A young woman desperate to get her family out of Europe before the Second World War, a chance encounter in a travel agency queue, a shared love of music, another fortuitous meeting half the globe away: It reads like a film script, but these were among the dramatic facts of Bronislawa Barban’s life.
Ms. Barban, who died June 26 in St. John’s following a brief illness, had style, energy, wit and gumption. And there were times she needed to draw on all of that – and perhaps a little luck, as well.
She married piano teacher Andreas Barban in Shanghai, China, in 1939 after their families both fled there from Europe to escape Nazi rule. A family encounter with a St. John’s businessman led to their immigration to Newfoundland in 1947.
They arrived in a city with no private piano studios and no professional orchestral concerts. “There was only a small pocket of people in the classical arts,” said Dr. D. F. Cook, the first director of the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) School of Music.
The Barbans would be instrumental in changing that. As a first move, they opened a piano studio in their house at 48 Prescott St.
“Andy was Mr. Music in St. John’s for so many years,” said Dr. Maureen Volk, associate dean of the MUN School of Music. “He taught innumerable piano students and accompanied countless singers. He knew famous musicians and artists in Vienna.”
Ms. Barban was his integral partner, looking after the business side of their work, as Mr. Barban hosted the radio show Mastering the Classics with Andreas Barban on VONF, adjudicated the Kiwanis Music Festival, arranged the Community Concerts Series, became one of the first conductors of the St. John’s Symphony Orchestra (now the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra), and was hired as a part-time instructor by the MUN School of Music.
“They were never separated,” Dr. Cook said. “They lived together, they worked together.”
And they made St. John’s their home together. “They were old-school; he was a gentleman, she was a lady, and they were both very sophisticated,” Dr. Cook said. “They brought that with them.”
Bronislawa (Betty) Barban was born Sept. 3, 1913, in Przemysl, Austria (now part of Poland). Her parents were Moisei and Tauba Berljawsky and she had an older brother, Joseph.
Growing up in Vienna, “she had a happy childhood,” said her friend Carla Furlong, a musician and teacher who knew the Barbans from the time they first arrived in St. John’s. “But then the Nazis walked in.”
“Betty once showed me a photo of her home in Vienna,” Dr. Volk said. “I assumed they had lived in one of the apartments in the building, but she corrected me – the whole building was their home.
“What a charmed life they must have lived before they fled. It’s hard to imagine how devastating it must have been to lose all of that – and to see your neighbours and fellow citizens turn on you so suddenly and horribly.”
The Berljawskys endured a year under Nazi rule. As recounted in Sanctuary Denied, by Dr. Gerhard Bassler, their photography business was confiscated, they had to move five times and day-to-day existence was so dreadful that Moisei Berljawsky “a few times seriously contemplated opening the gas tap.”
But a resourceful Ms. Barban managed to get the family to Genoa, Italy, where they could embark to Shanghai.
“In 1939, Shanghai was the only place in the world without any immigration restrictions,” Dr. Bassler wrote. It was a free port and its Japanese occupiers were relatively tolerant, not heeding Germany’s commands of Jewish extermination. More than 20,000 European Jews fled there from 1937 to 1941, travelling by rail on the Trans-Siberian or by sea from Genoa.
No passport was needed, but an expensive exit permit was necessary. And those headed to Shanghai could only bring $4 (U.S.) each, not much of a nest egg.
Ms. Barban was able to co-ordinate the permits and not just the costly voyage, but the return tickets the shipping company required. Then, in the shipping office in Genoa, she ran into communication trouble.
A young man stepped forward and asked if he could be of assistance. Nazi agents were everywhere, but she thought she could trust this stranger, who introduced himself as Andreas Barban. She noticed his head had recently been shaved, signalling he had been in a concentration camp. Indeed, he had just been released from Sachsenhausen.
Educated and cultured, Mr. Barban spoke German, Russian, English and Latin, which enabled him to make himself understood in Italian.
The 24-year-old music student had recently studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. He had considered becoming a lawyer, like his father, but was restricted from the school. His father had been excluded from the bar in 1933 – even though his family members were largely non-practising Jews who celebrated Christmas – and the Barbans were living on small real-estate rentals.
Despite this, they had no intention of leaving Germany. They were Germans and believed in their country. Then came Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and Andreas Barban was arrested and interned by the Gestapo for “recreational leave” at Sachsenhausen. His father managed to get him out after six weeks – leading to his appearance at the Genoa shipping agency, and his meeting the young woman who would become his wife.
Their chance encounter almost never happened. Mr. Barban could only buy his tickets because he had just inherited some money from an aunt who had died in Denmark. His parents balked at leaving so quickly, but he insisted, and they and Betty and her parents boarded a ship to leave Genoa for Shanghai.
“Their parents travelled second-class, but Betty and Andreas were in [steerage],” Ms. Furlong said. “They sat at the same table and had lots of time to talk. By the time they got to Shanghai they were engaged.”
They married in Shanghai, where Mr. Barban taught piano and the Berljawskys were able to start a new professional photography business. The Barbans had a son, Gregory, and Shanghai became a home, of sorts. They knew they were lucky to be there, but they never felt truly settled.
Then came the second timely meeting. In 1947, St. John’s businessman Maurice Wilansky was visiting Montreal, where he met Joseph Berljawsky, who had made his own way to Canada and was settled in the city. Mr. Berljawsky told Mr. Wilansky he was trying to get his sister and her family to Canada.
“And Maurice Wilansky said, ‘Well, we could certainly use a piano teacher in St. John’s. I’ll do my best to get them out,’” Ms. Furlong said. “And he did.”
Mr. Wilansky and his mother, Esther, were able to sponsor the Barbans, who arrived in St. John’s in 1947. The Wilanskys were prominent members of the city’s Jewish community.
During the Second World War, the Newfoundland Commission of Government’s record for admitting Jews escaping the Holocaust was no better than Canada’s. Those who came after the war were often sole survivors sponsored by family. The Barbans, though, had managed to ride out the turmoil and would eventually bring both sets of parents along, too.
The couple never returned to Vienna. “I think there were too many bad memories,” Ms. Furlong said.
Ms. Barban had shouldered great responsibility, but she remained a lively, gallant person. “She was great fun,” Ms. Furlong said. “She lived a very colourful life. She enjoyed everything here.”
The couple had a house in South River, near Clarke’s Beach, that they loved going to for vacations. “If Newfoundland was heaven, that was their own private part of heaven,” Dr. Cook said.
Mr. Barban died in 1993. Ms. Barban leaves their son, Gregory, his wife, Jane, and three grandchildren.
“They had come through a very turbulent time,” said Dr. Cook, “although Andreas told me their life in Shanghai wasn’t bad. But coming to Newfoundland was the beginning of the career and the lifestyle they wanted, and they never forgot that.”