Forced across the world by Holocaust, grandmother returns to Austria to hear grandson’s Trinity choir
by Jeremy Gerlach
It’s 1938, and there’s no music in Austria for five-year-old Erica Lieberman Spindel.
Fascism is on the way to her hometown of Vienna, and her Jewish family sits right in its path. First, her father is taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Next, Erica is separated from her mother, flees across the mountains to Switzerland with her uncle, and then gets flung halfway around the globe by a world war.
“I was a very little girl when I escaped,” Erica says. “And my story is that I had to escape because of Hitler. I had just started kindergarten, but I had to leave my home because of my religion.”
But even with the entire world turned against her, Erica would survive and return to Austria with her family, 80 years later. That’s where she watched her grandson, David Spindel ’20, perform as part of Trinity University’s choir at the Classical Music Festival in summer 2018. David, a business administration and marketing major from Portland, Ore., was one of more than 40 Trinity students and faculty who breathed new life into the classics of Haydn and Beethoven at the festival.
This trip to Austria, funded by a generous gift from the Dickson-Allen Foundation, allowed David to visit his grandmother’s former home for the first time, and it was also the first time the entire Spindel family had gathered together in the country since Erica left.
“It was special to be able to sing in front of my family, and especially in front of her at such an important venue,” David says. “Coming to Austria, where quite a few classical composers have made works... and to have Austrian heritage, that’s really special to me that (my grandmother) came from the same place as these composers, and I can sing in this place.”
ESCAPE FROM AUSTRIA
Back in the 1930s, Erica’s heritage was in peril. From her home window in the center of Vienna, she watched what she thought was a parade bearing down her street—in reality, a military procession as part of the Anschluss, or the German annexation of Austria. Meanwhile, her captive father wrote countless letters from Buchenwald to her mother, begging her to ask every foreign consulate in Austria for a visa to leave the country. Her mother tried and tried, but no one agreed to help. Eventually, Erica’s mother went to Berlin, the heart of Nazi Germany, and showed officials three boat tickets to Shanghai that Erica’s Swiss uncle, Max, had smuggled in. This daring move paid off, as Erica’s father was released and the family got permission to leave Austria. Tragically, this escape separated the Spindels from Erica’s grandparents, who refused to leave Vienna for China and were never heard from again.
“China was the only country in the world that would take us—not even America would let us in,” Erica says. “So I packed a little suitcase, put a tag around my neck with my name, and met my parents in France to leave for China.”
SHIPPED TO SHANGHAI
Reunited with her parents, Erica didn’t recognize her father, who had grown a beard and was emaciated from his time in Buchenwald. “It was like I didn’t know him,” Erica says. “I had to get to know him and my mother again.”
The family boarded an ocean liner for a 30-day trip to Shanghai, and ended up living in a Jewish ghetto live there for a decade. At a British school in the city, Erica learned English, Hebrew, French, and then Japanese, after the city fell under Japanese occupation during World War II. It was, Erica says, a “miserable life, but not as bad as people who suffered in Europe.”
Erica’s father would eventually die of illness in Shanghai. “He never came out of it from the concentration camp,” Erica says. “He just deteriorated.”
And even after the war ends, the family was soon on the run again, this time because of the spread of Chinese communism.
FROM NAPLES TO NEW YORK
Erica and her mother boarded another ocean liner with plans to emigrate to Israel in 1947. But during their ship’s stop in Naples, Italy, uncle Max miraculously appeared again, and brought the pair back to Zurich. After returning to Switzerland, Erica and her mother were finally accepted into the U.S. and moved to New York in 1951.
In the Big Apple, Erica worked as a bookkeeper at the Empire State Building. “We worked and we worked, and little by little we furnished our apartment on payments,” Erica recalls. “We bought food from the grocery store—from one week to the next, we took it on loan, and then when we got our paycheck, we paid it off. But I stayed in the same apartment building, and I never left my mother—she was all I had.”
For years, Erica and her mother had seen their family dwindle. But in America, these two Spindels were finally able to put down roots and blossom. In New York, Erica met her future husband, Joseph. The pair had two sons, Barry and Steven, in 1959 and 1963. Steven would become a doctor, meeting his wife at medical school, and Barry would become a postal worker, also finding a wife. These two gave Erica total of three grandsons and one granddaughter, including David. While Erica decided to retire and moved to Florida, David, who now lived in Oregon, eventually grew old enough to attend college and decided on Trinity University.
At Trinity, David is pursuing a career in sports marketing. He also has a lifelong passion for choir and orchestra, though he doesn’t have room to major in music. But Tigers don’t have to be professional musicians, or even music majors, to perform at a high level: Of the 40 student musicians who attended the Classical Music Festival, about 95 percent are majoring in something other than music.
“Being at a liberal arts university means I can still come to Austria and pursue my passion for music and history,” David says. “I’ve been in orchestra, and then choir, for years. [At Trinity], even during a semester where I’m taking 17 hours, I don’t have to give up being in Chamber Singers.”
For many Trinity students, the trip to Austria was a chance to touch musical history itself. The group used Beethoven’s keyboards and walked the same floorboards that Haydn paced while composing.
But this was more than a musical experience for David, who used the Trinity trip to re-engage his international heritage, too. In addition to performing alongside elite musicians from more than 25 nations, Spindel and his classmates also had the opportunity to visit the Jewish Heritage Museum in Austria.
“There's definitely a mixture of joy that I can be here with my family, and also sadness. You walk around and there are memories and effects of what had happened back in World War II and the Holocaust,” David says. “My friends, they were very nice to come with me to the Jewish Heritage museum... and it's hard to look at that stuff. I feel very sad, very depressed that something like that could even happen. It just makes you hope that something like that could never happen again.”
Having family attend a concert in Austria is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many musicians, David says. But for a Jewish family that survived the Holocaust, David’s performance in Austria was the culmination of a lifetime for the Spindels.
“It's just great when you're on stage—because some of these pieces are quite difficult—and then to take a little breath and look out into the crowd and see my family, my grandma, out there, it brings joy to me,” David says.
It’s 2018, and at last, Erica can hear music in Austria. Sitting at St. Stephen’s Cathedral for David’s concert, she hears the first note of Haydn’s “The Creation,” carried on brass, then strings. And while scores of vocalists join in harmony, she recognizes David as if he’s the only voice in the room.
“Now vanish, before the holy beams, the gloomy shades of ancient night; The first of days appears.”
Even with her worst nights behind her, returning to Austria was no easy feat for Erica.
“I was 11 hours on the plane, all by myself,” Erica says. “It was difficult. I didn’t sleep a minute. It took me days to adjust to this, and I did not think, really, that I’d be able to do this.”
“Now chaos ends, and order fair prevails.”
Erica has spent her entire life in motion, pushed from country to country, stuffed into crowded sleeping rooms or living paycheck to paycheck. Austria will never be her home again, but while hearing David’s voice, the concert hall becomes a space where she can finally stop moving, and instead be moved by the music.
“Awake the harp, the lyre awake, and let your joyful song resound.”
And at last, the music reminds Erica why she’s fought to preserve her heritage, her history: to create a new life for her family, in spite of all odds and obstacles.
“I was so excited all along, for David. He’s such a wonderful person, he has patience, and tolerance, and he’s just super special. For that reason, mainly, I journeyed back to Austria.” Erica says. “I had to do this, for him.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity University's brand journalist, and he invites you to listen to more of Erica's story, in her own words, here: