In 1947, Leo Spellman, a musician and Holocaust survivor from Poland, composed a symphony at Furstenfeldbruck, a displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany. The piece, Rhapsody 1939-1945, was performed only once by Spellman and some Jewish musicians at the camp.
When they immigrated to Canada in 1948, Spellman and his wife, Mania, tried to bury their painful memories of the Holocaust. The score for Rhapsody 1939-1945 remained packed away in a suitcase for another 53 years.
The rediscovery of the symphony is the subject of The Lost Rhapsody of Leo Spellman, a documentary film directed by David Hoffert and produced by his parents, Brenda and Paul Hoffert, and Jeff Preyra. Award-winning musician Paul Hoffert, of Lighthouse-band fame, played an instrumental role in the Canadian debut of Rhapsody 1939-1945.
The film has been in the works for six years. To help raise funds for its completion, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Congregation in Toronto, of which Spellman was a longtime member, will be hosting Rhapsody – An Evening of Music & Hope on May 22.
This gala, which will run from 7:30-10 p.m., will include live music by stage and screen star Jackie Richardson, the Jim Gelcer / Paul Hoffert Trio, violinist Moshe Hammer and Cantor David Guber, along with clips from the documentary.
Actor Marilyn Lightstone will also be reading from a secret diary that Spellman kept from 1943 to 1945, when he and his wife were hiding in an apartment in Ostrowiec, Poland.
The discovery of this diary after his death in 2012 was the catalyst for organizing the May 22 fundraiser. David Hoffert explained that the original film project had pretty well wrapped up, but when the diary was found, he and his parents decided to expand the film to incorporate animated excerpts from the diary.
He noted that Holocaust scholars consider the diary a significant historical find. “An eye-witness account of events as they were happening is very rare,” said David Hoffert.
In Toronto, the Leo Spellman Orchestra played at many simchas from 1950s to the ’80s. But few people knew that the band leader had been one of Poland’s most popular pianists and composers prior to the war.
Spellman was born in 1913 to a musical family. In fact, Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, The Pianist, is based on the autobiography of Spellman’s first cousin, musician Władysław Szpilman.
Initially, the Spellmans escaped from the Nazis by hiding in a forest, but in 1943, they turned to Henryk Wronski, who was a student at the time, for assistance. He rented an apartment for them under his name.
“Once a week, Henryk would sneak food to them in a briefcase,” Paul Hoffert recounted. “The neighbours never knew that anyone was hiding there. For 18 months, the Spellmans lived in constant fear that they would be discovered.”
In 1998, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was looking for Jewish music composed in a DP camp and contacted Spellman, after hearing about his symphony from one of the musicians who had performed it at Furstenfeldbruck.
Rhapsody 1939-1945 had its U.S. debut in Washington in 2000 and it was later presented in New York and Connecticut.
An eye-witness account of events as they were happening is very rare.
– David Hoffert
Spellman’s daughter, Helene Shifman, and her children urged Spellman to make a recording of the symphony.
In 2011, he asked Paul Hoffert to conduct and assemble an orchestra, and arrange a recording session.
“He put me through a very difficult series of auditions to see if I was up to scratch,” Hoffert said of their first encounter.
They spent six months reconstructing the score and expanding it into a longer orchestral work.
Vision TV sponsored and televised the Canadian premier of the symphony. The sold-out performance at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto in 2012 culminated in seven standing ovations for Spellman, who by then was 99, Hoffert recalled.
“It was an amazing night. After more than 60 years, Leo finally got to have the recognition as a serious classical musician in Canada.”
For more information about the gala, call 416-633-3838.