Drummer, 98, who started band with fellow Holocaust survivors, now tours world
The Washington Post January 8, 2024
Saul Dreier learned to play the drums in perhaps the most unlikely of places: a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Dreier, who grew up in a Jewish family in Krakow, was sent to the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in German-occupied Poland when he was 16, then was moved to a subcamp, where he toiled in a factory called NKF, repairing automobile radiators.
One of the men in Dreier’s barracks was a cantor — someone who sings liturgical music and leads prayers in a synagogue — and he and a few other prisoners sang together every night in a makeshift choir. They chanted traditional Jewish songs.
“You’re missing something,” Dreier declared one evening to the men.
He took two metal soup spoons and started banging them together to create a beat that his fellow prisoners could sing along to.
“That’s how I learned to play the drums,” said Dreier, 98, whose father was a musician and bought him a clarinet when he was 8 years old.
His grueling days in the work camp were punctuated by his terror that he could be slaughtered at any moment. Making music was his salve — a small but significant joy. Dreier’s parents were murdered by the Nazis, as were about 25 of his family members. He credits music for keeping him alive.
“It helped me survive,” said Dreier, who was sent to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1944, when he was 20.
Dreier was liberated by the Americans in 1945. While everyone celebrated, Dreier said he was narrowly fixated on one thing: “I thought about my parents, my sister and my father, and how I could find them.” He discovered later that he never would.
Dreier continued to play the drums at the Santa Maria di Bagni Displaced Persons Camp in southern Italy. There, he set aside his spoons and played on a proper drum set for the first time.
“We played, and the young people used to dance,” he said, adding that they mostly performed traditional Jewish music, but occasionally they mixed in some popular Polish and Italian songs, too.
Dreier migrated to Brooklyn in 1949, and he became a construction contractor in New Jersey. He and his wife Clara, also a Holocaust survivor, had four children. Clara died in 2016.
For more than six decades, Dreier never once played the drums, leaving that part of his life behind him. Then one day, in 2014, he learned something that changed his mind: Alice Herz-Sommer — a concert pianist who was thought to be the oldest known Holocaust survivor — had passed away at age 110.
Like Dreier, Herz-Sommer played music when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp that was a transfer point for Jews heading to death and labor camps. Herz-Sommer saw music as a tool for redemption.
“I called my wife, Clara, and I said, ‘I would like to do something in her name,’” recalled Dreier, who was 88 at the time. “I want to put together a Holocaust survivor band.”
“She told me I’m crazy,” Dreier said.
He then pitched the idea to his rabbi, who had a similar reaction to his wife.
Dreier was not deterred. After all, he said, there was little to lose.
“I bought a brand-new set of drums, and I became a proud musician,” said Dreier, who lives in Coconut Creek, Fla. “After this, the sky opened for me.”
He gathered an accordionist, a violinist, a guitarist, a saxophonist and a trumpet player — all of whom either survived the Holocaust or were children of survivors — and they formed The Holocaust Survivor Band.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Dreier founded the band, and he — along with a rotating roster of other Holocaust survivor musicians and their family members — have performed nearly 100 concerts around the world. They play Jewish folk songs known as klezmer music, which is the genre Dreier grew up listening to in Poland.
In addition to providing entertainment, Dreier said, the Holocaust Survivor Band promotes unity.
“My goal is peace all over the world, and no antisemitism,” he said.
Dreier’s band was the subject of a 2020 documentary, which features Dreier and one of his original bandmates, Ruby Sosnowicz, a fellow Holocaust survivor and accordion player.
Recently, Dreier, played for President Joe Biden at the White House Hanukkah party. That was his favorite performance to date. Accompanied by the United States Marine Band, Dreier played “Hava Nagila,” a popular Jewish celebration song.
“I loved that. You can’t imagine how much,” Dreier said.
Since starting the band nearly 10 years ago, Dreier has performed in nursing homes and synagogues, as well as at banquet and music halls. He has held concerts across the country, as well as in Israel, Germany, Brazil and Poland. He also does speaking engagements at schools and colleges, and is planning to write a memoir.
Dreier is the only permanent member of the band, he said, noting that some of his original bandmates have died. Depending on who is available and where a performance is taking place, Dreier is typically joined by six to eight musicians, many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors.
That includes Chaim Rubinov, 65, who has been regularly playing in the Holocaust Survivor Band since its inception.
“It holds a special place in my heart because my parents were Holocaust survivors,” said Rubinov, a freelance trumpet player in Coral Springs, Fla.
For Rubinov, playing in the Holocaust Survivor Band is a meaningful way to honor his parents and celebrate Jewish life.
“It’s something that’s very close to me,” he said.
Plus, he said, making music with Dreier is a delight.
“It’s not just his passion, it’s his physical energy. He is not a normal 98-year-old,” Rubinov said. “It’s really amazing and inspiring to see that.”
“He’s got a million stories and every time I perform with him and he gets up and speaks to the audience, I learn new things about him,” he said, explaining that Dreier often shares his Holocaust story with the crowd.
The Holocaust Survivor Band performs a number of Jewish folk classics, including “BaShana HaBa’a,” “Papirosn” and “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” as well as “To Life,” from Fiddler on the Roof.
The Holocaust Survivor Band rarely rehearses, Dreier said.
“We decide on the spot what we’re going to play,” he said. “The songs are in us.”
Although Dreier is nearly 100, he said his musical career is only just beginning. Amid the recent wave of antisemitism brought on by the Israel-Gaza war, he feels more motivated than ever to perform and share his story with whomever will listen.
“We all have one heart,” he said. “We all have to live together in peace, and that’s what I’m trying to promote.”