On Sept. 3, Leo Spellman sat in a sold-out audience at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre listening to his composition Rhapsody 1939-1945, playing the melody on his knees. He was nine months short of his 100th birthday, and he had been waiting for this moment for more than 60 years.
The hands that tapped out the music in the air had been playing piano every day for more than nine decades, except during the Second World War, when Spellman and his wife hid in the forests of Poland under constant fear of capture, and again just after the war – when he took a bullet in the arm.
That evening in September, as Spellman sat surrounded by children and grandchildren, was the culmination of an extraordinary journey that began in a German camp for displaced persons and ended, via the help of a famous Canadian musician and Spellman’s own famous cousin, on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Leo Spellman died of heart failure on Nov. 24, but two months before he received some of the recognition that, on his darkest days, he felt had been denied him in his beloved adopted country. “He was a Canadian who should be more celebrated,” said Paul Hoffert, the award-winning Canadian musician and composer who helped Mr. Spellman record Rhapsody, and who conducted it that night at Harbourfront.
In many ways, Spellman’s story mirrors that of his cousin, musician and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose life was turned into the Oscar-winning film The Pianist by Roman Polanski. Both were talented men who lost close family in the Holocaust, and survived in unimaginably difficult circumstances by hiding under the noses of the Nazis.
Both coped with their experiences by writing works that lay hidden, too painful to recall, and were rediscovered long after the war: Spellman’s Rhapsody 1939-1945 sat unplayed in a suitcase in his Toronto garage for decades, and Szpilman’s memoir was re-released to great acclaim in 1998. At the beginning of the war, Leo tried to convince Wladyslaw to escape Poland with him; six decades later, Szpilman would be instrumental in bringing his cousin’s Rhapsody to light.
Playing piano provided the most enduring thread through Spellman’s life, from a childhood in Ostrowiec, Poland, through decades as the leader of a popular Toronto dance band. “He had the most extraordinary musical spirit,” said his daughter, Helene Shifman. “He played every day.”
Born into a family of celebrated musicians on April 18, 1913, Leo Spellman was taught by his father, Reuven, and was playing proficiently by the age of four. In an interview with Moses Znaimer this year, he described himself as a “wild child. … I was the first Jewish boy who had a bicycle in Ostrowiec.” By age nine, he was playing piano in a silent-picture house after school, though the arrival of talkies doomed that career. He transferred his talents to a travelling band.
Shortly after the war broke out, Spellman married his childhood love, Mary (known as Mania). They would remain together until her death in 2006. He considered trying to flee Ostrowiec, and urged Wladyslaw, a pianist on Polish Radio in Warsaw, to come with him.
“I said to my cousin Wladek, ‘Let’s run away. Don’t you see what’s going on?’ ” he recalls in The Lost Rhapsody of Leo Spellman, a documentary about him being made by Paul Hoffert’s son, David. “But he was afraid. He said, ‘What am I going to do? Where will I go?’”
Spellman, who was doing surreptitious work for the Polish partisans, ended up organizing an orchestra in the Ostrowiec ghetto, and taught accordion to one of the German guards. When the guard heard Jews were being rounded up, he got word to Leo and Mania, helping them to escape. They fled to the forest, where they lived for months. Several members of their families, including some of Spellman’s seven siblings, were sent to camps and killed.
Into their lives came an unlikely ally, Henryk Wronski, a 21-year-old Polish student with an apartment in Ostrowiec where he sheltered the couple for 18 torturous months. “We were freezing, dying for food,” Spellman says in an interview for the documentary. “We couldn’t speak in case the neighbours would hear.”
Toward the end of the war, as the Soviet army advanced, fleeing German soldiers broke the lock on the apartment door and took refuge. For days, Leo and Mania hid in a closet with the soldiers only feet away. Hunger forced Leo to take a wild risk, and he crept out of the closet one night to steal some of the soldiers’ bread. In the morning, they began to fight, accusing each other of the theft. Eventually they left, and Leo and Mania were free.
Having survived the war, Leo and Mania faced one final, horrible chapter: As they took shelter in a house with Spellman’s sister Chana, whom he called “a second mother,” thieves broke in and began shooting. One of Chana’s children was murdered, and Spellman was shot. It would take him many months of strenuous practice before he could play the piano properly again.