Minnesota cellist tells family's story of survival during Holocaust

Communicating through music for as long as she can remember, Janet Horvath recalls growing up in Toronto in a home that was filled with smiles and learning to play the piano from her mother. And cello from her father. But when the instruments went silent, there was plenty the family never spoke about.

"My father was the one I know now, in retrospect, he had PTSD," says Janet "He would be the one with choking sounds at night or crying, nightmares obviously."

It wasn't until after her mother had a stroke in her late 70s and died eight years later Janet learned about a private recorded interview conducted a decade earlier by her cousin. This was the first time Janet finally heard her mother speak about surviving the Holocaust.

"Where should I start way, way back? I can start way, way back," Katherine Horvath says in the reel-to-reel audio recording.

Through this and other research Janet learned her parents were first dating in Budapest, just as Germany was losing World War II. The Nazis continued moving in and rounding up every Hungarian Jew they could find.

"May 26th, 1944, my mother had to get false papers, had to get parents’ permission because she was only 17, she borrowed a dress. They went to a justice of the peace and said they were Catholic, and they were married, and my father was deported the next morning to the copper mines of Borg, Yugoslavia for slave labor," says Janet.

Meantime, his young bride moved around the city hiding for her life. "We could hear the guns," Katherine recalls in the recordings. "They saw it was finished but they were still killing everybody."

"They were deporting up to 12,500 people a day. Men and women on trains to Auschwitz, the infamous camp," says Janet "My mother evaded that."

Eventually, the war ended. George Horvath reunited with his wife, Katherine, and a cello. Plus, along the way met Janet’s personal icon, Leonard Bernstein. Best known much later for West Side Story decades earlier the famed American conductor changed her father’s life.

A moment George didn’t speak to his daughter about until he was within a year of dying at 87 years old.

"He said yes! It was a very hot day; he came he was just a kid. He played ‘Rapacity in Blue’ and it was with the Jewish orchestra in the displaced person’s camp, and I talked to him and told him I want to come to America."

George joined a group of about 17 orchestra musicians bused all over Bavaria to camps in the American zone of Germany after the war.

"They had a mandate to bring morale-boosting concerts to those still languishing in the displaced persons camps. Waiting for news of loved ones waiting for the difficult paperwork to leave Europe."

Later the young couple was able to claim to be farmers and immigrate to Canada where they raised their family. Janet followed in his classical music career footsteps, playing 32 years with the Minnesota Orchestra. She also spent the last decade putting her family story into print. Her book "The Cello Still Sings" is part history lesson, part hope and awareness for the future. 

"This history of playing all these concerts and bringing music and hope to those refuges was something I thought the public needs to know about," says Janet "Without language skills, in a new culture, new foods, new traditions, it’s so difficult.  We need to realize we are still dealing with statelessness and refugees right now.  How can we have empathy for those people that have to start over?"

And while it took decades for Janet to even come close to understanding the tremendous amount of pain her parents went through, she knows each note of a few recordings from her father's 38 years with the Toronto Orchestra are a gift. And a reflection of the healing value of music that no one can put into words.

"It takes me back to my childhood listening to him practice this."