cantorial positions for which he was among 120 applicants invited to make a week’s visit to Copenhagen, where he was to perform the Sabbath service and be evaluated by the leadership and an outside musicologist, he fortunately won the day! All were impressed, not just by his voice and musicianship, but also by his personable and worldly demeanor—and the fact that he spoke German rather than the Yiddish. In short, we left Troppau with a warm send-off by the community despite their bewilderment at my father’s rash decision; they thought Hitler was simply a buffoon who would soon be ousted. 

Copenhagen, Denmark: My parents felt warmly welcomed in Denmark and quickly integrated into the Jewish community, especially within the narrower circle of families that regularly attended Sabbath services, but they were also immersed in the active social life that was part and parcel of a cantor’s position. Eventually their radius of acquaintances became quite large, encompassing the varied strata of the Jewish community, with its not so subtle divide between the old landed gentry, the so-called Viking Jews the early Spanish-Portuguese Sephardimand the German Ashkenazi Jews reaching back some 400 years, on the one hand, and the Eastern European Jews on the other. 

The latter group, comprising about half of the total Jewish population of some 6500, had come from the shtetls of Russia and Poland in waves of immigration starting in 1882. They were mostly poor tailors, craftsmen and workers who had brought with them their Yiddish language and cultural traditions, which often did not include much regard for religion, except perhaps for eating Kosher meals at home and High Holiday attendance in the Synagogue.

Largely viewed with embarrassment, if not contempt, the “newcomers”, with their strange names ending in often ending in “ski” or “witz” had a far easier time interacting with their Christian neighbors than with the Viking Jews (comprised of bankers, brokers, industrialist, professionals and academics with names such as Henriques, Bing, Bendix, Metz, Hertz, Goldschmidt and Hirschspung). Marriages between these 2 categories of Jews were unheard of –and this despite the ca. 50% inter-marriage rate in between Jews of all stripes and Christians. 

Of course, the issue of social class differences and degree of assimilation are important factors in accounting for the antipathy between the Jewish Danes (the designation with its emphasis on DANES preferred by the Viking Jews) in contrast to the more common designation, Danish Jews. As an example, I can cite my later classmate in Gothenburg, Torben Bendix, who didn’t even know he was Jewish, or that his uncle C.B Henriques was the head of the Jewish community council, until he and his sister, Lise, were told by their father on the night of their escape to Sweden in 1943. 

By contrast, another one of my class-mates in Gothenburg, Salli Besiakov, the son of a Yiddish speaking, poor tailor family from Russia, who was clearly very conscious of being Jewish—despite the fact that until he and I became good friends knew nothing about Jewish religion, had not been Bar Mitzvah or let alone seen the inside of a synagogue.

My father’s background and musical credentials, made it possible for him to straddle both sides of the cultural divide. Though in good stead with the Viking Jews, who held most of the official leadership positions in the community, our family had only minimal little social interactions with them. About 50% of them were married to gentiles and on their infrequent appearances in the synagogue, wearing their top hats (stored in the vestibule) made them seem a breed apart, at least to my eyes. 

Attendance by C.B. Henriques, an imposing Supreme Court Attorney who, as referenced above, was the official head of the Jewish community, was in fact as rare an event as that of the epoch-making visit by King Christian X in 1933, on the 100 anniversary of the synagogue. My one personal encounter with CB (as he was called) found him to be surprisingly approachable and emphatic, not at all the forbidding persona of his reputation. 

However, my superficial impression was difficult to reconcile with his tough stance towards the growing demand for a more democratic governance, to include participation by the Newcomers that finally won the day in1934. CB’s support the government’s policy of granting asylum to only 1500 of the 10.000 refugees attempting to flee the Nazis in the late 1930’s was also less than humane in retrospect.

It was really the more religiously inclined synagogue board (the gaboyim), comprised of both the old guard and a few Newcomers that my father interacted with. It was the gaboyim who oversaw the proscribed musical protocol (drawn mainly from the 19thCentury’s reformed liturgical tradition of Berlin and Vienna’s that kept emotional expressiveness to a minimum). And it was they who kept an eagle eye on the clock, ensuring that the properlunch hour be observed. The emphasis on proper and correct behavior being a must for integrating into Danish society as was learning faultless Danish as quickly as possible--not always an easy task for older people.

While having to inhibit his natural inclination in favor of some spontaneity and infusion of his heart-felt emotions into the prayerful synagogue service, my father was fortunately free to be himself with the Newcomers—sometimes also labeled the Yiddishists--at their club events and other festivities. His repertoire of Yiddish folksongs was especially endearing to them and he formed many friendships among them, notably with Chaim Ritterbrand, a tailor and gifted composer whose songs my father often performed. 

My parent’s social circle also included a group of non-Jewish artists with whom they shared evenings of music and readings at each other's homes. I especially remember one opera singer, Marius Jacobsen of the Royal Danish Opera Theater who performed in Madame Butterfly and left 2 tickets at the box-office for my dad, which he took me to see as my introduction to opera that which became a lifelong love of mine. 

I was also into learning to play the violin, an activity that came to an abrupt end when, as a solo performer at a “young artists” concert sponsored by WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) my anxious distraction by a torn button holding up my suspenders, got me out of sync with my accompanist, another young kid, and I swore off further concerting.

Subsequently, sculpting became my artistic outlet. My dad’s friend, the renowned sculptor Harold Isenstein’s, was my teacher in his exciting life-class where I spent several afternoons a week. His large studio was filled with mostly adult-students, drawing, painting or sculpting, usually a gorgeous female model. A small statue in reddish of a nude is one of my most treasured possessions, which I saved through thick and thin in my escape to Sweden and beyond. 

As a cantor, my father’s duties also called for his services at the cemetery. While funerals were not easy on an emotional person like my dad, however, these occasions were frequently “enlivened” by the presence of the organist, who was none other than Børge Rosenbaum, better known after 1940 as our wonderful VictorBorge (1909-2000)! 

 Once when I accompanied my dad to the cemetery, I actually saw Borge in action: he performed a hilarious banter for the rabbi and my dad as they were changing into their clerical outfits in the ante-room and then, just seconds before opening the door to the chapel, he would wipe off his comedy face, with a quick gesture of his hand, and assume a tragic mien, evoking the classic Thalia/Valpone masks. 

In later years, whenever he performed in Montreal (where we had settled a few years after the war) Victor Borge would stop by for a visit. (It seems he was partial to my mother's chicken soul!) I still remember his witty proscription on how to get the hang og English: "Go to several movies a day and - always have a pocket dictionary on you". Advice I tried to follow, though my freshman year at McGill University did not leave much time for too many movies to help with my poor and limited Danish-school acquired English.

Actually, I always liked Dr. Friediger, since 1920 our Hungarian-born, Berlin-trained, a bit distant but a rather gentle and humanistic soul, with whom my dad felt a friendly kinship and whom I gratefully remember for his warm and personalized speech at my Bar Mitzvah. 

The Danish-born Rabbi Marcus Melchior, was the official overseer of religion in my school until he succeeded Friediger's post in 1947. He was obviously a brllinat man, a legendary orator, with a vocal presence in the public sphere. Melchior had served with distinction in Germany for some 12 years, but when he returned to his native Denmark in 1934, he became unemployed as a rabbi. 

My dad's poor grasp of Danish as well as his rather modest showing in the weekly and highly select Talmud seminar, that included Melchior, Friediger, Dr. Joseph Fischer, the learned librarian of the community plus a handful of others. I recall my father's pride in being thought sufficiently worthy to participate in the seminar. He knew of course, that historically cantors had mainly been pried for their voice and not for their wits.

Written by Leo Goldberger, Ph.D, professor emeritus,