Rare piano that survived Holocaust awaits restoration in South Philly, and a fourth-generation home
Unlike many of its kind, the Ibach was successfully extracted from Nazi Germany in 1936.
by Michaela Winberg
Jan. 31, 2021 | BillyPenn.com WHYY News
The piano has seen better days. With a cracked soundboard, buzzy strings, and weathered finish, the baby grand lying on its side in a Bok building studio is in need of some serious love.
It has seen worse. Crafted by Germany’s Ibach Piano Company some hundred years ago, the instrument is taking a breath in South Philly after nearly getting destroyed during the Holocaust.
In 1936, the piano traveled 4,000 miles, escaping the grasp of the Third Reich to land near Philadelphia. Many human members of the family didn’t survive to make the same pilgrimage. Almost all other furniture and heirlooms were forever lost.
Okay, so a family shipped a piano to America in 1936. Tell me in what way was it "nearly destroyed in the Holocaust"?
But the 88 keys made it here. Their journey from Germany to Delaware County was facilitated by renowned anti-Nazi lawyer Hans J. Frank, whose sister owned the piano. Without Frank’s help, she might not have made it out before the war — and the Ibach would likely have been demolished by Hitler’s regime, like so many others.
Who knew that part of the Holocaust involved destroying Jewish pianos? (They do make one insinuation about piano destruction -- piano extermination? -- "during the Holocaust" late in the article, but they leave out something very important; see below.)
“You don’t see pianos like this,” said Tom Rudnitsky of Philatuner, who is tasked with fixing it up. “Not with this sort of monumental, world-shaking trauma embedded.”
Good boy, Tom Rudnitsky. You said your lines right.
This piano has world-shaking trauma. "Don't show me any pianos from Rwanda 1994! They're just not...world-shaking enough."
With a worn, matte black exterior, the instrument shows its history, but is still visually stunning. Its cast iron plate is hand carved with intricate golden flowers. Each string is hand-coiled, ready to produce an impressively dense wall of sound.
In the hands of third-generation owners, the piano sat in Bucks County for the past several decades, virtually unplayable. Raising a family of four, Eric and Tami Brauer couldn’t undertake a full restoration.
“When you’re raising a family, there’s always something else to spend $10,000 or $20,000 on,” said Tami.
When the couple split up recently, the piano became a priority. As she was downsizing to an apartment four months ago, Tami called Rudnitsky to ask if he could make it playable again. When the work is complete, it’ll make another pilgrimage — this time to the suburbs of D.C., where the Brauers’ son will take ownership and teach his daughter to play.
“For 30 years, it kind of sat there,” Tami said. “Now it’s getting a new life.”
At one level this is an almost comically mundane story about an old piano. Worth attention for how mundane it is.
Maybe the piano's history has some kind of interest to someone -- surely it does to the owners' families themselves -- but this is a news website serving 1.6 million Philadelphia residents and 4.5 million more outside the city proper but in the Greater Philadelphia region.
(A 2019 study found 351,000 Jews in Greater Philadelphia, which is an impressive 5.5--6% of total; the number goes to around 450,000 if including defacto assimilated Jews via non-Jewish-origin spouses and children of Jews not being raised Jewish; potentially putting the broadest figure as high as 7.5%.)
So I am thinking about how this works: Do we take any mundane thing/story/fact/object/person, add in the word 'Holocaust,' attach it to 1930s European-Jews, and the thing/story/object/person takes on a magical, religious-like quality, to which people like Tom Rudnitsky have to "bow and scrape"?
Unless Rudnitsky himself is Jewish, in which case he's probably "in" on the whole thing, aware of the consensus to treat this old piano like a sacred Holocaust relic (even though it was shipped out of Europe years before the Holocaust, but that's another matter).
According to wikipedia, there are many Jews named Rudnitsky or Rudnicki. It was even Holocaust scholar Yitzak Arad's birth name. At the end of the article we learn this about Rudnitsky: "His grandmother grew up in Ukraine and barely made it out of the Soviet regime in time." (In time for what?)
The original owner of the enduring instrument was classically trained pianist Heidi Frank. She married into the Brauer family, who owned a hat company in Germany.
Her brother Frank, the lawyer, fled Germany in 1933, then made a name for himself helping Jewish people get their property back after World War II.
To help his relatives escape, Frank facilitated a trade between the Brauers’ hat company and a German family that owned a few beauty salons in Upper Darby [a small city near Philadelphia in Delaware County, Pennsylvania]. The business owners switched places — with the Brauers moving to [Delaware County, Pennsylvania] to run the salons, and the other family moving back to Germany and taking over hat manufacturing for a few years.
A pregnant Heidi, along with her husband and their son, managed to arrive in the United States unscathed.
Sidney Brauer was the baby on the way. Now 84 years old, he lives in Warwick, Pa., with fond memories of the piano. It was essential to his musically inclined mother — so much so that she chose it among the few items she could take with her to her new home.
“They were very lucky that it didn’t get scratched,” Sidney said, his voice tinged with reverence. “It never did.”
There is more content in the article I am not copying, but this portion is rich:
It’s a rarity for an Ibach brand to be in America in the first place, because so many didn’t make it out of Nazi Germany. One of the Ibach factories was burned to the ground during the war — and the company shut down in 1980.
How did the factory "burn to the ground"? (How many total factories were there? How many more were produced between the Wiederaufbau period and 1980 when the company shut down?) It sounds like the factory may have been bombed. It was a factory in Germany, after all! Off-narrative; don't mention the agent/actor who caused the 'burning to the ground.'
So the article tells us of a piano shipped to the US by wealthy Jews in 1936 and then leaves us with a dagger of a passively constructed sentence: "One of the Ibach factories was burned to the ground during the war" without telling us how it burned. Passive sentences are sneaky because the reader inserts an agent subconsciously. Many will be forgiven for guessing that maybe Hitler sent brownshirts to burn the factory down and ordered them to cream anti-Semitic slogans and beating up Jews along the way.
The restoration will be a lengthy project. The triple-coiled, hand-woven strings will have to be remade from scratch.
“I’m kind of sighing as I look at this, because this is gonna be like, two, three days of work just making loops,” Rudnitsky said. “That’s all I’m going to do for three days.” As he works, the instrument reminds him of his own family’s struggle: his grandmother grew up in Ukraine and barely made it out of the Soviet regime in time.
For Eric Brauer, it’s a reminder of the hard choices forced in the face of tyranny — and how sometimes, art and music are an important part of surviving hate.
“When you see people storm the Capitol, you see how fragile democracy can be,” Eric said. “The piano is a bit of a metaphor for what can be.”
These are the last lines of the article.
What a segue! The piano a metaphor for Fighting Hate. Of course it is. The Holocaust-surviving piano shows the way on the need to suppress protestors in election disputes.