This week I was privileged to speak with cellist and author, Janet Horvath, about her powerful memoir, The Cello Still Sings: A Generational Story of the Holocaust and of the Transformative Power of Music.
Janet Horvath is an award-winning professional cellist and writer who served as the associate principal cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra for 32 years. She’s published two books: the most recent is The Cello Still Sings; the other, Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, was first published in 2004 and revised in 2009.
The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Meet Janet Horvath
Brenda Neece (BN)
Congratulations on such a powerful and moving book, The Cello Still Sings. Please tell us about it.
Janet Horvath (JH)
When I left the orchestra, I knew I needed to write this book. The motivation behind it stems from my background. My father was a professional cellist in the Toronto Symphony for 38 years, and my mother was a wonderful piano teacher.
Although they never spoke about it, my parents were Holocaust survivors, and the Holocaust’s shadow hovered over us. Music was their lifeline, helping them endure.
In 2009, the last year of my father’s life, I asked about his musical past. His revelations inspired me to delve deeper, discovering his role in an orchestra that played uplifting programs for those waiting in displaced persons’ camps. The journey to uncover his past became the impetus for writing The Cello Still Sings.
Leonard Bernstein Provokes a Revelation
I asked my father, “Dad did you ever play with Leonard Bernstein?”
Suddenly, it was as if he passed out. He put the palm of his hand to his face and his eyes seemed to roll back into his head. I did not know what was happening.
Then, he came around and said: “Yes. It was a very hot day. It was in the displaced person’s camp in the Jewish Orchestra and he played Rhapsody in Blue. He was just a kid, and it was so fantastic! I talked to him and said, ‘I want to come to America.'”
But before I could even blurt out one question, he huddled to the side of the car and shook his head gravely. Either he wouldn’t talk anymore or the memory left him.
Putting the Pieces Together
That night, I raced to Google and looked up Lenard Bernstein’s website. Sure enough, there were two concerts in the Landsberg displaced persons camp, about an hour from Munich. It had 5,000 displaced people.
Through further online research, I found that a printed program for the concert had been donated to a museum in New York. So I wrote them immediately and said my father was in this orchestra. I was imagining a 100-piece orchestra like the one I played in. They invited me to make an appointment to see the program in the archives the next time I was in New York: “We’d be thrilled to show you the program that’s in our archives. It’s signed by Bernstein. But don’t you want to see the live video testimony and the photographs?”
Parts of the Mystery Fall into Place
A couple months later, when the Minnesota Orchestra was on tour at Carnegie Hall, I had a window of time to race down to Battery Park to go to this museum. The archivist put on white gloves all the way up to her elbows and reached into this tiny archival box and pulled out some photographs.
There was my father with a full head of hair, standing next to Leonard Bernstein and the 16 other members of the orchestra.
Later, when I got the nerve, I enlarged these tiny photographs to poster size to take to Toronto to show my father. I really wasn’t sure if he would be mad at me or pained with these memories—or whether he would even remember the people in the photos.
I soon found out that my father didn’t play just two concerts. He played two with Bernstein, but overall he played 200! This orchestra was bussed twice a week all over Bavaria to bring morale-boosting programs to those still languishing in the camps, waiting for news of loved ones and paperwork to leave Europe.
I thought this was really a story that ought to be told. As I delved into more of this orchestra’s history, my father’s caregiver told me that he started scribbling late at night. By then, he could barely write. When I came to Toronto a couple of months later he insisted on reading this to me. It ended up being his testimony, telling me exactly what he went through in the copper mines of Bor, Yugoslavia, as a slave laborer.
He passed away six weeks later, so I feel very blessed to have been able to get his story. This is what spurred the book.
The photographs in the book really drew me into your story, especially the one of your father looking at these old photos and pointing out musicians. This, and your other photographs, truly bring the story to life.
Please skip to More Than a Holocaust Book below if you want to avoid this spoiler.
Her Mother’s Story
Additionally, you mentioned your mother leaving a record of her story that you found after her passing. Please tell us more about how that piece of the mystery unfolded.
My mother was even more secretive about her past. She really was the strong one, and she just forged ahead. She didn’t talk to anybody about her experiences, and so I knew very little about her past. When she passed away in 2008, we thought we’d just lost these stories.
But, as it turned out, when her brother passed away in 1994—they were very, very close—his son, my cousin, recorded her. He started off by having her tell stories about their youth and growing up together as little kids in Hungary and somehow he managed to urge her into more and more recent history and then into the war, talking about her experiences.
They heard rumors, but they still imagined this [tragedy] could never happen in the height of civility in Hungary, where there were brilliant people, wonderful foods and pastries, and gorgeous sites.
Since they thought the Germans probably wouldn’t take away married women, a lot of young girls got married. My mother and father married the night before they took him away. My parents knew he was being rounded up, so they got married. They had to get permission and forged documents that said they were Catholic. My mother’s older brother had already had horrific experiences. He said, “It’s better to die in freedom. We’re going to hide, and we’re not going to let get ourselves rounded up.”
Afterward, she hid in basements under lumber and coal and in tunnels. I don’t know how she survived that, but thankfully she did. So that story is woven in the middle.
More Than a Holocaust Book
This memoir traces my career and my father’s career. There’s a lot of humor in it as well as lots of stuff about Hungarian cooking (including recipes at the end of the book), and other different threads—especially how this affected the next generation.
So there are a lot of conversation starters in the book and, of course, the story of what my parents went through.
One of the Best Books of 2023
You recently received an award for your book. Please tell us more about that.
I was selected as one of the Best Books of 2023, and that’s thrilling.
Good morning. I’m thrilled that my book The Cello Still Sings just won a Best Books Award for 2023 in the #performingarts category. A great gift for you to consider for the Holidays. #books #nonfiction #mystery #WWII #Holocaust #Hope #humor #HungarianFoods #cello #music #love pic.twitter.com/5pIzVTC0Vu
— Janet Horvath (@playinglesshurt) November 15, 2023
There’s such a difference between playing and writing. While there are many similarities—both are creative outlets—with playing, you prepare for months for an important solo concert. When you get on stage, it’s gone into the spheres in 20 to 25 minutes, but they clap afterward so you immediately get feedback. With a book you can spend years—it took 10 years to write this book—and then it’s finally done, and it goes out into the world, but nobody claps before the reviews. It’s hard to know whether people like it or whether they’ll read it. It’s a really different feeling.
How to Make a Difference
You’ve woven in threads of humor, cello history, food, but also the theme of family, aging parents, and guilt when you can’t be there enough for them. It’s relevant for people in other ways even beyond the account of the Holocaust.
I loved it but also found it hard in many places, reading about the horrors of the Nazi regime. I remember the first time I learned about the Holocaust in junior high school social studies class when we watched video footage of the liberation of the camps and saw the piles of bodies and the living skeletons. That was seared into my own mind. But I’m glad that my class watched these videos, particularly with things that are going on today.
Toward the end of the book, you talked about the social justice movement and how we must prevent this from happening again. What advice do you have for people wanting to work for peace and justice? How can cellists and non-cellists alike make a difference as individuals?
That’s a very good question, and it’s so terribly important. After the Holocaust, you think that we would have learned our lessons. But there have been several genocides afterward and people are constantly afraid of others—of people who are different, look different, worship differently, and are culturally different. Not that I think I have all the answers, but the book ends with me playing in the very spot where my father played 70 years before to the day.
The town of Landsberg wanted to replicate the concert conducted by Bernstein 70 years before and also bring the communities together in a reconciliatory evening. It was an out-of-body experience; I think cello playing really can do that.
One idea is to have themed concerts where there’s a conversation afterward, which I’ve been doing, too. But I think one-on-one interactions are a way we can reach a neighbor, friend, colleague, or co-worker. There are many places in this country where people don’t know any Jews!
I’m hoping that if I could have a coffee with somebody, I could tell them what we believe and who we are as people. Our most important mandate is to heal the world. That’s one of the most important tenets of our religion and that’s what I try to do and hopefully inspire others to do, too. Reaching out to somebody who’s not the same as you could really start those ripples in the world through these courageous conversations.
I’ve been going to book clubs and so many of them have asked amazing questions and resulted in productive discussions. So I encourage readers to do that.
I think that’s wonderful advice, and that leads me to my next question. I often find that listening to an author read her work is almost like having a conversation with her in some way—by having her voice right in one’s ear via headphones. Do you plan to make this into an audiobook, too?
My publisher, Amsterdam Publishers, just signed a contract for an audiobook; I’ve spent all of October reading the Hungarian words for the actor who’s going to read the book, to help them with the pronunciation. That was a big task.
Typically, audiobooks don’t include music, but I convinced them to include an audio recording of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” (mentioned in the text) to end the audiobook as well. I recorded it with piano in October specifically for the audiobook. It’ll be a few months before it’s available.
When I’m presenting, I read several excerpts which really help people get into the story. One structural device I used in the book was a theatrical term called the entr’acte. These were little mimes, ballets, or contrasting performances in front of the curtain to entertain the audience while they changed sets manually. I used this device to catapult the reader back in time to my childhood and reflect on what I thought and knew as a child.
Janet Horvath Reads from Her Book
Listen as Horvath reads three excerpts from her book, The Cello Still Sings:
Choosing the Cello
The theme of music bringing people together, providing comfort, and being a means of expressing things that can’t be said is such a powerful message throughout your book.
I love that you chose to play the cello. You wrote that your earliest memories are of hearing your father’s cello. How did you end up choosing the cello as your instrument?
When my mother started a piano studio in our house, she taught little teeny kids—beginners—and she was fantastic with them. She was so gifted at being able to inspire them. I would pick out tunes on the piano when I was three or four, and so my parents knew that I had a good ear and that I might be talented. So, I started the piano immediately, but my mother had an image of me walking on stage in a long dress and playing the cello, which was unusual in those days. There’s a funny story about that in the book.
I’m very petite, and I don’t think my parents thought: “Hey—she’s not going to even be five feet tall with tiny hands. Is a cello a good choice?” That didn’t enter their minds at all. Often, when I was dragging the cello in and out of buildings, I would say to my mother, “This is your fault, you know.” She said, “No, you wanted it. It was you who had a burning passion to play the cello.”
I believe that children of Holocaust survivors are very driven. Many of us feel the burden of having to live for those who didn’t and to succeed in ways our parents couldn’t.
My father, a respected member of the Toronto Symphony for 38 years, never thought he succeeded in life. I really think that, subconsciously anyway, I knew that I had to attain even greater heights at the cello. I was determined to become a cellist though I was late blooming because I was really good on the piano and my father was an impossible teacher. Imagine trying to teach your son or daughter how to drive—I mean it’s a hundred times that.
He said, “You know, you’re playing duets and you have to play Grützmacher and hard studies—not even Popper but Grützmacher.” But, here I am. I became a cellist. I attained a great career and then I went back to school and got my MFA in creative writing and wrote, too. So I encourage people to branch out.
Music in the Family
It’s so exciting that you’ve done both. Now I want to turn to cello questions. Did your father ever tell you how he picked the cello and how he got started on the cello?
My grandmother studied the cimbalom—a unique instrument that’s indigenous to Hungary. It’s a fantastic instrument that’s played with mallets and looks like a big keyboard. She played and so they thought that my father should play an instrument, too.
He was very brilliant in math and wanted to become an engineer, but by the time he was ready to go to university, Jews were no longer allowed. So, he became a cellist because he was very talented and played very well. In fact, by the age of 21 or 22, he was substituting with the Budapest Symphony.
I don’t know if he ever had regrets about becoming a cellist because he loved music passionately. That’s how my parents met. My mother, the beauty, was going to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. She was really interested in the hunky guys—the sports guys—and my father, a handsome but kind of wimpy artist, showed up and asked: “Anybody want two free tickets to the Budapest Symphony?” My mother thought, “Oh—I’m going be able to wear my new frock.” So she went to the concert to hear my father; that’s how they met.
In your book, you go from your story to your parents’ story and then put it all into historical context; you weave everything together so beautifully. It’s a very organic way of presenting the material, and I enjoyed that very much because you help the reader. What inspired you to choose this very effective structure? You mentioned the entr’acts earlier, but how did you make that structural decision?
I wrote another book about music that’s all essays, and I had no idea how I would put together a book of this scope. The first thing they tell you when you go to school for writing is that a memoir can only be ten years. The other thing they often say is that authors don’t know how to end a book. You have to end the book 50 pages before you think you’re ending it, because we tend to go on and on. So there were all these preconceived notions.
We lived in a Victorian house with an enormous dining room table, and I spread everything out on both sides of the table and on the floor trying to get my head around all the material and how to put it together. I sensed that I needed to dole out the hard parts and give people a break either by the entr’acts going back to my childhood or something funny. I wanted to trace my career, but I wanted it to unfold like it did for me—like reading a mystery story, but with segments going into the history to explain some of these events.
Meant to Be
We have a Jewish word which is bashert—meant to be. In 2017, I was in a cafe when I got a call; the woman on the other end said, “Oh, Janet, I’m so glad to find you finally know what your parents went through. We have to educate the next generation—people like me, German, not Jewish people so that it never happens again. We want to have a concert in Landsberg in May to celebrate the one 70 years ago. Would you do us the honor to come?”
I thought May in Germany might be really nice and they’d have a little community concert or something and then we could chat some more about what my parents experienced.
Then she said, “You know, we really want to make this a special evening. Would you consider playing ‘Kol Nidrei’ on the program?” Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” is based on an ancient chant that opens Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. It’s our day of fasting where we ask for forgiveness not only of God but also ask co-workers, family, friends, children, parents, and neighbors—whether or not we intended to offend them—to forgive us for anything that we might have done and vow to try to do better in the next year. This is an ancient chant that opens the service. Bruch, who’s not Jewish, heard this chant and was immediately enamored of it and wrote this incredibly beautiful piece. In synagogues everywhere, it’s chanted—many places also hire a cellist to play the piece.
My father played it for over 30 years in Toronto when I was growing up, and I’ve played it for more than 30 years here in the Twin Cities every year. It is incredible, knowing that in synagogues everywhere are playing this piece that night—all of us.
So to have this tremendous history that’s in our family of playing ‘Kol Nidrei,’ as well as the overarching meaning of the piece to all Jewish people, was just mind-boggling. To imagine playing it in Germany, let alone 70 years to the day that my father played in the orchestra with Bernstein—that was a gift. The ending [of this concert] is the entire experience of 40 of us—people whose parents had something to do with Landsberg. Either they were born there, or their parents ended up there, and heard this concert—now 85 years ago—it was literally an out-of-body experience.
I played with the Landsberg School Orchestra. They sounded just like every junior high orchestra, so I had to whip them into shape. I egged them on and said, “Oh, after here—and this is where the light comes out—the sunshine.” We entered a different dimension as we played, and we played better than we knew we could—all of us. I think they will always remember this experience.
By involving the Youth Orchestra you’ve reached the next generation so it sounds like it was a beautiful experience.
So you can hear that they’re a junior high orchestra but they did so beautifully. They wanted to play well, too. It was amazing.
Advice for Others
They wanted to honor you and pay tribute to the event and the message. I have just a few more questions about the cello and writing. What advice would you give to those wanting to write a memoir or embark on a significant family history project?
I encourage people to ask questions before it’s too late. When we’re younger, we’re very self-absorbed, and we can’t really see our parents as people. Very often the interest bubbles over when you’re later in life—when they’re not so well anymore. It’s really important to get the stories down either by tape or by little snippets of conversations. I encourage people to put these stories together at least for their own families. They can be in individual stories—they don’t have to have a big through line, necessarily.
I think that’s excellent advice, So often people don’t realize until it’s too late.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
Well, I can really attribute it to a 12th-grade high school teacher. I would always write voluminous letters to my parents so that’s probably a start, but when I got to grade 12, Mr. William Martin was my teacher. He was so brilliant and inspiring. He never talked down to us. He had us read very advanced novels and he encouraged me to keep writing. In fact, when I decided to go to the University of Toronto in music he was hurt. He thought I was maybe wasting my brains because I should be writing. So he’s very happy now I’ve made a full circle and I’ve come back to writing.
His teaching really inspired me. I also have written, I think it’s now 395 essays, for a beautiful music website called interlude.hk. The publisher, Juliet, her mother was a concert pianist and she grew up in Paris. She had wanted to become a musician but wasn’t quite good enough to get into the Paris conservatoire, so went into fashion. Then, when she retired, she founded this website, mainly wanting to educate young people about classical music. She found me, and I’ve been writing for her for over 10 years. She’s amazing. This is a beautiful website with several writers. Be sure to check it out.
In The Cello Still Sings, you mention a number of different cellos, including the cello that’s still singing—your father’s cello. You also tell the story of finding and falling in love with your own 18th-century cello in New York. Please tell us about these cellos.
The one my father bought, he thought it was a Ferdinando Gagliano. It was the cello that he ended up playing most of his career. It was a big instrument—a little bit resistant. Then I found my instrument which is Italian 1765. My father imagined that I would sell both of them and buy a Strad and of course, Strads are way out of sight anyway and these two wouldn’t add up to that. But Strads would have been too big for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to play that instrument anyhow.
My father also had a nice collection of bows, so when I found my instrument it was at Jacques Français. He was very French and a little haughty and you didn’t try to bargain with somebody like that—but I did. In the end, thankfully, he agreed to take a couple of bows to help defray the price a little—that was a long time ago. It was the cello of my career and it’s very slightly under size. The upper bout is full size but the lower bout is narrower so that the two bouts are about the same size. The string length is about a centimeter shorter so it’s not a 7/8 but it’s not a full-size. It’s very responsive and easy to play.
I encourage people to make sure that the instrument is not resistant and that it’s up to par as far as where the sound post is, and to try and try to get it to play freely so that you’re not struggling. Certainly, if you’re a smaller player, look for an instrument that suits you, because it’s hard enough to play the instrument; we don’t have to make it harder.
Questions of Language
Two language questions. First: did you speak Hungarian at home?
When I was little, my parents spoke Hungarian at home, so I learned Hungarian. My brother, who came two and a half years later was slower than I was in learning English and learning to speak. And he’s brilliant! He’s a doctor. But girls are sometimes quicker than boys.
My parents panicked and at the time, the doctor said, “Oh don’t confuse him. Speak English.” So sadly, he understands some Hungarian but he doesn’t speak it fluently, whereas I do.
Second, did you speak Hungarian in your lessons in Indiana?
No, because Starker could speak English. His English was amazing and his brain went so fast that his English was very quick and brilliant, but sometimes he did speak to me in Hungarian.
An Additional Question
What question or questions do you wish I had asked but didn’t? Please ask and answer.
The one that you didn’t ask is whether I’m over my reluctance to get up and speak and say I’m Jewish. I wasn’t for a long time—like my whole life—but when the book came out, if a person that I didn’t really know asked about it, my first reaction is hesitant. I’m still having to make myself say, “Okay. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I’m Jewish.” I’ve been speaking so much, lately, and most of my audiences are not Jewish.
I’ve been so heartened by the amazing interest and really wonderful conversations. Now, there’s so much strife—I was just in Toronto, which has a very large and very visible Jewish community—and it is so frightening, the kind of raging demonstrations going on. We, whose parents went through what they did, we’re first of all glad that they’re not seeing this, and second of all, most of us feel that we cannot put our heads in the sand. We can’t pretend that it’s going to blow over. We can’t not speak up. We must speak up and try to educate people—try to counteract this hate, basically.
Enter for a Chance to Win a Signed Copy of the Book & a T-Shirt
Janet Horvath has generously donated a signed copy of The Cello Still Sings: A Generational Story of the Holocaust and of the Transformative Power of Music for a giveaway. The winner will also receive a Cello Museum T-shirt. We will hold the random prize drawing on 18 December. Only one entry per person, please. Good luck!
How to Follow and Support Janet Horvath
- Order The Cello Still Sings: A Generational Story of the Holocaust and of the Transformative Power of Music
- Order Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians
- Read her work on interlude.hk
I would really appreciate it if people who read the book, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, because my publisher looks to these as a benchmark for taking it to translation, and that’s really important. I have engagements next year through spring, but I’m happy to appear on Zoom for a book club or conversation. If people want this, we can work it out. I’m hoping that it won’t have a shelf life. It’s got very important themes and we can continue having these conversations.
Resources for Cellists and Listeners
In March 2022, in a collaborative effort between the London Cello Society (Selma Gokcen, Chair) and the Cello Museum in North Carolina (Brenda Neece, Curator), we released a two-part series: Soul Music: Works for the Cello Inspired by Hebraic Themes.
- Looking for cello and piano or cello and orchestra works inspired by Hebraic themes? Be sure to check out Part 1 by Dr. Yuriy Leonovich.
- Looking for unaccompanied cello works inspired by Hebraic themes? Check out Part 2 by Erica Lessie, presented in a special edition of her digital postcards.
Please note that some links in this review are affiliate links. For full details, please see our footer below.