The cantorial scores, hidden from the Nazis in Hungary, lay untouched for more than half a century. The liturgical pieces, which offer a glimpse into a style of vocal writing that no longer exists, were written in the hand of Shmuel Blasz, chief cantor of the New World Street Synagogue in Eger.
As the Nazis were bearing down on Eger, the cantor entrusted six of his compositions to a gentile neighbor. On June 7, 1944, the Blasz family was placed into a ghetto and then sent to Auschwitz where the cantor, who was then 63, was immediately murdered along with his wife.
Five of his eight children, however, survived the Holocaust. One of them was Eva Egri, now 90 and living in Fort Lauderdale, who returned to Eger in 1946 and reclaimed her father’s musical compositions from the neighbor.
Now, with the help of a school report written five years ago by one of Cantor Blasz’s great-grandchildren, the cantor’s story will be told and his scores will be performed by six Long Island cantors next month for the first time since the Holocaust.
Eva and her husband went on to have three children and immigrated to the United States in 1966 to be with her two living brothers. One of her children, Julia Goldner, 63, of Plantation, Fla., said her mother “never really spoke of her experiences [during the Holocaust] until very, very recently.”
She said she knew that her mother had reclaimed her father’s music and that her mother is “familiar with the melodies, having been to synagogue when my grandfather sang them.” Although the musical compositions have remained among her mother’s possessions all these years, they have never been performed.
It took one of grandchildren, Shira Elbaz, to get Eva to open up about her experiences. She wrote in a school report five years ago about her grandmother that she and her grandfather changed their last names from Weisz to Egri shortly after the war because of anti-Semitism.
“For many years my grandmother didn’t want to talk about what happened to her [during the Holocaust], and she refused to accept any reparations because she did not want to take any ‘blood money,’” Elbaz wrote. “But after numerous attempts were made by the Claims Conference in Geneva, she felt it was important to document her experience. … We cannot remain silent.”
Soon after, Eva gave copies of the musical compositions to a family friend, Len Romano, a former Northport School District social studies teacher from Ronkonkoma.
“She took them from a large brown envelope” and said she would love to hear her father’s music performed again, Romano recalled. “I said I would try my hardest to do something with it. I would have loved to have had Eva sitting in the audience as the works were performed at her father’s temple in Hungary, but I understand the building is no longer used as a synagogue,” Romano said.
Last summer, he contacted Judy Merrick, the cantor at his former synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, and asked if she could arrange for the music to be performed. “I said we need to raise funds to bring something like this to life because we need professional singers and accompaniment,” Merrick said.
The money was raised with the help of the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, Elliott Spar. Merrick and five of her colleagues from Conservative synagogues on the Island will perform four of the six liturgical pieces at her synagogue May 5 at 7 p.m.
The music, which is written with four-part vocal harmony, “is classical Old World,” Merrick said. “It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was perfect for the East European [style of] music,” she said.
One of the pieces, “Sholom Aleichem,” is sung as part of the Friday night service. Another is sung at funerals, and two others are part of the Saturday evening service. The other two other pieces reclaimed are for the Yom Kippur service and will not be performed, Merrick said.
In addition to the performance of Cantor Blasz’s musical compositions, there will be some solo numbers and the playing of a 10-minute video in which Eva Egri recounts for Merrick some of her wartime experiences and her recovery of the musical scores.
“There was an instant connection between us,” Merrick recalled. “Perhaps it’s because I’m an Israeli whose father was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who also survived Auschwitz. … I’m doing this with all my heart.”
Goldner said she is working to have the program simulcast to a synagogue in southern Florida so her mother, for whom travel is difficult, can watch it.
The concert, which is titled, “Remember Us Unto Life,” is being held just days after Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Romano said he is also working with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) to arrange for a local college in Florida to perform the compositions and for Eva Egri to be present. And Merrick said she would like it to be performed again next year during a trip by the Conservative movement’s Cantor’s Assembly to Germany.