Alexis Weissenberg dies at 82; French pianist’s music saved him from death camps

Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg, whose love of music from the age of 3 saved him and his mother from a World War II concentration camp and carried him to the heights of performances with Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, has died. He was 82.

This online article has been updated to clarify that Poland was occupied by Germany at the time Alexis Weissenberg and his mother were taken prisoner. This is in keeping with the style guidelines of the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

Weissenberg died Sunday in Lugano, Switzerland, according to Bulgarian and Swiss news reports. He had Parkinson’s disease.

An only child, Weissenberg was born into a Jewish family in Sofia in 1929. He recalled sharing “musical joys” learning piano and listening to recordings and concerts with his mother, before studying piano with a famous Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov.

When he and his mother tried to flee German-occupied Bulgaria for Turkey with fake identification and visa papers in 1941, he recalled in an essay on his website, they landed in “an improvised concentration camp” in Bulgaria for people crossing the border illegally. He said the Nazi-guarded camp was probably intended to send people to German-occupied Poland — and extermination.

They arrived with few belongings other than a small bag, a large cardboard box, a few sandwiches and an old accordion given him as a birthday gift by a wealthy aunt. And they were lucky: After three months in the unspecified camp, a German guard who enjoyed listening to Weissenberg play Schubert on the accordion helped them escape by train.


“It was the same officer who decided one chaotic day to come and fetch us hurriedly, bring us to the station, push our belongings (still the cardboard box) through the door, literally throw the accordion through the window of the compartment,” he recalled.

The guard told his mother “Good luck” in German, then vanished. Half an hour later, they were over the border and no one asked for passports. The next day they arrived in Istanbul.

He said luck “sometimes produces tiny miracles” and “our unexpected piece of luck was a musical instrument, the dear old accordion.”

They made their way to Palestine, where he performed Beethoven with the Israel Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein. In 1946 he moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Then, in the 1950s, he moved to Paris and became a French citizen.


In 1966, he played Tchaikovsky with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan. In later decades, he gave numerous master piano classes, and his recordings of classics by composers such as Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Brahms became well known.