1914 – 1944
Wolf Durmashkin was born in 1914 in Vilnius, once called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, as the oldest of three children of Jewish-Polish parents. Deep religiosity, a caring co-operation, a conscientious and serene care of Jewish culture, and a passion for the music that permeated the entire family, should determine his life. His father Akiva enjoyed an excellent reputation as a composer of liturgical works.
Akiva also taught music in Jewish and Hebrew schools, was the choiremaster of the Great Synagogue, and conductor of various orchestras and choirs. Renowned cantors such as Moshe Koussevitsky and Yossele Rosenblatt came to the his home to compose with him.
In this environment, the only five-year-old Wolf just needed to listen to a piece of music, and he was able to reproduce it by ear on a keyboard. As a seven-year old he managed in the presence of his father to direct a choir and was able to advise musicians on how they could enhance their performances. Already at the age of eleven he went on his first triumphant concert tour throughout Lithuania and Poland.
After attending a Hebrew gymnasia (high school), he initially attended the Vilna Conservatory of Music and then went to Warsaw to complete his studies in conducting under the well-known Russian teacher Berdiayev. Both conservatories where so convinced by his talents, that they refused to charge him tuition. Instead of the usual two years, Wolf Durmashkin was allowed to wield the conductor’s baton after only one semester.
With the invasion of Poland by the Germans, and thus the beginning of the Second World War, changed – once more –the affilitiation of Vilnius, which, depending on which nation it was annexed to, was also called Wilno or Vilna. In 1939 the city was taken by the Red Army and Wolf Durmashkin
returned to his family.
With his father he arranged the Hebrew version of the opera “Aida” and became head of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. He celebrated one success after the other. Every concert he conducted was sold out. Posters with his picture could be found all over the city. In short, he was a star among the musicians, who also was appreciated for his human warmth and selfless care for others.
After the German army had taken Vilnius on June 24, 1941, nothing remained the same. In July Nazis began snatching Jews off the streets and from their homes and hauled into the infamous Lukiskes prison.
More actions were to follow. Months later it became known that the captives had been shot outside the city’s gates, in the woods of Paneriai (Ponary) on a 5.000 square meter area. Among the murderers were many Lithuanian collaborators. Although friends wanted him to flee, Wolf Durmashkin stayed with his parents and grandparents.
In September 1941 Wolf Durmashkin
and his family were taken by the National Socialists to the Great Ghetto. Six families had to share an apartment, food was scarce and the future more than uncertain. Personal possessions, compositions and musical instruments, everything had to be left behind. Roommates who were forced to work for the Nazis outside the ghetto disassembled a piano that they had found in a deserted house. Hiding the parts in their clothing, they brought the instrument into the ghetto piece by piece, where it was put back together. Other musical instruments found their way into the ghetto in the same way.
For a while, Nazi overseers allowed Wolf Durmashkin to conduct the Vilnius Symphony Orchestra, because the musicians claimed they couldn’t manage without him. Then this little freedom came to an end as well.
In the ghetto itself, cultural life developed step by step. Wolf Durmashkin founded a Hebrew choir and the ghetto’s symphony orchestra, theaters emerged and literature, lyric and painting were created – Jewish art and culture was at the highest level. The first concert under the equally harrowing as humiliating conditions took place on 15 March 1942.
The program included Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World”, Beethoven’s Ninth, the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor. One of the hundred members of the Hebrew Choir was Wolf’s sister, Henia Durmashkin. His sister Fania was a pianist.
In concert, they performed Handel’s “Messiah”, played Jewish popular and Zionist pioneer songs, sang “Jerushalaim”, or composed lyric by H. N. Bialik. For his composition “Elegy of Ponary” Wolf Durmashking was awarded with a prize in composition contest held in the Ghetto. In the aftermath the Small Ghetto was liquidated and over 100,000 people were murdered on the shooting grounds of Ponary.
In 1943 the Great Ghetto was finally liquidated. After the head of the Judenrat, Jacob Gens, had been murdered, Wolf Durmashkin exclaimed desperately, “This is the end!” Once more people were pulled out into the street, this time for the selection: families were torn apart. Old people and children went left, the younger went to the right to work. Together with the writer and diarist Herman Kruk, Wolf Durmashkin was dragged first to the Estonian concentration camp Klooga, and later to Lagedi.
In Klooga he lost a finger in an accident while cutting trees in the forest. In September 1944, groups of ten to twelve Jews were tied with ropes, forced to lay down on a big pyre of wooden logs and shot. This process was repeated for a whole day. Afterwards the pyre was set on fire.
A few hours before the Red Army arrived, the SS finished the camp in a mass slaughter. Only a few survived. Wolf Durmashkin was not one of them.
Of the 60,000 Jews living in Vilnius in 1939, only 2,000 survived the Holocaust.