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Saturday, April 9, 2011

THE VIOLINIST WHO LED TWO LIVES

The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor, by Sarah Gaitanos

On the morning of Sunday, 19 March 1944, Klára Galambos, a 20-year-old violinist, was playing at a rehearsal in Budapest when a man rushed into the hall with the message that the Germans had invaded Hungary.  Many members of the orchestra were Jewish, like Klára herself.  "Go, go, go! he shouted.

It was an appalling watershed moment for this vivacious young woman, the daughter of an affluent, cultured family who had experienced nothing but gentleness and love.  Over the nightmare months that followed, Klára endured arrest, imprisonment, life in a ghetto, an appalling train journey to Auschwitz, dehumanizing treatment there, and highly dangerous work in a slave labor camp.  The chances of survival were very slim, yet she lived to escape during the chaos of the liberation, and then to be rescued by American troops.

That was the life of Klára Galambos.  Then, on 9 May 1949, the life of Clare Galambos began, with her arrival in New Zealand.  That she should change her name was symbolic as well as logical, because her story changed so dramatically.  Clare's reproductive organs were too damaged for her to give birth to live children, but in her new life she was able to make up for this in the most romantic fashion possible, by playing a part in the birth of New Zealand's national orchestra, now the famous New Zealand Symphony.

Sarah Gaitanos, an oral historian, has the fortunate knack of choosing the quotes or recollections that bring the reader to the story.  Clare's memories of the Holocaust are often either blurred or lacking -- very undertandable, in view of their nightmare nature -- but those that remain are so vivid they are more like flashbacks than mere recollections, and Gaitanos mines these very well indeed. The description of life in the slave camp is particularly compelling, as is the rescue by American soldiers. By contrast, Clare's career as a violinist in New Zealand flows gently, with serenity.

So this is a book with two dramatically contrasting stories, a challenge for any writer.  Sarah Gaitanos copes with the same flair she demonstrated in her last book, Crisis, an account of the financial crisis, told through the eyes of Alan Bollard, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.  Exhaustively researched, The Violinist is almost as replete with facts; yet, in the same fashion, the subject's personality shines out steadily through the flow of information. 

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