June 18 saw the U.S. premiere of a set of piano variations on a Polish patriotic theme composed in the Dachau concentration camp by prisoner of war Leon Kaczmarek (1903–1973). Kaczmarek’s composition was performed by 17-year-old pianist Nicholas Biniaz-Harris, winner of the National Symphony Orchestra’s 2013 Young Soloists’ Competition.
Describing Kaczmarek’s music, Biniaz-Harris says that the piece begins with a “Jewish-themed prelude [that] serves to put out two parts of his identity, his Jewish identity and his Polish national identity, and on both those levels he’s able to counteract the Nazis by preserving two parts of him that the Nazis were trying to crush.”
Adding to the poignancy of Biniaz-Harris’s performance was the fact that he is a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. His grandmother, Celina Karp Biniaz, was one of the youngest people saved by Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist credited with saving more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. Celina was just 13 years old when she went to work in one of Schindler’s factories.
Biniaz-Harris’ performance was a highlight of “Lost Music of the Holocaust,” held at the U.S. State Department’s Dean Acheson Auditorium in Washington, D.C., that celebrated music created during the Holocaust with musical presentations and an illustrious panel of speakers.
“Even in the death camps of Auschwitz, Dachau, and elsewhere, creativity in captivity flourished as imprisoned artists composed and performed in inhuman conditions,” said the event’s host, Ira Forman, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
“As a classically trained pianist, you’re always playing pieces that the audience or judges or teachers have heard a thousand times before,” said Biniaz-Harris. “In this case it’s a truly original work that was composed 70 years ago but that no one has heard, and I think it’s really special to be able to play something for people for the very first time.”
Another of Mrs. Biniaz’s grandsons, Alex Biniaz-Harris, is also a pianist, in addition to serving as a social media marketing intern with the USC Shoah Foundation. He is an undergraduate at USC studying business administration.