The Polish Pope's Maestro (Part 2)

Interview With Sir Gilbert Levine

Share this Entry

By Kathleen Naab

NEW YORK, MARCH 31, 2011 (<a href=”http://www.zenit.org”>Zenit.org).- Sir Gilbert Levine has the highest rank of pontifical nobility achieved by a Jew in the history of the Vatican.

He is a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, invested with the Silver Star of St. Gregory.

But these high honors speak to a more inward privilege: what Levine calls the “most incredible privilege that I could have had as an artist.” And that was the privilege of forging a spiritual friendship with Pope John Paul II, cooperating with him in his dream of reconciliation and peace for all mankind.

ZENIT spoke with Levine about his 17 years as the “Pope’s Maestro,” a story he has told in his memoirs by that name.

Part 1 of this interview was published Wednesday.

ZENIT: As you’ve mentioned, your mother-in-law, Margit Raab-Kalina, was a Holocaust survivor. You note the Pope’s special concern for her, beginning with the first time they met. What did he tell her at that first meeting?

Levine: Well, you have to understand that my mother-in-law was in Auschwitz, and there were people in Auschwitz who wanted the Allies to bomb Auschwitz, to kill them, [so as] to stop the killing. They wanted a voice to come that said, “Stop. This is insane.” Men are killing men and women and children. Have you ever been to Yad Vashem and heard the names of the children in a darkened room? You can’t imagine the horrors she lived through and anyone who says they can — and I’ve listened to the stories, and I’ve read the stories and I’ve been to Auschwitz — and you just can’t imagine it.

So she was not open to this in the sense that she thought there was any way that she and the Polish Pope would come together. And then her son-in-law gets this crazy job. But instead of saying, “What are you doing going back? I suffered this incredible pain there.” She says, “Go. You’ll show them that we live.” That already was an amazing thing. And my father-in-law who had lived Anne Frank-style opposite the Gestapo headquarters in Bratislava would have nothing of it. He had no interest whatsoever in what I was doing in Krakow. He thought I was crazy to go there, especially with no money and the Cold War and Communism. Crazy. But my mother-in-law said, “Go and show that we live.”

When I invited her to the first concert I did in 1988, she decided to come and frankly I was almost surprised that she did, but she did. When the Pope asked to see me after the rehearsal, and asked specifically that I bring her and my wife along with me, in that same private library, she couldn’t imagine why, and I couldn’t imagine why.

I walked in and the first thing he said to me was, “Have you had enough rehearsal time? You know the Pope is coming tonight. It’s a pretty important concert.” He was making a joke — an unbelievable joke — and that was him. And it was fantastic. He was very purposeful. He was trying to calm me down because it was the first time I’d ever conducted before the whole world, which is what you’re doing when you’re conducting for the Pope.

Then out of that atmosphere of almost jocularity, he calls Margit over to him, and puts his arm on her shoulder and looks at her deeply and starts speaking to her in Polish. My mother-in-law’s father spoke Polish, and she was incredibly linguistically gifted so she understood Polish. Czech was her native language — and German — but she understood Polish and they started to speak. When you were there in that room, you could see that something unbelievably strange was going on. It was like they were in another world, even though they were five feet away. And they were speaking to each other like two people who had seen the same darkness, who understood that incredible, powerful evil, because they had seen it from two sides of the same barbed wire. He began a process of reaching into her, saying, “I hear you. I know what you went through.” We were just amazed — because the atmosphere was completely different. She was rapt in him in a way that I don’t think she absolutely expected to be. I don’t know what she expected, but she didn’t expect that. And when she left, she couldn’t speak for the longest time.

Then that night after the concert, he comes up and puts his arm around me and says, “Thank you for going to Krakow, thank you for bringing Krakow to me. And where’s your mother-in-law?” [This was in] the Sala Nervi. There were 7,500 people there, television cameras all over the place, an orchestra and a choir, and he’s asking we where my mother-in-law is (laughing). And I said, “I don’t know — she’s out there, she’s out there — I don’t know.”

I don’t know what he was expecting. It was so incredible. That he was going to reach out and bring her on the stage? That he was going to go down and greet her? I really don’t know. But she began a process of change. And then in 1994 when she came for the concert to commemorate the Holocaust — which I really initiated in the sense of saying I wanted to do a concert in Rome that I would invite the Pope to, for her — I wanted to do it for her; I felt that it was fated and that I could do something for her.

The Pope made it about every survivor because he had the audience [with survivors] on the morning of the concert, April 7, 1994, and he greeted every single Holocaust survivor. Some of them couldn’t say a word — they were so dumbstruck — and some of them went on and on. But he listened to each one. And the prefect of the Pontifical Household came up and made a sign, as if to say, “You know, Your Holiness, it’s time already.” He shook him off and listened to each one. Then he came to Margit at the end, and my wife was holding my son Gabriel, and the Pope kissed my son Gabriel and then looked again into Margit’s eyes, as if to say, “You and I have been apart but we have not been separated. I have been thinking about you.” And it’s true because almost every time I’d seen him in the intervening six years, he has asked about her. She was so moved. She was one of the six who lit one of the candles in the Sala Nervi, the menorah from the Holocaust. She lit one of those candles and you could see her trembling as she lit it because she knew what history was being made.

She died then several years after that — at peace. It was amazing. She could finally live life with her grandchildren, finally find joy in her family — and she was actually angry when she died because she had finally found peace and now God was calling her. She couldn’t understand that. “You put me through all of these years of torment, and all the years after the War when no one would understand. And then finally I found peace, and I could play with my grandchildren with abandon, with incredible intensity and wonderful joy, and now you’re taking me?” She died with pictures in her room of her mother and father, murdered by the Nazis, her brother murdered by the Nazis, and a picture of herself and the Pope. And she died a Jewish woman, but she died at peace.

I know it’s miracles that happen after he passes that count toward beatification and canonization, but if there is another miracle from when he was still alive, I saw that miracle in her. I recently asked my brother-in-law about it. He hadn’t met the Pope and he’d only seen it through his mother’s eyes, and he said, “For sure. She died at peace. She was at peace in those last years of her life and it was because of him.” There’s just no question about it.

ZENIT: We spoke about your moment with him in prayer. It’s almost as if Margit is another symbol of everything he wanted your relationship to be — to put these survivors at peace, to put so much of the violence to rest.

Levine: In the past. Absolutely. And then what he tried to do even more after that. Even in 2000. Think about the fact that I was doing the
concert to commemorate his 80th birthday in the Jubilee year. It’s his birthday concert; he can have what he wants. I suggested that we do “Creation” by Haydn, which sets the first verses of Genesis up until the point where the three faiths divide, so just before that place where Isaac and Ishmael come. He wanted that. He wanted this symbol in that incredible year of reconciliation. If you remember the statement of the sins that he was involved with — the contrition he expressed– he wanted that concert to embody a reaching out to Muslims. And that was before 9/11.

After 9/11, his incredible wish was that some of the same reaching-out could be done — that what he had done with me through music toward the Jewish community could be done also toward Islam, bringing the three monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths together. We did that Papal concert in 2000 and then we did a concert in Krakow with the Dresden Staatskapelle doing the Brahm’s Requiem on the first anniversary of 9/11, which he was very involved in planning. And then we did the Concert of Reconciliation in 2004 — all striving to use my art in that same quest: the quest that he had found so powerful toward Jews could now be extended toward Islam.

He wanted that very, very badly. I think it was unfinished business for him. It’s unfinished business for the world. We are all trying to find a way, a language, to find that at-one-ment with one another. That was a huge part of what he was searching for, as I say, even before 9/11. Even before that shock of “How can they have killed in the name of God, with the name of God on their lips?” He couldn’t imagine that. But it was before then, it was before the crisis hit. It was what he thought was the natural next step. And that I could work with him and give my art to that and understand that that’s what he wanted. He wanted to find reconciliation.

It was the most incredible privilege that I could have had as an artist. What more can art do? Than to fulfill that kind of dream of all mankind.

ZENIT: My last question: From your perspective, as a Jew — does it have a special meaning for you now that John Paul II will be Blessed John Paul II?

Levine: Huge. I believe the signs that were there on the day of the funeral: “santo subito.” I believe that he is already a saint in the eyes of many. And what was amazing at the funeral was that there were so many millions there. If you looked from my perspective — I was so privileged — I was 20 feet, 30 feet from the coffin and I saw the heads of state: some of them Anglican, some of them Jewish, some of them Muslim, all in the front row, all there, to honor the spirit of this man. The spirit of this man — not the death, but the spirit, the ongoing spirit of this man.

What beatification, and I believe canonization, will do is to literally enshrine that spirit, to make us think of that spirit as a goal toward which we should strive in our daily lives. My work goes on. I hope and know there are so many inside the Church and outside the Church who view him as a beacon to which we have to strive — to find our way to that light that he showed us. I think beatification and canonization are the natural outgrowth of the life he lived — certainly a life of heroic virtue, but one that can be a beacon to people, both Catholic and non-Catholic all over the world.

— — —

On ZENIT’s Web page:

Part 1: www.zenit.org/article-32180?l=english

Share this Entry

ZENIT Staff

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation