A survivor’s story retold as a musical symphony

Adi Berkovits

One story about Adi Berkovits’s father has stuck with him for years.

The story takes place after his father, Eduard Berkovits, survived Auschwitz and was liberated by American soldiers. Then 16, his father found himself faced with a daunting new challenge: he had to find his own way home.

“He was completely homeless,” Adi Berkovits says. “He was hungry. He was cold. He just had this incredible power to live and a determination to just actually get home.”

Home was the Romanian city called Cluj-Napoca, about 600 kilometres southeast. In postwar Europe, there were no passenger trains or convenient buses – and even if there were, he had no way to pay for them. His brother, who also survived, was 13. Their parents had been killed after one day in Auschwitz.

The resulting three-month journey, involving numerous cargo trains and a stolen horse and carriage, proved to be a pivotal story in the elder Berkovits’s life – one that Adi Berkovits knew nothing about growing up.

Now in his 40s, 13 years after his father died, Berkovits is telling the story of that quest in a new original symphonic concert, The Journey Home, which will be performed on Nov. 3. in Richmond Hill, Ont. (The show has been postponed from its March 25 date due to the coronovirus outbreak.)

The idea came to Berkovits, who is a composer and musician, after hearing his father’s story for the first time. Growing up, Berkovits avoided the whole situation; his father didn’t talk much about the Holocaust and he felt uncomfortable asking about it.

In 1995, Eduard Berkovits was invited to record a four-hour long interview for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, which collected more than 50,000 survivors’ stories throughout the 1990s. Berkovits recalls his father sitting in the living room alone with the interviewers, door closed, revealing a deeply traumatic story that the younger Berkovits never really asked about.

Even after receiving a video copy of his father’s testimony, he shelved it.

“It took me 10 years or so to get the courage to watch the video,” Berkovits says. “I had this instinct in me that I would be very upset, or I would break down.”

Once he finally watched it, what struck him most was the story of his father’s journey home.

“As a musician, it kind of hit me – I need to make a musical out of this,” he says. He mulled over the project for years, putting it aside until after his father’s death. Recently, he says, “A switch in my brain flipped. It flipped, and it just said, man, you have to finish this.”

He began wondering what kind of format would best suit the show, eventually landing on a symphonic concert, drawing from his own interest in classical music and progressive rock.

The show features only three songs with lyrics, and is otherwise narrated by his late father, whose interview, projected on an 80-foot screen behind the musicians, appears in brief moments spliced between songs.

“He’s the star of the show,” Berkovits says with a laugh. “Not me.”

Berkovits himself will perform onstage, playing the piano and keyboard. Among the other musicians will be a violinist playing an especially unique instrument – a violin Berkovits’s father carried all the way home from the concentration camp.

His father, Berkovits explains, was hesitant to leave the camp after liberation. After sticking around a few days, he wandered around the vacant German barracks and found a violin sitting in its case. The instrument reminded him of his own father’s love of classical music, especially the violin.

“Without even thinking about it, he picked it up and carried it all the way home as a good-luck charm,” Berkovits says.

Berkovits has since had the instrument appraised. A factory-made product, it isn’t worth much in hard cash, but its sentimental value is tremendous. Onstage, it will feature prominently during the lone klezmer song of the night. “We want this thing to soar,” he says.

For Berkovits, who avoided listening to his father’s story for so many years, the performance has forced him embrace his father’s struggle. After his father died, Berkovits’s passion project had adopted even more meaning.

If his father were alive, Berkovits says, “He would probably say, ‘Adi, What are you doing this for? This is no big deal.’” But the show has also brought him closer to his father’s memory.

“When he talks, I hear his voice now,” he says. “It feels good. It puts me into a happy place … I wanted to write this to hopefully inspire others.”