Anniversaries & holidays
15.03.2021

Josima Feldschuh - a Wunderkind

Josima Feldshuh, fot. archiwum rodzinne

80 years ago, on 15 March 1941, Josima Feldschuh, 11-year old pianist and composer from the Warsaw ghetto, gave her first public performance.


At a concert hall of the Melody Palace at 12 Rymarska Street in Warsaw, the young pianist—accompanied by the Jewish Symphony Orchestra—played Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto. For the encore, she performed a few of her own compositions. POLIN Museum has been commemorating this child prodigy from the Warsaw ghetto since 2019. Let us get acquainted with this extraordinary story.

The Prodigy

Josima Feldschuh was born on 26 June 1929. Her mother, Perła, was a musicologist and little Josima’s first piano teacher. The father, Rubin Feldshuh (also Feldschu, Ruben Ben-Shem), was a writer and Zionist activist. He worked as a sworn translator of Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish. Thanks to the diary he kept in the ghetto, we know how it happened that the 11-year old girl was overnight hailed a musical prodigy.

"It so happened that one day Ms Rabinowicz, a singer who was staying with us, took our little one to the “Salon” on Ogrodowa Street. Every Thursday, Jewish musicians and singers used to gather there and spend together several hours immersed in the sounds of music. My little girl listened to a pianist play and, once he finished, she voiced her utter criticism of the way he played. Everyone present [at the “Salon”] was stunned. Upon hearing about her criticism, the pianist shouted out to her in an arrogant fashion: “Since you’re so clever, young lady, why don’t you show us how to play yourself!”. Josima sat at the grand piano, and that is precisely when her fate was sealed. All the people gathered fell silent and froze in their seats. Then they gathered around the piano—their eyes wide-open and open mouths testified to their utter amazement. When Josima finished playing a piece, they made her continue. She returned home together with Ms Rabinowicz who informed us that the “Salon” decided unanimously that it’s imperative that “the world” listens to my little girl play, and that a number of pianists offered her free piano lessons."

Excerpt from a diary by Ruben Ben-Shem Feldschuh dedicated to his daughter Josima Feldschuh; entry from the day of her first performance at the Melody Palace, 15 March 1941.

Josima practised for several months before the concert. Her family was poor—the father could not find employment, and a loaf of bread seemed like a treasure in the Feldschuh household. In all likelihood, the only valuable object in the apartment at 66/18 Leszno Street was a beautiful Viennese grand piano. Rubin Feldschuh noted in his diary: “My wife boils kasha and millet groats in the proportion 1:10 water to kasha. The only fat we consume these days is the one from soups we get on a daily basis from a soup kitchen. These are the conditions in which my daughter keeps playing for hours on end, and experts on the subject have practically forced me to let her give a concert which enthralled the ghetto and the world.”

The Wunderkind

Josima’s concert was preceded by a rehersal. Experienced musicians from the Jewish Symphony Orchestra made up of Jewish artists from, i.e. Warsaw Philharmonics, the National Opera and the Polish Radio Orchestra, acted towards “the Wunderkind" in a stand-offish way.

”I saw the smirks on their faces and heard the dismissive tone: ‘Ah, the Wunderkind, we know perfectly well what quality of performance we can expect’,” recalls Josima’s father in his diary.

”They began to play. My little girl […] knew the concert with a precision that was beyond compare. Each sound was inscribed in her blood, as if she had played the same notes already at the time of God’s Creation. When the orchestra finished playing the prelude, precisely, ideally on the spot, not too early and not too delayed, not even for a split second. She “entered” the melody and played her part. The orchestra went with her—orchestra playing their bit, Josima hers; it all went precisely according to the plan of the concert, without one smallest mistake, as sometimes happens. I listened to my daughter play and I watched the faces of the accompanying musicians. Slowly, the facial expressions they had to begin with disappeared from their faces which grew very serious. One could tell they made every effort to perform with precision, not to make a mistake. Every now and then they would raise their eyes and look at each other with amazement and admiration. Later I saw enthusiasm in their eyes—they shook their heads, and once Josima stopped playing these old experienced musicians couldn’t help it and they started clapping. It soon turned into a rapturous ovation. […] Afterwards, they all came up to us to share their admiration. They said they had never heard or seen anything like that in their lives. […] They spoke of Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, about Gimpls and others passing on as “wunderkinder,” and that our daughter could be compared only to the very best amongst them.”

An anticipated sensation

On 15 March 1941, all seats were taken at the Melody Palace, located opposite the building which housed the Ministry of State Treasury at the time (today the seat of the Town Hall).

”Many faces express curiosity and interest, many seem joyous. A sensation in the ghetto, at last, and this time it’s something special. Some people can’t hide their satisfaction stemming from national pride—a genius Hebrew girl has turned up in the ghetto, of all places, at this difficult and depressing time. […] The hall was eerily quiet—I have never experienced such silence at any public concert hall. The silence prevailed from the very first minutes until the very end. The audience’s level of concentration could be measured precisely by this silence, by how intently people listened, fully convinced that there was no one else like her. I seriously doubt if anybody had ever listened to Mozart with such intensity.”

From the review of Josima’s concert published in Gazeta Żydowska daily:

”This time sensation was ancitipated. 11-year old girl entered the stage, sat at the grand piano and played a Mozart concerto. The first part we listened to seemed perfect already, but the second and third blew the audience away. The girl was born with an exceptional musical gift. At some point, she ignored the baton of the conductor who made a mistake, and she continued to play with surgical precision. It seems that this little virtuoso has no technical deficiencies whatsoever—she proved that playing the third part with a flare worthy of the greatest pianists. However, we were most impressed by her interpretation of Mozart’s piece. The young artist got a standing ovation and played an encore—two pieces she herself composed. In most cases, one should not predict the future career of a wunderkind; in Josima’s case, however, one can safely assume that if she continues to make progress at such speed, her talent will flourish to reach the highest level imaginable.”

Beads

We can get acquainted with Josima a bit closer from an article penned by her aunt, Rachel Auerbach, published after the war in the Israeli daily Davar from 26 January 1951. We know that Josima had perfect pitch. She spent long hours every day practising at the piano. Her mother was a tough teacher who accepted only classical repertoire. She would not let the girl play popular melodies or tangos. However, whenever the aunt was looking after her—Rachel was barely 13 years Josima’s senior—they would organize musical quizzes: “I taught her Jewish songs and she quickly caught their melodies and accompanied me. She was so keen on singing—she had a sweet little singing voice with which she would sing folk songs and pre-war hits as well as Schubert’s Unfinished with Polish lyrics, and Chopin’s mazurka which went: ‘If I were a ray of sunshine in the sky…’.” Josima was fond of chatshkes—she liked to play with beads, producing brooches and bracelets which she would later give as presents to her near and dear ones.

Auerbach also recalls Josima’s attempts at composition.

“With a straight face, joking a bit about her young age, she would talk about how she wanted to become a composer one day, to “prove to the world” that women are not only capable of playing pieces written by others, but also of composing music themselves. Her mother was not too keen on that, either. She was convinced that it was way too soon to talk about such things, but, at the end of the day, she used to rewrite Josima’s little notes in a music sheet notebook.”

Thanks to this very notebook we are familiar with Josima’s music. 17 pieces, among them “A little birdie says,” “Village musicians,” “Murmur of a stream,” 6 mazurkas, a waltz and “Eastern Suite”—five melodies Josima composed inspired by Shabbat songs and prayer chanting.

In hiding

As the situation grew more and more precarious, Rubin and Perła attempted to get out of the ghetto. Soon the great liquidation Aktion began. On 22 July 1942, the Germans began the “resettlement” action of the residents of the Warsaw ghetto. Over the course of two months, 254,000 people were deported to the death camp in Treblinka, 11,000 were sent to labour camps, 6,000 were shot dead on the spot. Mere 35,000 people remained legally in the ghetto, with 25,000 more staying in hiding.

Perła wanted to save her daughter at any cost. Rachel Auerbach recalls: “She wanted to make sure her daughter didn’t catch a cold while staying in hideouts, or while running from one hiding place to another. Feeling overly protective and helpless, the mother wrapped her daughter in sweaters, woollen vests and all sorts of clothing. At the end of July, in August and in September 1942—when it was still relatively warm—as a result of all this overheating, Josima fell ill and developed pneumonia.”

It seemed that the girl had been fully cured. Nobody expected that the illness had devastated her young organism. During the second Aktion in January 1943, the family managed to avoid being deported once again. Several weeks later all three succeeded in getting to the “Aryan side” and sought refuge in the village of Pustelnik near Marki. Josima’s condition was deteriorating. Assisted by a Polish girl, she went to see a doctor in Warsaw. It turned out that Josima’s lungs were at the last stage of tuberculosis.

"I was one of the Jewish ‘Aryans’ who could move about freely in the city. It so happened that I went to enquire about Josima’s health. Back then, I had already made contacts on the Polish side. I figured it would be possible to send Josima to a sanatorium for people with TB. I was going to focus all my energy on arranging this—I promised I would move heaven and earth to save Josima!

On Saturday, 17 April, on the evening of Passover and Easter, […] I went to see the doctor, lung specialist, who had examined Josima and who was also a head of sanatorium for people suffering from lung condition in Otwock. Her diagnosis was short and clear: ‘There’s nothing to save! Josima’s lungs are perforated like a sieve, her days are numbered. She may live for another week, but she may not even live that long…’ I walked back home racked with excruciating pain. Feeling desperate and resigned, I stopped to look at shop windows’ displays on this festive evening. In every window, woven baskets were displayed next to the miserable wartime goods, and in them were little chickens made of down. Tiny white "lambs" made of plaster and sugar with a red ribbon tied around their necks looked out from clumps of real grass growing in small pots. Tied with blue ribbons, bunnies pulled large Easter eggs made of Bakelite, filled with candy for children. Tiny bunches of fresh violets could be seen everywhere... Josima was so fond of all sorts of small decorations. Our dearest and most beautiful—Josima!”

Josima died on Wednesday, 21 April 1943, on the second day of Pesach and the third day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the war, her remains were transferred from Pustelnik to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

Commemoration

We presented the music of Josima Feldschuh several times at POLIN Museum. During POLIN Music Festival, distinguished Israeli pianist Ohad Ben-Ari performed her pieces. In 2019, to mark the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we “restaged” the concert Josima gave together with the Jewish Symphony Orchestra. Mozart’s 9th piano concerto by was rendered by 16-year old (at the time) Lauren Zhang, and Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra was conducted by Maestro Gabriel Chmura. During the concert, Robert Więckiewicz read out excerpts from Rubin Feldschuh’s diary and Joanna Szczepkowska read the text of Rachel Auerbach’s article. Josima’s relatives were present at the event—the children of Rubin, who moved to Israel after the end of the war: his daughter Yozra Rina Ben-Shem Mariuma, his son Kami Ben-Shem Feldschuh with wife Shely, his daughter Sharon and the grandchildren: Peril, Ganor and Erica.

Josima’s music was also present during the POLIN Award Gala held in December 2019. They were performed by Stella Maria Kowalczyk, a young student at the Oskar Kolberg State Music School in Warsaw.

To commemorate Josima, we are developing—in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic—‘Very Young Composers’ educational program for children which will be named after Josima. We are also working on a new piano concert inspired by Josima’s music.

Josima for our youngest audience

This year, on 18 April, on the eve of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we invite all young music lovers to another sensory-friendly online music event. This time, we will listen to the sounds of a grand piano—Josima Feldschuh's favourite instrument. We will listen to her compositions and the music she liked to play and sing. Our guide this time will be Emilia Sitarz, an outstanding pianist, winner of the Paszport Polityki Award and member of the Lutosławski Piano Duo and the Kwadrofonik ensemble. The concert has been organized with people with special sensory needs in mind. Premiere: 18 April, 11 AM on POLIN Museum Facebook profile and POLIN YouTube channel.