At Furstenfeldbruck, a camp for displaced persons in Germany, Spellman began composing his Rhapsody in 1947. It comprised three sections: The first, a loud and martial passage meant to recall the brutal noise of war; the second, a quieter, piano-heavy passage conveying suffering; and the third, an upbeat, joyful movement. “We are liberated,” Spellman explained, “and we start to sing Jewish life songs.”
“I always dreamed that I have to survive the Nazis, Hitler, to tell the world what happened,” he told David Hoffert. “I always say to myself, ‘How did I survive this? I have no answer.’”
Listening to the piece was painful for Spellman, and when he and Mania and their young son Les immigrated to Canada in 1948, he put it away in his garage and moved on. (Along with a new life, the couple was given a new name, and their family surname Szpilman was anglicized for a Canadian palate.) Leo was reunited with his sister Chana, who had also moved to Toronto and remarried. Daughter Helene arrived in 1950.
After a brief stint as a dishwasher, Leo found his way back to a piano, founding the popular Leo Spellman Orchestra, which played more than 1,000 weddings and parties over the decades. He also had a successful sideline in property development.
Music and family were the constants in his life. He was charming and strong-willed but sometimes bossy, making the party guests when Helene turned 60 sing Happy Birthday a second time because they had been off-key. In the 1990s, Wronski, the student who had sheltered the Spellmans, tracked them down and they had an emotional reunion in Toronto.
But Spellman never opened the suitcase in his garage.
Then, in the late 1990s, the Holocaust Museum in Washington approached Szpilman about providing some music for Life Reborn, a conference for survivors and their families.
“I’ve never written Jewish music,” he told them. “But my cousin Leo in Toronto did. You should try him.”
In his garage, he found the work he had written half a century earlier, dusted it off and took it to Washington, where it had its North American premiere at the conference in January, 2000. “The reception was amazing,” says Shifman, “and it meant so much to my father.”
Over the next few years, Rhapsody 1939-1945 was performed in the United States to equally enthusiastic receptions, but never in Canada.
The fact that his composition had received no attention in his own country rankled Spellman somewhat, but he didn’t dwell on it: An active man – he drove until he was 97 and lived on his own for two years after that – he had family and music to keep him busy. (He also spoke on the phone to Chana, now 105, several times a day.)
Still, his family – two children and seven grandchildren – nagged him to record Rhapsody, and to have it performed in Canada. Spellman finally caved and three years ago reached out to Hoffert, the award-winning composer and co-founder of the band Lighthouse, to see if his Holocaust composition might be captured for posterity.
“He made me audition,” Hoffert says with a laugh. “He wanted to make sure he had the right guy. I understood that. I have high standards, too – you should if you’re an artist and composer.”
Hoffert realized, when he sat down to listen to Spellman play, what an incredible story the music was telling, and he was surprised it wasn’t better known. “I thought how awful it was that here was this person who was a great artist, and nobody knew that he’d written major pieces of music in the 20th century.”
He gathered musicians and, following the precise and rigorous instructions of its composer, began to record. (Spellman didn’t play on the CD, but was more than happy to provide directions from the sidelines.)
Along with the record, Paul Hoffert and his wife, Brenda, began to make the documentary about Spellman’s life, although speaking about the war was difficult. At one point, he wipes tears from his face with a handkerchief: “When I listen to the Rhapsody, I’m crying, because it reminds me of how I made this. I remember those years.”
Spellman’s health began to fail only in recent months. In September, he was well enough to attend the Canadian premiere of his composition, held as part of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto. After the concert, people lined up to buy the CD.
“My father’s Rhapsody captured the enormity of this tragedy, and his own personal sense of sorrow and loss,” Shifman says. “It became his healing.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Brenda Hoffert as the wife of David Hoffert. Ms. Hoffert is the wife of Paul Hoffert. This version has been corrected.