About some things it does not pay to be cynical. Alfred Schreyer was introduced with great bombast on the closing day of the 17th Jewish Culture Festival (July 1) to a packed house. The introductory speech went over Schreyer?s resume in a blur: born in 1922, educated by the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz for four years in elementary school in Drohobycz — a Ukrainian town where he is now the only living Jew — lost every member of his family in the Holocaust, somehow survived a concentration camp, returned to Drohobycz, conducted something called, ?The Drohobycz Film Orchestra,? then taught conducting in an academy.
Schreyer?s presence in Bruno Schulz?s classroom is significant because the prematurely-deceased writer would apparently get bored with his lessons and tell his children fairy tales of his own invention when he was meant to be teaching history. There are only scraps of memories of these stories existing from Schulz?s ex-pupils, but when a writer?s output is as scanty as Schulz?s is, and his followers so cultish, such stories acquire large significance. Jerzy Ficowski writes about the tales in his book ?Regions of the Great Heresy.?
Fast forward to the present. Schreyer is an 85-year-old gent in a white suit and tight white curls on his head (he describes his own hair-do as ?retro?), leading what sounds like a very competent restaurant ensemble through the hits of Poland?s and Ukraine?s 1920s. The convergence reflects the history of Drohobycz — Schreyer would have been 22 when his hometown switched from being a provincial Polish town to a provincial Ukrainian one. And the performance is appropriately multilingual — the lyrics go from Yiddish to Polish to Ukrainian and back again.
For the most part, the concert delights in its own sense of anachronism. The songs are named things like ?By the Fireside? (Sample lyrics: ?I stare at the yellowing photographs/And I laugh through the tears?), ?Wasted Years? and ?Nobody Longs for Me.? The sprit of Mordechai Gebertig (deceased 1942), Krakow?s very own schmaltzy inter-war songsmith, is resurrected for the first three songs of the evening. The crowd sings along with all the choruses without needing an invitation to.
But I began this article by mentioning how cynicism is out of place at times, because there was something genuinely heartwarming about the show. One rarely sees a crowd so desperately eager to support a performer. Schreyer?s memory is going, as he himself confessed while consulting sheet music for the lyrics. And on some occasions he was clearly scrunching up his forehead, struggling to recall some bit on his violin. Then the accordionist would play a bit louder, flashing a gold-toothed grin of support.
Because Schreyer is a man absolutely devoid of pretense, with in fact a striking and very powerful voice; and that he is alive at all at the age of 85, and celebrating this fact with some rather inane but ultimately moving melodies, and representing the last link to fairy tales told by a writer of genius some 70-odd years ago, and still choosing to live in Ukraine and travel to Poland in spite of it all is only short of miraculous.
And so one does not go to Schreyer for violin virtuosity, but because of the human need every once in a while to get in touch with a piece of living history.
This Alfred Schreyer and his ensemble deliver in an oddly suave and charming fashion.
- Changing seasons at the remarkable Stary Kleparz Market
- Developments loom on Krakow waterfront