As premieres go, it wasn’t exactly promising. When Leonard Bernstein unleashed his sprawling Third Symphony — titled “Kaddish” — on the American public in January 1964, the critics practically trampled one another to get in the first jabs.
It wasn’t Bernstein’s music that drew the ridicule — it was the cringe-inducing narration he had written, around which the symphony revolves. A Kaddish is a Jewish prayer associated with mourning, and Bernstein had dedicated the piece to John F. Kennedy, assassinated the previous November. Bernstein tried to grapple with huge spiritual issues in the work, angrily confronting God and demanding an answer to the problem of evil in the world. “A lava-flow of cliches,” judged one critic.
Bernstein told an interviewer a few years later: “Even I am embarrassed when I hear the record.”
“Kaddish” is coming to the Kennedy Center this week, but don’t worry. Conductor John Axelrod, who will be leading the National Symphony Orchestra, has set aside the composer’s original prose in favor of a narration written — and performed — by an extraordinary figure named Samuel Pisar. Pisar, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, has completely rewritten the text, turning “Kaddish” into a searing and intensely moving exploration of one of mankind’s greatest horrors.
“Bernstein knew better than anyone that his text was not suited to this symphony,” says Pisar, who wrote his narration after the composer, a close friend, asked him to do so in the last weeks of his life. “Lenny told me: ‘I don’t have the credentials to do something serious with this. I’m just dancing around God. But you have lived it in body and soul.’ ”
Pisar’s life, in fact, has been an extraordinary story of suffering and rebirth. As a child in Poland, he saw his father tortured and killed by the Gestapo, and at 13 he was sent to the extermination camp of Majdanek, then to Auschwitz and finally Dachau. He was lucky to survive; his mother and younger sister were taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again.
“In front of the cattle car, at the moment of my separation from my mother, she decided I must put on a pair of long pants,” says Pisar, now 82 and living in Paris. “She said, ‘In the long pants, maybe they will take you for a man and send you to forced labor.’ She didn’t say what would happen to her. I had to work that out later.”
Orphaned and alone in the death camps, Pisar survived through a kind of feral cunning. His life expectancy, he says, was only about two weeks; condemned to the gas chamber, he escaped by grabbing a bucket and convincing the guards that he was just there to mop the floor.
“Because I was so young and didn’t think as much as others, I was able to act as an instinctive animal,” he says. “To smell danger, and do something about it.”
He managed to escape from a Dachau death march at the end of the war and was rescued by American troops. Skeletal and barely alive, he was taken in by one of the regiments as a sort of “mascot,” he says, and survived in postwar Germany by scrounging coffee, cigarettes and liquor and selling them on the black market. He was 16, living by his wits and headed for serious trouble.
“There was anger in me,” he says. “I didn’t go to school. I didn’t even hold a book in my hand for six years. I could have become a terrorist, I suppose. I had good reason to: vengeance.”
Instead, he was given a chance at a new life. An aunt in Paris tracked him down and sent him to live with relatives in Australia, where he caught up on his missed education, eventually earning a law degree from the University of Melbourne.
That was just the beginning. Pisar went on to Harvard, where his doctoral thesis caught the eye of president-elect John F. Kennedy and led to a position on Kennedy’s Task Force on Foreign Economic Policy while he was still in his 20s. His work in Washington launched a career as one of the most influential analysts of East-West relations of the time. His 1970 book “Coexistence and Commerce” helped shape the Nixon administration’s policies toward China and the Soviet Union, and Pisar became an adviser to many Fortune 100 companies — all while earning another doctorate from the Sorbonne, acting as attorney to Hollywood celebrities from Rita Hayworth to Elizabeth Taylor and being short-listed, in 1974, for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Life,” says the Auschwitz survivor, “has been scandalously good to me.”
Through much of this period, Pisar was also forging a friendship with Bernstein that would last decades. They met through Pisar’s wife, Judith, an accomplished musician who headed the American Center in Paris and had been musical director at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Judith turned the Pisar home in Paris (which once belonged to Claude Debussy) into a sort of salon; Arthur Rubinstein would drop by to play the piano, Seiji Ozawa stopped in when he was in town, and John Cage would come over for a game of chess. But the dominant figure, Pisar says, was always Bernstein.
“It was a very special friendship,” Pisar says. “He asked me many questions about Auschwitz, and we would talk until 5 in the morning.”
The conversations affected Bernstein profoundly. “I don’t like to talk about the horrors,” Pisar says, “so I told him once, just to relax him, about the humor in the camps. There was even gambling; that piece of gray bread that your life depended on was the stake, and . . . well, can you imagine a farting competition? Some people, particularly the Russians, were virtuosos, and the guy who won took all the pieces of bread.
“When I told Lenny that story, he sobbed — sobbed,” Pisar recalls. “I thought I was telling him a mild story. But he, of course, understood the immense tragedy of it.”
As their friendship grew, the two worked together on a concert in Warsaw marking the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. But Bernstein had even bigger plans.
“He wanted to do a Holocaust opera,” Pisar says. “And I said: ‘Lenny, I don’t like the idea. I have strong nerves — but I don’t see Renata Tebaldi in front of a gas chamber, emoting with an aria.’ ”
Bernstein kept generally pursuing Pisar, and in 1990, after reading his memoir “Of Blood and Hope,” Bernstein asked him to write a text for “Kaddish” instead of an opera. The composer had been trying to fix the narration for years, and a shorter version had emerged in 1977, but he remained unsatisfied. “It’s still too much,” he told an interviewer, “and it’s still too corny.”
Pisar turned Bernstein down, saying he wasn’t competent to undertake such a monumental task and was unwilling, as he puts it, “to reopen my conflict with the Almighty.” The composer died a few months later, and Pisar put the request out of his mind. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he reconsidered.
“Suddenly I felt the world was becoming unstable again,” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something.’ ”
The result is an intimate, often harrowing journey into Pisar’s childhood in the camps, leading to an angry confrontation with God and a hopeful reconciliation. He rails against the folly of man and the “deluge of hatred, violence and fear that is engulfing us again,” hoping, he says, to honor the memory of his fellow prisoners who died in the camps.
But most of all, he says, he wants to sound an alarm to a world that seems increasingly bent on its own destruction.
“What makes ‘Kaddish’ relevant now is that the world has come to meet it,” Pisar says. “The world is inflamed again, by terrorism, by the mythology of death, by rampant economic disruptions.” “Kaddish,” he says, is “not only to cry about the past — but also to warn for the future.”
Brookes is a freelance writer.
By Leonard Bernstein, text written and read by Samuel Pisar, with John Axelrod conducting the National Symphony Orchestra and the Cathedral Choral Society, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, June 2 through 4. Tickets $20 to $85. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.