Music helped violinist survive 'the horrors'

Music helped Clare Galambos Winter build a new life in New Zealand.
Music helped Clare Galambos Winter build a new life in New Zealand.

Clare Galambos Winter b December 5, 1923, Budapest, m Karl Kallhagen (dec), Otto Winter (dec), d February 11, 2014, Wellington, aged 90.

Klara Galambos, called Klari, was the daughter of a successful Hungarian Jewish businessman Andor Galambos and his wife Zsuzsanna. When Klari was about four, the family moved from Budapest to the provincial town of Szombathely where her brother Mihaly was born. Klari returned to Budapest to complete her secondary schooling and to study the violin at the Fodor, a private music academy.

The Galambos family were victims of anti-semitism before the German occupation, but their lives were relatively safe.

Aged 20, in her final year of her violin studies, along with the normal hopes and dreams of a young woman, Klari had ambitions for her future career as a solo violinist.

Everything changed from March 19, 1944, when the German tanks entered Budapest.

Over the following months she would lose her home, all her possessions and all her immediate family; also any sense of dignity, self-worth, individuality, all basic freedoms and human rights. She said, "We lost the value of everything and became non-persons."

Then followed a slow recovery to feeling human again, and it's a measure of her strength of character that she eventually embraced life, experiencing love and joy, and gratitude for the new life she found in New Zealand.

Her initiation to what she referred to as "the horrors" came soon after the German occupation when she was thrown into a jail in Budapest for three days.

That she and others should be herded and locked up simply because they were Jews, treated like animals with standing room only and no sanitation, expecting to be shot, was all the more shocking to her because at that stage she still retained her sensitivities. She was released and managed to get home to her family.

On May 14, 1944 the Jews of Szombathely were evicted from their homes and locked in the ghetto. The Jews had to hand in all valuable possessions, but Klari had permission to keep her violin.

Then, after nearly two months in the ghetto, when they were boarding the cattle trucks to Auschwitz (willingly because they thought they were leaving for a better place in Germany) one of the guards quite gently took her violin from her saying, "You won't need this where you're going". It was like losing her right arm, and it hurt her more even than saying goodbye to her father, when he was sent to a labour camp, because she didn't know she'd never see him again. He died in Bergen-Belsen.

The next parting was at the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Klari and her aunt Rozsi were separated from her brother Mihaly and their mother.

After the horrifying journey, Klari could think only of her hunger and thirst, and when she later asked about where her mother and brother were, she was told they had gone to the gas chamber. Mihaly was aged 14, Zsuzsanna 45.

Rozsi then became her whole family. Their captivity in Auschwitz-Birkenau was relatively short, but the conditions of the part of the camp where they were interred, Birkenau III, called "Mexico", were such that few survived.

Klari knew that to survive, they had to get out, and the only way was to be selected for slave labour in Germany. On the third selection they were successful and sent to a munitions factory at Allendorf.

After Auschwitz, Allendorf was like paradise and Klari recovered some of her humanity - until winter came, the food ran out and all the prisoners suffered from toxic poisoning from handling chemicals and breathing poisonous fumes.

However, the war was ending. The camp was evacuated and the starving women were marched north towards Bergen-Belsen, sharing the road with retreating German soldiers.

Their terror ended in emotional scenes with their liberation by the American army on March 31, 1945.

Klari had to come to terms with what she had lost, where she could live and how. She and Rozsi returned to Hungary and found none of their immediate family had survived.

When a relative in New Zealand offered the opportunity to emigrate, they grabbed it and came in 1949. In New Zealand, Clare, as she now called herself, wasn't confronted by the past and she had Rozsi.

She determined to build a new life, which she did through music. In February, 1951, she took her place among the first violins of the fledgling National Orchestra (later the NZSO) for her first rehearsal. "I opened the music and it was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and it was somehow as if I were in a dark room and suddenly the window was opened and there was brilliant sunshine outside . . . I thought, Oh yes, I'm home. I'm home."

Clare played with the NZSO for 32 years and continued to play chamber music into her eighties.

Clare's need for security and her hunger for love and for family were met in New Zealand. It was a source of grief that she had no children of her own, but she took up and was taken up by other families. Besides relatives who had come to New Zealand before the war, she acquired new relatives and step-children through her marriages to cellist Karl Kallhagen and Otto Winter.

She regarded the family of her colleague Carol McKenzie as her own, and the orchestra itself was like a big family.

Her circles of friends widened in her retirement. A generous patron of the arts, Clare's interests in recent years focused on Victoria University of Wellington.

When she eventually hung up her bow, she donated her two violins to the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington, and established two endowed scholarships for studies in violin performance.

More recently, extending her educational work for the New Zealand Holocaust Centre, she established a prize for Holocaust Studies at Victoria University to promote tolerance and understanding.

In 2013, Victoria University made her a Hunter Fellow.

To the end of her life Clare was cared for and cherished by devoted friends, and that, she said, made life worth living.

- Sarah Giatanos is the author of The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor.

- A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape their community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email obituaries@dompost.co.nz.

The Dominion Post