‘Symphony of the Holocaust’ film chronicles Holocaust survivor’s musical legacy
The Hungarian violin prodigy Shony Alex Braun endured countless horrors in the Nazi concentration camps, but music helped keep him alive.
The documentary Symphony of the Holocaust, by Executive Producer Garrett Sutton and Producers Greg DeHart, Paul Dzilvelis and Paul Freedman, chronicles Braun’s musical journey through the Holocaust and the eventual composition and performance of his Symphony of the Holocaust decades after the war’s end. The film also documents the efforts of Braun’s daughter, Dinah Braun Griffin, to realize her father’s dream for his symphony to be performed at the gates of the notorious Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Beyond Braun’s remarkable story of survival, the Symphony of the Holocaust film shows individuals transcending boundaries of geography, nationality and faith to bring the beauty of music to a place that saw some of the world’s deepest darkness.
“I hope people will see it as a universal story,” DeHart said.
Symphony of the Holocaust premieres Jan. 27, 2024 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – at the Jewish Nevada Film Festival in Las Vegas. The film can also be viewed online through Sunn Stream.
Beginning with Braun’s childhood encounter with Roma violin music in Hungary, Symphony of the Holocaust follows Braun’s years as a violin prodigy and his deportation at age 13 with his family to Auschwitz. Over the course of the war, Braun would be imprisoned in four Nazi death camps, including Dachau, where he was captive when U.S. forces liberated the camp in April 1945. He immigrated to the U.S. with his wife, Shari Mendelovitz Braun, also a Holocaust survivor, in 1950.
Throughout his wartime ordeal, the melodies Braun heard in his imagination kept him from sinking into despair. Unable to write down the tunes while imprisoned, Braun recorded them in his memory.
“My dad … went to the Holocaust, unfortunately, at a very young age. And there he wrote a symphony in his mind but had no place to write it (down), and so, many years later, he put it to paper,” said Dinah Braun Griffin.
That music became Braun’s Symphony of the Holocaust. Selections from the symphony were performed during the 1980s. The first performance of the complete work took place in 1993, with Braun as violin soloist with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.
Scored for violin and orchestra, the symphony unfolds over five movements, from its opening “Song of the Holocaust,” through its yearning “Prayer,” defiant “Song of Liberation,” solemn “Commemoration” and exuberant finale, “The Joy of Life and Freedom.”
Braun gave some later performances of the symphony but dreamed of playing the piece at the concentration camp where he had been held captive and where his mother and younger sister had perished.
“His dream was to always one day go back to Auschwitz and perform at the gates that symphony, to make something good of something that had so many atrocities and had done so much horror to so many people,” Dinah Braun Griffin said. “He wanted to go and play on his violin. Unfortunately, that couldn’t happen because he passed away.”
DeHart’s documentary picks up where Braun’s dream left off. The film covers the search for Braun’s former violin, which had been sold after his death and loaned to the Armenian violinist Erik Ghukasyan. The documentary also details Ghukasyan’s trip to Auschwitz with Braun Griffin, her husband and her two grown children to play moments from Braun’s Symphony of the Holocaust at the gates of the former camp at Auschwitz.
The film’s power lies ultimately in the message of forgiveness that shines through – that choosing music over death, beauty over ugliness, love over hate transcends division and brings people together.
“I always had said growing up, to my parents, ‘How did you come out so normal and kind and unaffected by this experience?’” Braun Griffin said. “To bring kindness to everybody is so important. My dad would always say, ‘Everybody bleeds the same, so you have to be kind to everybody and be forgiving.’”
Transcript of video interview:
Jennifer Hambrick: Some years ago, the Hungarian violinist, composer and Holocaust survivor Shony Alex Braun composed a musical work Symphony of the Holocaust, and he had a big dream for that work. The new documentary Symphony of the Holocaust chronicles how that dream came true. I’m speaking with documentary filmmaker Greg DeHart and Sony Alex griffin’s daughter, Dinah Braun Griffin, about the documentary Symphony of the Holocaust, featuring the inspiring story of Shony Alex Braun’s symphony. Thank you both for joining me today.
Greg DeHart, Dinah Braun Griffin: Thank you for having us.
JH: My pleasure. Greg DeHart, how did you learn of the story of Shony Alex Braun and his Symphony of the Holocaust and also how did this documentary ultimately come about?
GD: Sure. I was doing another project called The Violins of Hope, and during that project I met Dr. Noreen Green, who is in our film, and she told me about Shony and the Symphony of the Holocaust. And once I heard that, I thought, this is really interesting just on the surface – a symphony about the Holocaust. How could that be? So I talked to Noreen a little bit more about that, and then I contacted Dinah and wondered if she might be interested in doing a film about her father and the symphony that he wrote. Unfortunately, he had died already at that point. So the little that I could find online led me to Dinah, and she was kind enough to let us tag along through her journey and tell the story.
JH: And Dinah, if you would, tell us about your father, by way of an overview of his life – his musical beginnings, his life during World War II, when and how he came to the U.S., and who he was as a person.
DBG: As I’ve said many times, my dad was my hero. I’ll start with that. He was an incredibly amazing gentleman and human being. He was a child violin prodigy. Started playing at 4 when he got lost in the forest and met some Gypsies. He became well known early on, but he went to the Holocaust, unfortunately, at a very young age. And there he wrote a symphony in his mind, but had no place to write it, and so many years later, he put it to paper. It was actually performed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1993 with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. And as far as the rest of his life, he traveled around the world, really, playing and speaking about his experiences in the Holocaust. He survived the Holocaust because he had volunteered to perform or play for the Kapos under very stressful circumstances. And in addition to being a Holocaust survivor and a phenomenal child prodigy concert violinist and composer, where he wrote hundreds of published pieces, he also was an incredible husband and father to me and my brother, and a grandfather to my two children and my brother’s children. He and my mother had a truly wonderful love story. And they met and fell in love while he serenaded her in the hospital where they both stayed for about a year.
JH: And right, as you mentioned a little while ago, during World War II, after Shony had been taken away and taken to the concentration camps, he heard music in his mind, he heard what would become the Symphony of the Holocaust in his mind, but he did not have the means or the opportunity actually to write the piece down. But that’s an important thing because it sounds to me like music really kept him alive. That was one of the things that sort of kept him alive through that ordeal of being prisoner in the concentration camps during the Holocaust.
DBG: Yes, indeed. There was a story that’s in the film and it’s in his book where he and two other Holocaust prisoners were asked to – anybody who could play the violin, come forward to get food. And my father volunteered, along with two other gentlemen. And the first one, my father always told us that he played just an incredible piece – I don’t remember now exactly the name of it – but he was blown away, and apparently the Kapo wasn’t and hit him over the head with a lead pipe and murdered him right in front of my father. And then the second musician, prisoner came forward, and he just was so nervous that his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t play anything, but he also was murdered right in front of my father. And then it was my dad’s turn and he thought, oh my gosh, this is it. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. And he said that somewhere, his left hand and his right hand came together, and he just started playing The Blue Danube, which I should mention he had never played before in his life. He had heard it many times, he had heard his brother, who was a phenomenal accordionist, play it. But he had never played it, and he had never played it on a full-size violin, because he was a teenager when that happened. So the Kapo liked it and started beating time to it. And from that point on he was asked to perform many times and was given food. And that is truly one of the ways he survived the hideous camps.
JH: Sure, Okay. So he does survive the Holocaust, moves to the United States and he’s got this music in his head. But do you know about when it was that he actually sort of started putting that music down on paper, actually started writing the symphony down on paper?
DBG: I don’t really know, but I’m going to guess it was probably a couple of years after he came out of the Holocaust. I don’t know why 1972 comes to my head, but it might have been – he had worked on it for many years. And then I know it took a while to find an orchestra that he could put together and write an orchestra piece, not just the melody. And that was so for many of his other pieces as well, but the symphony, of course, was his baby. And his dream was to always one day go back to Auschwitz and perform at the gates that symphony, to make something good of something that had so many atrocities and had done so much horror to so many people. He wanted to go and play on his violin. Unfortunately, that couldn’t happen because he passed away. And lucky for me that Greg found me and that was a blessing. I’m so incredibly grateful to him for being able to make my father and my mother’s dream come true.
JH: Okay, so Greg if you would sort of pick up the thread. How did the trip to Auschwitz, the performance of the violin part from Shony Alex Braun’s Symphony of the Holocaust, actually happen? How did that come about?
GD: Well, the first thing we had to do was track down his violin. He had a very expensive [violin], made by a very famous violin maker. And we made a couple phone calls. Shony had a really great relationship – a friend of his was his violin restorer, who happened to be a German. And they became very good friends. And at one point when Dinah and his brother, after he had passed, decided to sell his violin, he sold it to a gentleman in an orchestra up in the Pacific Northwest, who has actually wanted to remain anonymous. And he in turn lent it to a family friend, who happened to be another prodigy violinist, who’s in our film, Erik. And once we found Erik, Dinah got on a Zoom call with Erik to tell him her story and what they wanted to do in terms of going back. And I’m going to let Dinah tell the story, but they connected right away, and it turned out that – go ahead, Dinah. Tell us what happened when you talked to him the first time.
DBG: Well, I’m going to get emotional even now thinking about it, but I got on the phone with Erik [Ghukasyan]. He was a young gentleman. And he had my dad’s violin, he was holding it. And it was very emotional just to think that somebody had that piece. That was – other than my mom and us, my dad’s kids, that was probably the love of his life. But I found out that he was Armenian and his family had been persecuted as well. And the way he spoke to me about how he watched some videos of my father and he understood the way he moved, I just felt there was something about him that really got it. I had met some others as well who knew my father that would have done a nice job. But something about Erik and his background and his family had such similarities, although very different – I just thought it was a perfect fit for us to take him with us. And he’s amazing. And it was great. We went together to Auschwitz on this journey with my husband, Bob, and my two children, Sierra and Dane. And I got to meet him in person. And along the way he played for us a lot. And then he played at the gates, fulfilling my father’s wish and my mom’s wish to one day have his violin played at the gates and make something beautiful of that place. And I think – in retrospect looking back now, I think it was also to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here. We survived. We made it. We won.’ And to bring kindness to everybody is so important. And I wanted also to mention, that I didn’t mention earlier: my parents never spoke to me about the Holocaust at all until we were much older. So there was no prejudice, there was no nasty words about anybody. My dad would always say, ‘Everybody bleeds the same. So you have to be kind to everybody and be forgiving.’
GD: If you don’t mind, Jennifer, I’ll just add: once we found Erik, who’s Armenian – this was kind of just from a storytelling standpoint – it was just amazing that this film turned out to be such a – I hope people will see it as a universal story. We had Shony, a 13-year-old violin prodigy who survived the Holocaust, whose daughter, Dinah, her husband is Christian; Shony’s violin restorer is German; and then the man fulfilling his wish is Armenian, by going to Auschwitz. So that’s how the story came together, it was just one thing after another. And to get to know Dinah and her family, who are just so open to everyone and so reflective of who Shony was – and Shari, Shony’s wife – who they were. They were just so open to everyone, there was no prejudice there. They somehow miraculously were able to forgive and go on with their life. And they both talk about that in the film.
JH: Sure, it’s a very human story that, in its humanity and in its openness and in its acceptance of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, redeems, actually, some of the atrocities that happened in the war.
DBG: I think so.
GD: Yes. And like Dinah says, it’s also kind of a big “Screw You” to Hitler. “We’re here. My symphony’s being played in front of the gates of Auschwitz. So take that.”
JH: Right, right. Yeah.
GD: And I think that one of the things that people recognize in the film – and this is one of the first things I did – was I wanted to see if we could find any interviews with Shony. And the Shoah Foundation, Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, who interviewed thousands of Holocaust survivors for us all to have. And the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington, D.C., had done interviews with Shony. And as soon as I saw those interviews, I saw this amazing man who was, A), a great storyteller. He was passionate about his music. And he was kind and just such a good, warm person. And that, to me, is something that just holds this whole film together—is his humanity and how he was able to express himself, not only through his music but verbally. I can see why he was Dinah’s hero, for sure.
JH: The Zoom call that you have with the violinist, Erik Ghukasyan, is incredibly emotional, as you might imagine. Those moments where you and your family and Erik are standing at Auschwitz also must have been incredibly emotional to you, as well. You see some of that in the documentary. It may be an obvious question, but what for you, Dinah, was it like – I mean, what was it like for you to stand there at Auschwitz knowing how much of your family history passed through that place, knowing your father’s dream, your mother’s dream to have your father’s music played at that concentration camp to try to brings something positive to such a dark, dark place. I mean, what was it like for you to actually be there experiencing all of this?
DBG: I think that’s a good question, actually, because there was a range of emotions, as you can imagine. The whole trip - and you can probably see in the documentary, I was overwhelmed. I spent quite a bit of time being emotional through that experience, much more than even I anticipated. I had never wanted to go to Auschwitz, I had never thought about going to Auschwitz, except that I had made this promise to my parents that I would do what I could. And then when Greg approached me, I was hesitant. So being there was very bittersweet. It was more horrific than I imagined, and I always had said growing up, to my parents, ‘How did you come out so normal and kind and unaffected by this experience?’ And when I got there, and being there I was even more overwhelmed about, how is it possible that humans could survive this? And so, at the gates, I was grateful to have my family there with me and the support. It was difficult. It was very difficult, but I also felt, as Greg also said, you know, it was kind of a screw you to Hitler and the Nazis. We made it and we did this. And I knew that I’d made my parents so proud. And that to me was everything, that I was able to do that. Because I never imagined – for many years after my dad died, I didn’t think it would be possible. So a lot of gratitude for being able to do that and being there. And I think everybody was emotional. I think Erik playing the violin was emotional. I think it was difficult for everybody. But we won.