Ashes to Light By Nelly Ben-Or
I. B. Tauris, £20
Nelly Ben-Or has had an extraordinary life. A distinguished pianist and teacher, her musical career has brought her widespread success, and recognition as a major proponent of the Alexander Technique for pianists. Her story of resilience and determination, despite a legacy of horror and deprivation experienced during and after the Holocaust, is both moving and humbling.
Born in the early 1930s to a Jewish family in Lvov, Poland, Ben-Or’s early life came to be overshadowed by the Shoah. At the same time, her love of music, in particular the piano, grew. Although her father was murdered by the Nazis, Nelly, along with her mother and sister, was smuggled out of the ghetto in Lvov and escaped to Warsaw with false identity papers.
The most constant factor in any Holocaust survivor’s case — luck — brought them through the constant threat of discovery, even after having been put on a train to Auschwitz. Their false documentation caused them to be categorised not as Jews but as citizens of Warsaw, following the Warsaw uprising. Her musical talent and ambition survived all of this.
After the War, Ben-Or was able to flourish at the specialist music high school in Katowice, where, at the age of 13, she gave her first public recitals and was awarded a Chopin Scholarship.
Without bitterness, she recounts how the effect of the Holocaust and continuing antisemitism in Poland necessitated, for a long period, her hiding her Jewish identity to her teachers and peers. This left her with considerable psychological scars and recurring nightmares. But the misery and deprivation she suffered made her even more eager to get as much education as she possibly could.
In 1950, Nelly Ben-Or and her mother moved to Israel, though Nelly was at first reluctant about starting afresh. And indeed, initially, they encountered more hardship, having to live in a camp for newcomers and, later, a tiny, cramped apartment.
A meeting with the renowned piano teacher, Henrietta Michaelson, was the turning point in her musical career. She won the Mozart Competition, which led to public concert performances. But she was still not free of adverse experiences — her mentor Henrietta died and Nelly herself married unhappily, leading to a lonely divorce.
However, having come to live in London, she has flourished, teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, giving recitals and playing in concerts here and abroad as well as qualifying in, and becoming a teacher of the Alexander Technique, in which she is an internationally acknowledged expert in its application to musicians.
Sipora Levy is a freelance reviewer