Life & Culture

‘Papa was a survivor. We knew nothing’: the story that inspired Jeannette Sorrell's music

Ahead of a special concert, baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire conductor recalls how her father hid a secret from his family


Apollo's Fire, Jeanette Sorrell. Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Jeannette Sorrell was preparing for her 2018 Carnegie Hall debut with her baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire when her world turned upside down. She discovered that her 87-year-old father had never told his family the truth about his early life.

As a teenager, he had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald. Later he had changed his name. His family had known nothing whatsoever about it. They didn’t even know he was Jewish.

The impact has ricocheted through the American harpsichordist and conductor’s life ever since. Now it is reflected in the concert Exile — Music of the Jewish and African Diasporas, part of an upcoming residency for Apollo’s Fire at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, later this month.

Looking back, Sorrell reflects that as a young girl she had noticed small, unusual signals in her father’s world.

“We were a close-knit little family, my parents, my sister and me,” she says, “and I always thought that was all there was. My father was very protective of my mother; if she was late back from work, he would be worried about her to a degree that puzzled me and my sister.

“My mother told me that Papa’s parents had been killed in a plane crash when he was 13, which would have been 1944, and that he had no siblings.

"She said we should never ask him about it, because it was too traumatic. In my teens, I realised certain things didn’t make sense.

"Why would his parents have been in a plane in Europe during World War Two? Why did his US passport state his place of birth as Romania, when he always said it was Switzerland?”

Thinking she could be eligible for a Swiss passport through descent, Sorrell encouraged her father to dig out his documentation, but found him reluctant to do so, insisting that a US passport was the best anybody could have.

She signed up instead on, hoping to access the documents she needed.

“I typed in his name, Gregory Sorrell, and his date of birth. Immediately his citizenship papers came up, with his address in San Francisco, where I was born and where my parents had met.

But at the bottom of the page, it said: ‘Name changed from Tibor Polgar.’ I was completely shocked. So was my mother, who had known nothing of this in over 50 years of marriage.”
The plot thickened still further. A DNA test revealed that Sorrell was 50 per cent Ashkenazi Jewish.

Her mother’s test was 0 per cent, indicating that this heritage came from Sorrell’s father. But when DNA details are uploaded to, the organisation can connect people who are related, and two young men from New York duly contacted her, having discovered they were cousins.

“They put me in touch with their aunt, who lives in San Francisco,” says Sorrell. “It turned out her father was my dad’s older brother. My dad had three siblings that he’d never told my mom about and two of them were living in San Francisco.

"We never knew they existed. My father completely broke with his siblings — because they were, I think, holding on to the concentration camp experience. He was much the youngest and it affected him in a different way: he felt he needed to completely block it out.”

From her newly-found cousin, Sorrell learned that her grandparents were killed in the camps. “I cried for three days after that, after which it suddenly occurred to me: is it possible that my own father was in the camps? I was frantically searching online for any information.”

Finally, she found a clue about a database that might contain relevant archive details, “but you had to go to the Holocaust Museum in person to access it”.

She and her partner, Jeffrey Strauss, the baritone of Apollo’s Fire, therefore went together to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. There, researchers provided her with a substantial dossier containing more information than she could have imagined.

“The first page was the passenger list from a train from Auschwitz to Buchenwald on which my father and my grandfather were passengers.

"The second page was my father’s prisoner ID card as a child prisoner at Buchenwald, aged 13. I could recognise him, because I’d seen pictures of him when he was 17.

"I couldn’t believe it at first, because he’s been such a loving father and so full of fun. But he would never talk about his past. He wanted to lock it out.”

When the Americans liberated Buchenwald in 1945, Tibor — or Gregory, as he later became — was 14 and suffering from tuberculosis. He spent three years in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, undergoing treatment.

“There were about 250 orphaned boys in this situation,” says Sorrell. “They were called the Buchenwald Boys; the Swiss government somewhat reluctantly agreed to take them in for five years.”

Aged 19, he had to leave the country. “They booked him a train ticket to Budapest, where his older brother was a university student.”

He disembarked instead in Vienna, where he stayed for some years, working as a journalist and translator, before finally making his way to the US.

Learning the truth was an emotional rollercoaster — just when a vital career landmark was looming ahead of Sorrell and her ensemble.

“All this was leading up to my debut at Carnegie Hall, New York, with Apollo’s Fire, playing some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. No. 5 has a big harpsichord solo, so I needed to practise, but I couldn’t because I was completely distracted.

“When I finally walked out on stage there, I felt hopeless about it, because I felt so unprepared. But sometimes, when you’re in a situation where you don’t care anymore, you can play extremely well — and that’s what happened. I played Brandenburg No. 5 in Carnegie Hall and it was the best performance I’ve ever given.”

Sorrell’s parents were coming to New York to attend the concert and now it became essential to explain to her father that they had learned the truth, since the young New York cousins — his great-nephews — were eager to meet him.

“My mom decided we should tell him, because she wanted them to meet,” says Sorrell. “And so, it was a big, big night.”

When they revealed what they knew, “he was silent for a while. Then he tried to say that it was not true — but Mom pointed out that DNA does not lie.”

Gradually the truth emerged. “For him, the biggest confession was that French was not his native language. He’s such a Francophile.

He’s a retired professor of French and German and we always celebrated Bastille Day.” But where his time in the camps was concerned, he told her that that year was “a blank”.

The incident proved life-changing for them all. “Since then, gradually, he’s become more open with us and much more sunny,” says Sorrell.

“Previously it was as if he had a burden that he wasn’t sharing with anyone. He became warmer and more cheery, he has taken ownership of his Romanian past and he now sings Romanian songs from his childhood, which was amazing to us, because we never even knew he could speak Romanian.

"It’s amazing he remembers it, because he didn’t speak it at all after age 13.”

Sorrell, as luck would have it, had already started exploring Jewish music before these revelations took place: “My partner, Jeff, is Jewish.

"I have many other Jewish friends and we had made our Apollo’s Fire album Sephardic Journey well beforehand. Afterwards, of course, it took on a different level of meaning.”

Exile is the third concert in the ensemble’s London residency. It draws on folk music from Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions as far back as the 17th century and travels through Italian baroque music by Jewish composers, as well as the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, Jewish cantorial singing and Roman Catholic sacred music.

“You begin to realise how much inter-influence there is in the music of all these religions, particularly in the city of Jerusalem, where Jews, Christians and Muslims were all living so close together.”

Apollo’s Fire is no ordinary Baroque orchestra: their performances are all about communication and have been termed “revelatory and convivially theatrical” by BBC Music Magazine and “incandescent” by the Sunday Times.

Sorrell’s vision in forming the ensemble was to “focus on the 17th and 18th-century concept of affekt, or mood: the idea that music should move the emotional moods of the listeners. Our group is called Apollo’s Fire because Apollo was the god of music and healing, and the ancient Greeks believed that music could heal the spirit.”

St Martin-in-the-Fields is in the ascendant in the London music scene, with a flourishing concert series that welcomes world-class musicians into its intimate 18th-century atmosphere.

The Apollo’s Fire residency begins on April 15 with a programme centred on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, then moves down to the Crypt for Blues Café 1610, a musical pub crawl through the popular music of the early 17th century.

On April 17, Exile – Music of the Jewish and African Diasporas brings together the stories of how both these widespread communities have been able, through music, to preserve the culture and soul of their peoples.

And if anybody knows about music, culture and healing, it is Sorrell, striding forth stronger than ever after her extraordinary journey into the past.

Apollo’s Fire, St Martin-in-the-Fields April 15 to 17.

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