Last week a Jewish hero was laid to rest. To the Jewish world, his death was a non-event.
Israel Yinon was responsible for one of the most profound and inspiring Holocaust commemoration efforts of all time. But there was no flurry of tributes, no flood of statements from the great and good of the Jewish world, and no real recognition in the media or among officials here in his native Israel.
For the last 25 years, Yinon championed the melodies of the murdered. In a sense, he allowed Holocaust victims to make music from beyond the grave in a posthumous act of defiance against the Nazis.
The Nazis did not just want to kill Jews. They wanted to wipe away our mark on civilization, in politics, the arts and many other areas. When they burned a Jew, in their heads they were not just burning his or her body, but in many cases also destroying their chance to have an imprint on culture.
Yinon, who was just 59 when he collapsed and died Jan. 29 of a heart attack on stage in Switzerland, part way through conducting a concert, tirelessly sought out the musical compositions of Holocaust victims, and took them to concert halls and recording studios. He gave works that would have been forgotten — and which the Nazis would have wanted forgotten — a much-deserved place in world culture.
He did not just select victim’s works for performance; he searched for them high and low, sometimes undertaking forensic-type investigations to get his hands on the music. This kind of hard work led to one of the most remarkable musical events seen in the Czech Republic.
The 1933 opera “Betrothal in a Dream” premiered in Prague before the war, but, as it was written by a Jew, it was banned. The Nazis murdered its composer, Hans Krasa, and both the man and his finest opera were mourned, as all scores were thought to have been lost or destroyed.
Then, in the early 1990s, along came Yinon. A young Israeli musician who had moved to Germany for work, he was determined to find the score to the opera. He managed to trace it, and in 1994, six decades after its premiere, returned it to the stage in Prague. He took it to the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera two years later, in what the Washington Times declared “clearly the musical event of the year.” It continues to be performed today — most recently three weeks ago in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Yinon was particularly devoted to the brave men and women who continued their musical pursuits in Theresienstadt. He started his recording career in the early 1990s with the first CD of music by Viktor Ullmann, who composed through his time in Theresienstadt, and managed to get some of his Theresienstadt works to safety despite his life coming to an end in Auschwitz. He honored Theresienstadt musicians with numerous concerts — the first of which was televised nationally in Britain by the BBC.
For this concert he conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and for others he conducted some of the finest orchestras in the world, including the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and the Warsaw Philharmonic.
He carried on reviving Holocaust victims’ work — and conducting a general repertoire as well — until his untimely death. He died just a few days before the great British historian Martin Gilbert, who told an enormous part of the Holocaust story by documenting the history of the era. I consider Yinon to have preserved another important part of the Holocaust story, a piece of the victims’ spirit.
It is baffling to me that Israel and the Jewish world barely acknowledged Yinon’s passing. He may not have been your typical Jewish icon — secular and living in Germany, but this is irrelevant. We Jews like to claim stars as one of us even if they have little connection to Jewish life and Israel has long since gotten over its disapproval of Israelis who have moved abroad (for example, supermodel Bar Refaeli, whose every move is reported and discussed).
Properly appreciated, Yinon’s legacy was not commemoration. He did not try to preserve victims’ music out of pity, but because it is good music that the world should be enjoying. After hearing one of his recordings you feel a sense of anticipation — what did this composer who you are being introduced to compose next? And it is never long before you reach the same stark fact — they stopped composing and were murdered. By always leading the listener in this direction, Yinon’s work is a tribute to all the music that, because of the Holocaust, wasn’t written.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.