Last year, Malcolm Gay, an arts reporter at The Boston Globe, stumbled across the seemingly impossible: an untold story about the Holocaust.
There’s an inheritance that was lost and can never be recovered. That to me was one of the real tragedies this story highlights.
It started with a call from Robert Berkowitz, a psychiatrist and amateur pianist from outside Boston. Since childhood, Berkowitz had heard his mother, Pauline Herzek, talk about her romance with Lajos Delej, a promising young pianist and composer in her native Hungary. By his mother’s account, Delej had been killed after going to look for her in a Jewish ghetto in Budapest.
Berkowitz didn’t know how much credence to give the story. His searches online and in Holocaust museum records had yielded nothing, and he started to think the tale may have been a myth that comforted his mother through Auschwitz and immigration. Then in 2015, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., he tried a different spelling: Delej instead of Deley, as he had always misspelled it. Bingo. He traced relatives to the U.S. and reached out to the Globe.
As Gay reported the story out, he came across hundreds of letters between Delej and his family that had never been translated or archived. The relatives Gay talked to hadn’t even read them. Suddenly Gay was reporting history in real time.
I asked him about his experience telling this remarkable story and writing about art that would’ve been.
You had an active role in investigating the story’s central mystery: Who was this forgotten composer, and was his relationship with Berkowitz’s mother as profound as she recalled? What was it like to piece together a story from artifacts you were deciphering rather than reporting on something already established?
At first this seemed to be a story that would closely hew to Robert’s experience. But as I continued to report, I learned that Delej’s sister’s family had this cache of 100 letters that hadn’t been translated or seen. All of a sudden, the entire story broadened because we had a previously unknown family history. I worked with a scholar named Michael Miller based in Hungary to translate the letters. I asked him to send me anything that was germane to Delej’s music or love life, or to how the family was trying to traverse war-torn Europe. This historical record had been silent since 1945. It’s quite different than sitting down and interviewing someone, or even going through a historical record that’s already known. But I think I was able to get a fairly three-dimensional vision of Delej and his family through this pretty robust correspondence.
Her love affair with Delej was clearly the defining romantic relationship of her life, shaping not only her subsequent marriages, but also her son’s childhood. Robert wanted to validate it before she dies.
What was it like reporting the story for two audiences: the readers and Berkowitz himself?
This was one of the most emotionally draining stories I’ve ever had to report. Robert was very involved. Over the four months I spent reporting, he’d call me and say: “What’s the update? Any news?” I didn’t tell him everything, because I wanted to surprise him to a certain extent. It was a complicated reporting process, because Robert had a lot of trust in me and had a lot riding on the story — he wanted it to be a parting gift to his mother [who was in her mid-90s]. He was deeply emotionally invested, but my first allegiance was to the story itself and to the readers. That created complications, because I couldn’t show Robert the story, and there were things I was pretty certain he wasn’t going to be entirely pleased with. He had these expectations, and when the facts cast doubt on them or didn’t exactly bear them out, it was a sensitive moment.
After everything you learned, what did you make of Pauline’s memory of the love story?
Robert would always say he was trying to bring Delej back to his mother. Her love affair with Delej was clearly the defining romantic relationship of her life, shaping not only her subsequent marriages, but also her son’s childhood. Robert wanted to validate it before she dies. He wanted to discover that Delej really was the talent she described and that their love was so great Delej was willing to risk his life to save it.
Of course, that made for some complicated reporting. Pauline believes the story so strongly. It’s nourished her through the years. But as I began to report her story more deeply, inconsistencies began to arise. The dates don’t quite line up, and the Budapest ghetto, where Delej would have gone to rescue her, is more than four hours away from where Pauline was being held. The inconsistencies don’t necessarily disprove Pauline’s story, but they do cast a measure of doubt upon it.
Maybe it’s journalistic heresy, but I’m not sure how much these inconsistencies matter. Her love for Delej is foundational for Pauline. It’s carried her for the past 70 years, deeply influencing her life and those around her. That takes on a weight of its own, and I actually think the ambiguity is one of the story’s richer aspects. As one of my sources put it, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if this whole thing turns out to be Pauline’s story?”
How did Berkowitz and his mother respond when they read the story?
Robert told me he had the story framed, and it now sits above his mother’s bed in her assisted-living facility. She feels people give her special treatment because of her relationship with Delej.
How did you approach weaving the past and present together as you wrote?
Reading the letters was incredibly beneficial from a narrative perspective and in trying to put the story in a larger context. These people were reacting to big historical movements that were affecting them either directly or they were feeling reverberations. I found it vitally important to contrast their parochial family life with the backdrop of this broader historical moment. Weaving the historical account of the Delej family with Robert’s experience was interesting. At one point Robert said that when he played Delej’s music, he felt they were playing together. Yet conceivably if Delej had lived, Robert never would have. There are these two almost mutually exclusive storylines that take place in different time periods, but are also intimately bound by the music and musical inheritance. The technical aspect of putting those narratives together seemed to unfold naturally.
How did you approach writing this story in a way that gives due to its emotional weight without being overly sentimental?
I tried to get out of the way. I think the story speaks for itself. My own writerly embellishments wouldn’t add to the emotional weight and would actually detract from it. I tried to have the telling of the story be invisible.
What was it like to write about art that could have been rather than art that exists?
You can’t exactly talk about a piece of work that wasn’t created, but you can talk about the music that wasn’t there to inform the coming generation. Toward the end of the story, James Conlon, who’s the music director of the Los Angeles Opera says, “The history of 20th-century music is written with an enormous omission.” When you listen to Delej’s music, you can hear his influences but you can also hear the growth. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Each generation of artists responds to the previous generation. When you wipe out a generation or two of artists, there’s this disconnect. Artists that came directly after the war responded to the absence. There’s an inheritance that was lost and can never be recovered. That to me was one of the real tragedies this story highlights.
Has this been optioned for a film yet?
We’re working on it.