ROCKLAND PIANIST WHO ESCAPED NAZIS TO BE ACCLAIMED IN GERMANY

BY DR. LOUIS ALPERT

LudmillaLudmilla Berkwic, a Rockland County concert pianist who passed away in 2005 was also one of the best-known piano teachers in our county from the years 1950-2000.

Born in Russia in 1910, Ludmilla was a child prodigy whose achievements included her acceptance to the prestigious Kiev Conservatory at the unheard of age of seven, studying in the company of her older (now world-famous) classmates, pianist Vladimir Horowitz and violinist Nathan Milstein. At age 16 Ludmilla was accepted as the youngest contestant in the prestigious 1927 first international Chopin Competition held in Warsaw, Poland.

While at that age Ludmilla did not win any one of the first three prizes in this world-wide competition, her playing was so impressive that she was awarded a fully paid scholarship to the Warsaw Conservatory from which she graduated with the highest honors at age eighteen. Ludmilla’s career soared until 1939 when the Nazis occupied Poland and prevented  all Polish nationals from holding concerts.

Ironically, the Nazi governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who was appointed to this post by Adolph Hitler, was a music lover and pianist who favored the piano music of Frederick Chopin. He immediately learned that Ludmilla Berkwic was reputed to be the finest Chopin Artist in Poland and planned to use her in a mission suggested to him by none other than the Propaganda Minister of Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels.

Goebbels was concerned in 1943 that that the war was turning against Germany and wanted to establish a more positive record of the Nazi treatment of the Poles to help “balance” their known record of destruction of Polish culture (as well as lives), should the  Germans lose the war! Goebbels’ intent was to prepare a legal case to ease the possible punishment that might be sought against the Nazi regime in any future tribunal that would be convened  if Germany actually lost the war.

Accordingly, Hans Frank brilliantly conceived of a plan to establish the first Chopin Museum in History to be housed in the enormous Wavel Castle in Krakow, Poland .

This museum would contain many of the possessions of Frederick Chopin, including his most important grand piano (all stolen by the Nazis) and open in the Fall of 1943 with Ludmilla Berkwic as the sole pianist to play on this historic piano at the opening of this museum. The opening was so successful that Ludmilla’s initial performance of a Chopin Scherzo was recorded on film by the Nazis and shown in all movie theatres in Poland!

Several weeks after this performance the Nazis discovered that their heroine was, in fact, half-Jewish. Her father Jacob Berkowitz had changed his name to Joseph Berkwitz in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his Jewish origins.

Fortunately, Ludmilla was able to flee Poland to escape certain death at a concentration camp with the help of one of her fans who helped her to obtain a false ID and travel to Bavaria where she was hidden until the US Army rescued her at the end of the war and enabled her to gain a Visa in order to immigrate to the United States….ending up in Spring Valley, New York

A Major Chopin Publication to be published shortly in Germany by Dr. Reinhard Piechocki will devote a special chapter to Ludmilla Berkwic. Dr. Piechocki, a leading music scholar in Germany reached out to this Ombudsman, who had already developed a Website for Ludmilla Berkwic  which may be found at www.ludmillaberkwic.org.

This writer will also be happy to share the information in Dr. Piechocki’s
forthcoming major publication with all of our readers. This information will be of interest to all Rockland music lovers and especially to the estimated 1,000 Rockland residents who were Ludmilla’s students over the half-century of her teaching career in this county!

Of course, the tribunal established after the end of World War II was the “Nuremberg Trials” at which Hans Frank was sentenced to death despite hi lawyer’s attempt to argue that Frank’s creation of the “Great Chopin Museum” should lessen his punishment! This fact, buried in the archives of the Trials, is not well known, and until its revelation by this writer along with my exposition of the identity of Ludmilla Berkwic as the sole pianist to perform on Chopin’s grand piano at the opening day of the Great Chopin Museum, these facts were not available to the public.

The great filmaker Steven Spielberg acknowledged my discovery in his film and video archives entitled “Opening of the Chopin Museum.”

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