Songs of Survival
Story and music each have a certain power, a power amplified when the two are combined. The Isaacs, a family of bluegrass/gospel singers, are returning to Mansfield this summer, July 28 at 7 p.m., to be exact, and it will be a perfect time to experience the power of their music and their story. The group sings in scrumptious close harmony, and, for this free Smythe Park event, will be playing guitar, mandolin, and stand-up bass outdoors on a green-grass summer night (with a rain location at Mansfield/North Penn High School Auditorium, by the way). Peace and a lively blessing saturate the melodies. You can’t help but tap your toes and feel lucky to be alive, living on this side of the pond, in America, as The Isaacs sing the stories of their faith and of their lives.
Siblings Becky, Sonya, Ben, and their mother, Lily, are writers, musicians, and storytellers. Their most powerful story is of friendship and how these sweet-singing sisters, brother, and mother owe their very lives to a good friend of their grandmother’s in the middle of Nazi-controlled Poland during World War II. Lily Isaacs, with Shawn Smucker, wrote of her life in a book titled You Don’t Cry Out Loud, published by New Leaf Press in 2014.
Lily Isaacs’ mother was called Feigle (Yiddish for Little Bird). She was a mere nineteen years old, living near Chenstochov, Poland, in the fall of 1941, when her mother sent her to the market one day with her younger sister and brother. Feigle had a bad feeling about leaving the house ever since the Germans had invaded Poland. When they returned from the market, their mother and crippled sister were gone.
They soon discovered they had been taken out and shot.
As Jews were rounded up into ghettos, Feigle fought to stay close to her sister, Zlotta, even after they were forcibly separated from their brother, Mendel. All the men were killed, even Mendel, who was just a boy.
From the ghetto they were first taken by train, with no food or water, to a Polish work camp. Sometimes the soldiers would douse the windowless train cars with water and people would strain, open-mouthed to catch drops from the dirty ceiling, desperate for a drink. The sisters survived the work camp but were then moved to a death camp, Bergen-Belsen, arriving in the freezing cold of January. The hell of a Nazi prison camp rarely varied. The prime objective was to not be shot by the guards. Standing for hours at roll call in all kinds of weather, after being stripped and shaved, waiting for their names to be called, was torturous. But that was not as bad as the terror of watching someone be shot and killed—sometimes just for standing too close to a gate—or waiting for illness to strike. Anne Frank, of the famous diary, arrived in October of 1944 and died of typhus as that disease swept through the starving camp.
One day, a guard began separating the women into lines. Feigle was separated from her sister and their friend, Sabrina. As the line moved away, Sabrina grabbed Feigle’s arm and said, “She’s coming with me,” which was ignored by the guard, allowing Feigle to change lines. Everyone in the first line went to the gas chamber. Everyone in the first line was killed that day. Sabrina saved Feigle’s life. And that angelic action of a friend is the reason The Isaacs are on stage in 2018, living and breathing and sharing their lush, spine-tingling music with their audience. In the course of her life, Lily became a Christian; her story has made a powerful, interesting, and moving book. When Lily reads from it on stage, you won’t be the only one who fishes out a hankie. Unforgettable story, amazing music.
The story is reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank. Dr. Peggy Dettwiler, choral director at Mansfield University, conducted a chamber orchestra, vocal soloist, and the one-hundred member Festival Chorus in a production of Annelies (Anne’s full name), the story of Anne Frank, set to music by James Whitbourn, in the spring of this year at MU. Annelies is the first major choral setting of the iconic book, and was musically and emotionally challenging for both performers and the audience. Most folks know the unforgettable, utterly sad story of this young woman, even if they have never read the book that bears her name. Anne Frank died about a month before British soldiers liberated Bergen-Belsen. Feigle, of course, lived. Unforgettable story, amazing music.
Also at Mansfield University earlier this year was Syrian violinist Mariela Shaker. She spoke her truth as she played classical and native folk tunes at Butler Music Center on an ordinary Monday night, but, like The Isaacs and Anne Frank, her story is far from ordinary. She spoke of her country and showed pictures, before and after the war, of her home in Aleppo. Although Mariela has not lived as a captive, she remembers the day the bombing began. She was in high school when the Syrian civil war started. Fear is surely a captivating force as bombs rain down and one’s life is forever changed. But Mariela’s musical talent brought the attention of a wealthy businessman from Dubai to her aide. His generosity helped pay for her undergraduate degree, and she has been teaching and performing as she finishes her graduate studies in the United States. She is the living face of a refugee and continues to tell her story with music. Her powerful testimony about the suffering and destruction of war in Syria has earned her the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award. Unforgettable story, amazing music.
When The Isaacs return to Smythe Park on the last Saturday of July for that free concert (made possible by an anonymous donor), be generous to yourself and bring friends, a blanket, and an open heart. The goose bumps are also free.