Flemington, New Jersey, was stop number one on my three-week August concert tour some years back. Half of the buildings in this Delaware River town are on the Register of Historic Places. Masterfully restored nineteenth-century Victorians resplendent with sumptuous flower boxes line each side of the main boulevard. This is not just another exit on the turnpike— its claim to fame is the immense Greek Revival courthouse built in 1828, the site of the Lindbergh “Trial of the Century.” I was staying in a quaint bed and breakfast just a block away. All these niceties have little to do with what made this event so special. Here’s the story:
In 1925, Chaskel Frand and his wife and kids left Dubiecko, Poland, for the “Golden Medina,” armed with his sole source of income: a violin. He had to bid farewell to his extended family of musicians, the Frand Klezmorim. Packed in his violin case was the handwritten music they performed for weddings and for visiting dignitaries. Tragically, after the war, Chaskel was anguished to discover that all his relatives had perished at the hands of the Nazis.
In 1955, Chaskel decided to move to Israel so the imminent arrival of the Messiah wouldn’t require that his bones roll all the way from New York (yes, the rolling of the bones is a part of Jewish tradition). At the airport, he learned he was only allowed one carry-on item. His daughter convinced him to choose his tallis and tefillin over the violin—he could buy another instrument in Israel. He reluctantly handed it to her and she stashed it in her basement for the next several years. At one point, a cousin came to visit from California. He had just started playing the violin and requested his grandfather’s instrument. Eventually, the violin floated from house to house and much of the Frand sheet music portfolio wound up framed and hung in the homes of various relatives.
Fast forward to 1996. My dear friend Sharon Brooks, Chaskel’s granddaughter, had a five-year-old daughter who wanted to learn violin. Sharon tracked down Chaskel’s instrument and had it sent to New Jersey. It was in such a state of disrepair she had to splurge to have it restored. When word got out that the violin was back in use, relatives sent Sharon the Frand music so the priceless pieces could be played once again on the family heirloom.
In 2009, Sharon made a trip to Dubiecko to explore her roots. Even though Jews made up over half the town’s population before the war, now there was no sign of their presence. The Jewish cemetery was in shambles and the mass grave unmarked. Nazis had used ancient Jewish headstones to pave a road. In a moment of inspiration, Sharon realized how to make “lemonade out of lemons”: The recovered music of the Frand Klezmorim would be the very vehicle to restore the cemetery and honor the memories of her ancestors.
Upon her return, Sharon called to ask my opinion regarding what to do with this portfolio. She sent me copies and I worked my way through the arrangements, soon recognizing the uniqueness of this treasure trove. I recommended she have them professionally transcribed so they could be performed by a modern ensemble and we discussed the logistics of throwing a debut concert as a fundraiser. Before long, she hired klezmer flutist Adrianne Greenbaum to create usable charts out of the Frand ensemble’s hieroglyphics and we put a concert date on the books.
After much preparation, the big weekend arrived. The entire community came out for every aspect of the special Shabbaton. We found capable klezmer musicians to fill out the band for the Saturday night concert and I hired one of my favorite studio drummers from New York. After a set of my songs, we presented the melodious and quite complex klezmer from the Frand catalogue. This Eastern European folk music is not intended to be listened to in a passive manner; Adrianne enthusiastically led the audience in various dances and we jammed late into the night while everyone sang along.
Thousands of dollars were raised to restore the Dubiecko Jewish cemetery. New music was launched in the klezmer world. The JCC of Flemington enjoyed a Shabbaton they would not soon forget. I felt blessed to have a role in this incredible saga.
After the event, Sharon Brooks wrote to me: “Sam, you asked me a question I never thought about before. What if my grandfather was able to bring the violin to Israel? Would this music have this new life, this revival of spirit? Perhaps what seemed like such an injustice back then was a part of the master plan. Maybe the time wasn’t right. This violin, this music was, like Moses I suppose, never intended to enter the land of Israel.”
This question for Sharon led me to consider one about a member of my own family. According to family legend, my grandfather Sam was a rabble-rouser in his youth. As a teenager in Glod, Romania, he accrued gambling debts and had to skip town. He wandered the Carpathian Mountains, wound up at the Black Sea and befriended a nice Jewish girl. He convinced her family to allow him to join them on the voyage to Hamburg to catch a New-York-bound ship. So, in 1921, my grandpa managed to slip into the United States without paperwork. During one of my New York tours, I took my son Max to Ellis Island and scoured the records for our relative’s names. Officially, Sam Glaser never made it!
My “what if” question: What if Grandpa Sam wasn’t a gambler? Would he have made it to the Golden Medina to sell neckties on a pushcart on Orchard Street, eventually ramping up to a large manufacturing operation? Or would he have been extricated from Glod and carted to Auschwitz with the rest of his family?
I never understood why my relatives were passive when the Nazis came for them. One year, after an Israel tour, I traveled by train, plane, and automobile to access Grandpa Sam’s one-horse town in Transylvania and find out for myself. As I stood there on the porch of the two-bedroom home where my grandpa had lived with his ten brothers and sisters, a local elder in peasant garb spotted me from a block away. He walked right up to me and said “Glahzer!” Yes, all of us Glasers have a certain look. And this man, who used to play with my beloved aunts and uncles, was curious who survived the war. It’s a shockingly short list. I realized the war was my rural ancestor’s introduction to the twentieth century. Could they have fought back with pitchforks? Thank G-d, Grandpa Sam played cards.
Every note played on the Frand violin is miraculous. Its presence in the world is a simple statement of rebuke to the nations that yearn for our destruction. The Nazis are gone. Never again will we wear the yellow star of shame. Let the melodies of the Frand Klezmorim ring up to the heavens; I’m sure these joyful cadences have the angels dancing.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his compositions, travels the world in concert, produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller.