You can tell Saul Dreier that he’s crazy, but that won’t stop him if he has an idea. And recently he had a great one. A couple of years ago, when he was only 89, he woke up with the idea to form a band —not just any band, a band made up of Holocaust survivors, like himself.
He told his wife. “Saul,” she said, “you’re crazy.” He told his rabbi. The rabbi said, “Saul, you’re crazy.”
Shortly after, through a friend, Dreier heard about Reuwen Sosnowicz — “Ruby” to friends and family — a retired musician and hairdresser, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and now lives in Delray Beach, Fla.
When the two met, their lives changed. Now they’re fast friends, finishing each other’s sentences like they grew up together, spending hours together practicing and playing songs from their pasts.
Now in their twilight years, Dreier and Sosnowicz are part of the last generation of Holocaust survivors and they’re committed to sharing their stories — and music — with younger generations, many of whom never even heard the term Holocaust, claimed Sosnowicz, 86.
Together they make up the Holocaust Survivor Band and have been playing South Florida, Las Vegas, and on Dec. 29, they’ll make their Kennedy Center debut on the Millennium Stage. Backed up by a five-piece ensemble, Dreier on drums and Sosnowicz on piano will share their repertoire of favorite songs: Yiddish classics, popular American songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s, show tunes and classic tunes in Hebrew, Polish, and German.
They sing to remember and to forget. Among the pieces will be a few they sang in the camps and ghettos, which helped keep them going in the face of adversity, as well as the march they wrote proclaiming they’re the Holocaust Survivor Band.
Earlier this month they were invited to Washington, where they were honored for their tenacity and strength by the worldwide Global Embassy of Activists for Peace (GEAC). At the Organization of American States, GEAC founder William Soto Santiago introduced Dreier, Sosnowicz and Silver Spring resident and Holocaust survivor David Bayer, a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Each man shared brief parts of his story of survival with the hope that their words, their stories, their life works will foster the spirit of cooperation and understanding, preventing future genocides around the world. The GEAC has volunteer representatives in 19 countries, primarily in Latin America, and its Traces to Remember project aims at promoting the living testimonies of this last generation of Holocaust survivors before it’s too late for their voices to be heard.
“We want to share universal lessons so acts like this never happen again — the anguished cries and fears of each Holocaust survivor must not be lost in the pages of history books,” Santiago said through a translator.
Born in Krakow, Dreier worked in a munitions factory owned by Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 Jews who worked in his factories during World War II. Dreier also survived Mauthausen and two other concentration camps. He immigrated to the United States in 1949, built a successful commercial and residential real estate business and retired in Coconut Creek, Fla. “I’m very humbled to be here,” said Dreier. “I’m a survivor of three concentration camps and a cancer survivor, but I’m going to talk about the future.” He proceeded to describe his partnership with Sosnowicz and their unlikely band.
Sosnowicz grew up in Warsaw, was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto and, as his family was being transported, he got separated from his parents and missed the train. A Polish farmer picked him up and hid him. Placed in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war, he learned to play accordion from fellow refugees; he migrated to Israel where he served in the Israeli army before making his way to the United States. Here, he worked as a musician and hairdresser in Brooklyn.
Now Ruby lives with his wife and daughter in a house filled with musical instruments in Delray Beach. Daughter ChanaRose Sosnowicz sings with the band occasionally will be joining them at the Kennedy Center.
Both men raised families. The plaques from Traces to Remember are a testament to that, their most important legacy. The two plaques feature each man’s Holocaust story, his handprint and a handprint of one of his children and grandchildren, as testament that their legacy will continue. Sosnowicz, the more introspective of the two, said, “Thank God I’m here. Music is my life. We had nothing to eat [in the DP camp]. That made us want to play music and everybody got together, and by singing we forgot that we have to eat.” Music, he insisted, kept him going.
“The music is our survival, our survival,” Dreier said after the ceremony. “When I was in a concentration camp, I was there with a very famous chazzan, a cantor — David Werdyger — from Krakow, Poland. Every day when we came from work, we were tired, we had no food, but what we did, we went into our barracks and we were singing. And singing, we would forget our troubles until the next day. We sang Jewish songs, chazzunish songs, religious songs.” Dreier took two spoons and used them to play out rhythms as they sang. That was his first drumming.
For Dreier this is a twilight career, but one that has breathed into him a new zest for life. For Sosnowicz, it’s a return to his musical roots. Back in the day he played the Catskills, Second Avenue in New York, on Broadway for Carol Channing and on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. But when his wife became ill, the music stopped. Dreier bought him back to music — and to life.
At the Kennedy Center, Dreier promises that their show, L’Chaim to Life will be an unforgettable experience. “At the Kennedy Center, if we’re pretty good,” he said, sounding like a teenager, “we’re going to be banging.”
The Holocaust Survivor Band in L’Chaim to Life: A Sentimental Journey in Music and Song, featuring Saul Dreier, Ruby Sosnowicz and ChanaRose Sosnowicz, Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Washington, D.C., Dec. 29, 6:00 p.m. Free. Visit www.kennedy-center.org.