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The instrument, smuggled out of Soviet Hungary in 1949 by owner clinging onto the underside of a train, being restored for a public performance in Toronto

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World-traveled soloist, chamber and orchestral musician Beth Silver became the custodian of a Hungarian cello, with deep connections to the darkest days in Europe | Photo: Courtesy Bo Hoang

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To a professional musician, the instrument they play becomes their voice. This is the story of how an 18th-century cello from the back of a closet has been introduced to its new custodian and its connection to the Holocaust.

When Beth Silver, an accomplished cellist was asked if she’d look at an instrument found in a closet during the early COVID confinement, she understandably rolled her eyes. When you are a musician, people often call to offer stray instruments once loved by students and often of the most basic classroom grade. These instruments couldn’t hold a candle to the very special 1880’s German instrument played by Beth for the past 13 years and she expected to recommend a donation to El Sistema (an organization dedicated to removing financial barriers to music education).

Beth’s mother Carla (a retired music teacher and conductor) encouraged her to put on her mask and go visit this relative to see the cello in the closet and to say hello and catch up. Beth was led by Carla’s former mother-in-law into her bedroom closet which was in the process of being packed up for a move. Irene carefully lifted the instrument case, unwrapped the burlap canvas, which was disintegrating around the instrument, and Beth gasped. “This cello is over 100 years older than mine!”.

Beth learned that the cello was most recently played by Carla’s former father in law Gabor Bacsi. He himself was a refugee from Soviet-controlled Hungary who came from an affluent family. Gabor smuggled the instrument out of the country by clinging onto the underside of a train. The cello arrived in Canada in 1949 and was played until his death in 1974. At that time, it was placed into the closet where his wife refused to let anyone touch it – for 46 years.

At this point Beth knew it was old but not much more. The family that had owned the instrument wasn’t Jewish and came from a family of minor nobility, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the cello was made by a famous luthier. At this point, the Silver family became the custodian of the instrument and entrusted it to Rick Heinl at George Heinl and Co. to learn what they could and begin restoring the cello to its natural beauty.

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Rick, a 4th generation luthier, has been able to determine that the instrument dates to the 1790-1840 range and that the style of f-hole or scroll is carved in a Hungarian style. There was some initial confusion because the instrument appeared to be of bohemian origin except for the top. Once the instrument was opened, the mystery was solved.

Rick realized the top was not original to the instrument and it had an inscription in pencil attributing the replaced top to Ferenc Ultry in 1930. There was a mark from Janos and Theresia Toth of Budapest who completed that restoration which is significant as Theresia was one of only a few women luthiers of her time in Europe. Janos Toth was arrested in 1943 by the Nazis and charged with ‘trading in lives’ which was his holding negotiations with the higher echelons of the SS to garner the freedom of Hungarian Jews. He was sent to Mauthausen and died in 1944. Today he is listed with the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

The rediscovered cello dates to the 1790-1840 era and the style of f-hole or scroll is carved in a Hungarian tradition | Photo: Courtesy Beth Silver

According to Heinl, it is not unusual to see an instrument of this caliber in his shop for restoration. What is unusual is the provenance and connection to Carla’s family. While the original luthier is still unknown, almost everything else is well documented.

The restoration is expected to take 2 to 3 months at a cost of about $8000 and is projected to have a value (without knowing its full provenance) of at least $50,000. According to Heinl, there was a lot of healthy cello there and the restoration mainly involves fitting a new base bar.

During the successful restoration, it was discovered the top of the over 200-year-old Hungarian cello had been replaced by Ferenc Ultry in 1930.

Beth will spend the next year playing the cello to restore its resonance and then it will be ready for its unveiling to the community. Carla is planning to organize a concert at Holy Blossom once the instrument is ready and concerns about COVID no longer keep us from congregating for the arts.

In addition to Beth’s professional career, she has also been an eager participant in the growing Klezmer music scene in Toronto where she describes herself as a relative amateur. Beth studied in New York with a klezmer fiddler and while the cello is traditionally used in a bass role, Beth’s unique style has developed to utilize the cello more like a fiddle.

For Beth, she has named the cello ‘Gabor’ in honour of its previous owner, and hopes to take Gabor back home to Hungary to play for the family that he left behind.

Brian Gerskup is a life-long Thornhill resident, married father of 3, community organizer, and frequent flyer

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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