As a budding young violinist, Shony Alex Braun would steal into the woods of his native Romania to hear the Gypsies play. But the innocence of those early years was shattered at age 13, when Braun was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
The Gypsy influence has stayed with Braun, now 56 and living in Los Angeles, whose playing has been described as "fiery, Gypsy-like." Braun's experiences in the concentration camps are reflected in his own compositions. On Saturday night Braun will perform a part of his recent work, "Symphony of the Holocaust," when he appears in concert with the Garden Grove Symphony.
Braun first discovered his beloved Gypsy music at age 4, when he became lost in the woods near his home in Igduca, Transylvania, now part of Romania. He wandered until he was found by a Gypsy woman, who took him back to her camp.
"They (the Gypsies) were musicians, and they practiced outside in the open air, so that was the first time I was really exposed to violin music," Braun recalled in a recent interview. "When I was found, I begged my parents for a violin, and a year later they found a small enough instrument for me to handle."
The young violinist took formal lessons at a conservatory in nearby Marosvasarhely but stole back to the woods to learn from the Gypsies whenever he had the chance. He would have been expelled from school had the visits been discovered by his teachers, Braun said. "When you studied classical music, the school or the teacher would not allow you to play even a Strauss waltz."
At 10, Braun gave his first public concert, which was broadcast over Radio Bucharest. But then World War II arrived. Braun, a Jew, was 13 when he and his family were taken away to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Braun's mother and younger sister were killed immediately. His father and brother were to lose their lives later. Braun himself survived a number of harrowing close calls before being sent to the camp at Dachau.
Just three weeks before the camp was liberated, an SS guard promised food to anyone who could play the violin. Three prisoners reported, and Braun watched as the first two were killed for not playing to the guard's satisfaction. The violin was handed to Braun, who had not played in more than a year and had never played a full-size instrument.
"When the violin was given to me, I got scared stiff. Nothing came to me," Braun said. To his own surprise, he began to play Strauss' "Waltz of the Blue Danube," a piece he had not planned to play at all. And he was playing it well enough for the guard to nod in approval.
"How did my subconscious know the SS would like this?" Braun pondered. "I call it a miracle. I was a walking, talking skeleton. A strange instrument would be bad enough, but a full-sized one--how did I do this?" In the coming weeks Braun would entertain the guards in their barracks.
Braun said he was shot just one day before liberation, along with thousands of other prisoners, and loaded onto a truck carrying stacks of the dead. Gravely wounded, Braun was "stolen" from the truck by a fellow prisoner, a French doctor who smuggled him into the French prisoners' barracks and removed the bullet with a pocket knife and tweezers.
After liberation, Braun was taken to a hospital in Gauting, Germany, near Munich, to recover from his wound and from diseases--including typhus and tuberculosis--he had contracted during his incarceration.
Recovered, Braun continued his music studies at the Academy of Music in Munich and at the famed Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. In 1950, he came to the United States and began studying under famed violinist and teacher Josef Gingold at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After receiving his master's degree he performed with the Cleveland Symphony before coming to Los Angeles.
He performed regularly for many years in a number of Los Angeles restaurants, gaining a loyal following, but he now concentrates on touring. His repertory includes classical fare but also leans heavily on Gypsy and continental tunes. Braun has made appearances in several movies and television shows and lectures regularly on European folk music and, of course, Gypsy music.
He is also an active composer. He has performed excerpts from his five-part "Symphony of the Holocaust," which he considers his most ambitious work to date, in solo recitals. Saturday's concert will be the first time any of the work has been performed with a full orchestra.
The five parts of the work are entitled "Song of the Holocaust," "Prayer," "Liberation," "Commemoration" and "Joy of Life." At Saturday night's concert at 8 in the Don Wash Auditorium, 11271 Stanford Ave. in Garden Grove, Braun will perform "Joy of Life" as an encore.
Braun said he recalls his Holocaust experiences in interviews, lectures, television appearances--and now in his music--because he is alarmed by claims that the tragedy never happened. "They say that it is just Jewish propaganda. Well, I want to show you something," he said, opening his shirt to show the scar from the bullet wound he received on his last day of imprisonment.
"I keep telling the story because I have this very deep concern that something like the Holocaust will happen again."