Episode 7

Leon Pommers

“Something unexplainable happened—it was a miracle. One day a rumor was spread, which happened, which happened to be true later, that somebody went—he had some personal contact with the Japanese, uh, consulate in Kovno.”

                       

Fleeing Warsaw ahead of the invading Nazis, concert pianist Leon Pommers was propelled into a perilous journey around the world in hopes of reuniting with his sister in America.

Photos and Artifacts

Leon Pommers standing behind his mother, Fania, his sister Sabina, and his father, Abram. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Leon Pommers's parents, Fania and Abram Pomeraniec. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Franciszek Witkowski's jazz band with Leon on piano. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Greenwood

Leon Pommers in front of posters advertising his performance at the Lutnia Musical Theater in Lodz, Poland. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Leon Pommers playing the piano during a concert performance. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Leon Pommers and his wife Irene Pommers (née Perlman) on vacation in the Catskills, New York. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Manifest of foreign passengers on the M/S Parrakoola, which sailed from Sydney, Australia, on February 11, 1942. Leon Pommers is identified as a 27-year-old Polish pianist traveling on a visa issued in Tokyo. Credit: Image via Nina Hirsch/Ancestry.com.

From left to right, Benny Goodman, an unknown violinist, and Leon Pommers. Together they recorded Goodman’s classical album “Benny Goodman: Private Collection.” Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

Leon Pommers at his home in Forest Hills, New York, ca. 1970s. Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Greenwood.

Leon Pommers “conducting” at his family's holiday table. He always conducted the "Amen" at the end of the blessings. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Greenwood.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

Leon Pommers (Pomeraniec) was born on October 12, 1914, in Pruzhany (Pruzana in Polish), which belonged to the Russian Empire at the time and was then part of Poland from 1919 to 1939. Leon had two sisters: an older sister, Bertha, who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s (and eventually helped Leon procure an American visa), and a younger sister, Sabina, who was born in 1926. Their father, Abram, owned a brewery. When Leon was a toddler, his mother, Fania, first noticed her son’s love of music, and she took him to Minsk to study the piano when he was only five years old.

Pruzhany was a midsized town by Eastern European standards. Jews had lived there for centuries and had long made up a solid majority of the population. There is a town record of a Jewish burial society as early as 1450. In 1644 the Polish King Wladyslaw IV issued a charter that promised Jews the right to trade under the protection of the crown. According to the Russian census of 1897, Pruzhany had 5,080 Jews out of a total population of 7,633. The Polish census of 1931 showed 7,626 inhabitants, 4,208 of whom were Jews. 

Pruzhany’s Jews basked in the reflected glory of the great rabbis who had lived there, including Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), who was also known as the B’’kh, after his classic text Bayit Khadash; and Rabbi David ben Samuel Ha-Levi (1586-1667), or the T’’az, after his Turei Zahav. One of the titans of Jewish religious thought in the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993)—the Rav—was born in Pruzhany.

Like other towns in interwar Poland, the Jewish Pruzhany where Leon spent his youth was a far cry from the stereotypical shtetl of the American Jewish imagination. Major cultural and economic changes were transforming Jewish life. Pruzhany’s Jews exhibited a lot of interest in politics, and Jewish delegates played a major role on the town council. Jewish young people joined youth movements—some Zionist, some in support of the Jewish Socialist Bund—and it was these organizations that nurtured a dynamic youth counterculture based on reading, sports, hiking, and amateur theater. (When Leon was in his 20s he befriended Menachem Begin from nearby Brest-Litovsk. Begin headed the Betar youth movement in Poland and later became prime minister of the State of Israel.) 

There were dozens of organizations and associations in Jewish Pruzhany, including all-important credit societies, artisans unions, religious fellowships, and several Jewish schools. There were two Jewish weekly newspapers, one Zionist and one leftist Yiddishist. Pruzhany also boasted an amateur Yiddish theater. In 1932 the students of the Yiddishist CYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) published a rich and detailed history of the town, which drew warm praise from many leading Jewish historians and scholars, including Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, who would later organize the Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw ghetto, and Dr. Max Weinreich, the director of the Vilna-based YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute). The chronicle was a remarkable achievement, and reflected the high educational standards of the school and the remarkable teachers who inspired the children.

By Pruzhany’s standards, Leon’s family stood near the top of the socioeconomic scale. Like many middle-class Jewish families in the region, the Pommers household was multilingual: Leon spoke Yiddish with his father, Russian with his mother, and Polish with his sisters. Leon’s parents also encouraged Leon’s ambitions to become an accomplished pianist—another indicator that, even though they lived in a far-off provincial town, they were cosmopolitan and cultured.

But as Leon noted in his testimony, the escalating antisemitism in Poland, which became especially virulent after the death of revered national leader Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, did not spare the Jews of Pruzhany. While the government and the church strongly opposed the anti-Jewish violence that erupted in many towns, they explicitly endorsed an economic boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. Financial troubles began to beset Leon’s family in the 1930s as the fortunes of his father’s brewery declined, in part because of the Great Depression, in part because of the boycott. 

The death of Leon’s father in 1938 was a terrible blow. Since his sister Bertha had already immigrated to the United States, Leon was forced to step up and support his mother and younger sister in Pruzhany. Fortunately, thanks to the remarkable success of his musical career, Leon was able to help. In 1936 Leon had moved to Warsaw, where he studied piano with the finest teachers, including Filip Liberman and, at the Warsaw Conservatory, Zofia Buckiewicz. 

Despite what Leon described as the stifling antisemitic atmosphere in Warsaw in the late 1930s, Jews were still a major presence in the Polish popular music and entertainment scene. Prewar Warsaw was known for its cabarets, jazz bands, dance halls, record companies, and film studios, and the composers and band leaders who stood out were Jewish; Jerzy Petersburski, Artur Gold, and Henryk Wars were especially prominent. Leon was able to support himself in the big city by playing in Henryk Wars’s orchestra as well as on several recordings made by Poland’s top record company Syrena. He also found a good gig in a Polish theater.

In addition, Leon was doing very well at the conservatory, whose director, the famed Polish composer Eugeniusz Morawski, took him under his wing. In 1938 Leon was selected to represent Poland at the next edition of the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, although it never took place because of the war. Morawski also tried to secure a scholarship to allow Leon to study abroad, even going so far as to sound out General Boleslaw Wieniawa Dlugoszowski about the possibility. Dlugoszowski, a well-connected, lovable rogue and champion drinker (who, perhaps because of these qualities, was sent to Rome in the late 1930s as Polish ambassador) was no antisemite himself, but he regretfully told Morawski that because Leon was a Jew, such a scholarship was out of the question.

In 1939 Leon’s life was upended by the German invasion of Poland. Caught in Warsaw by the outbreak of the war, Leon joined the hordes of refugees who plodded east along jammed roads under constant German bombardment. He reached Pruzhany, but after the Soviets attacked Poland from the east and occupied his native town, Leon, like many others, made his way to Vilna. Within a short time, some 15,000 Jewish refugees had crowded into Vilna—mainly because, after a brief Soviet occupation in September and October 1939, Vilna became Vilnius, the capital of neutral Lithuania. The Soviets offered Vilna to the Lithuanians as a present, and the Lithuanians, who had lost the city to a Polish military land grab in 1920, were overjoyed to recover their ancient capital. The present did come with a few strings attached: Lithuania had to grant the USSR the right to have bases and station thousands of troops in the country.

For eight months, however—between the end of October 1939, when the Lithuanians  regained Vilnius, and June 16, 1940, when the Soviets suddenly took over the Baltic states—neutral Lithuania was a fragile oasis of stability and calm in a war-torn Europe. Surrounded by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, Lithuania was a flimsy raft in a raging sea, but for the time being, it was “free.” Jewish political parties, a vigorous Jewish press, and the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilnius continued to function. The Lithuanian government tolerated the refugees, especially because the U.S.-based relief organization the Joint Distribution Committee took on the burden of supporting them. Thanks to his musical talents, Leon landed on his feet and was able to support himself.

As months passed, many Jewish refugees allowed themselves to hope that this Lithuanian interlude might last and enable them to shelter in place until the war was over. But many others realized that they were living on borrowed time and began to look for ways to leave what they called the “golden cage.” In theory, with the proper papers, one could leave Vilnius for North America, Latin America, or Palestine. In practice, however, getting those precious papers was very difficult. Sweden would not even issue transit visas, except in exceptional circumstances, and for obvious reasons, going through Nazi-controlled territory was for most Jews a nonstarter. It soon became apparent that the only route out was through the Soviet Union, via the 6,000-mile-long Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok and from there to Japan.

Matters became even more desperate when the Soviets brutally ended Lithuanian independence in June 1940 and began a wave of mass arrests. Now instead of a Soviet transit visa, one needed a Soviet exit visa, and running the gauntlet of consulates and government offices became more complicated than ever. In order to get a Soviet exit visa one needed to produce a Japanese transit visa, a visa for a final destination, and hard currency for a rail ticket to Vladivostok and a Moscow hotel where one would wait for a seat on the train. Applying for a Soviet exit visa also meant presenting oneself to the mercies of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), which, more often than not, provided the applicant with a free trip to Siberia that lacked the creature comforts of the Trans-Siberian and usually stopped well short of Vladivostok. In short, for most Jews in Vilna, getting out was far easier said than done, and between June 1941 and September 1943, the vast majority of Vilna’s Jewish refugees were wiped out by the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers.

Leon, however, was unwilling to wait things out. His sister Bertha in the U.S. had begun the process of getting him an American visa, but the Polish quota was fixed at a mere 6,200 and there was a waiting list of many years. When the war began, much of that quota went unused, but the American consular staff in Lithuania took particular pride in discouraging visa applicants and making the process as onerous as possible. Leon, it seemed, was out of luck—until one day he heard about the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Chiune Sugihara. 

Sugihara had had a long career in the lower ranks of the Japanese diplomatic service and intelligence agencies. He was fluent in Russian and had extensive experience in Manchuria, where he befriended White Russian emigres and Jews and even married a Russian Orthodox woman (they divorced in 1935). In 1939, eager to collect intelligence on German and Soviet troop movements in Eastern Europe, the Japanese sent Sugihara to Lithuania, ostensibly to serve as a vice-consul, but actually to work as a spy.

In Kaunas, Sugihara befriended some Lithuanian Jews who soon pointed out to him that he could save lives by issuing Japanese transit visas. Such visas also required a second visa, for a final destination. By 1940, with most countries unwilling to take refugees, it was Dutch Curaçao that served as a credible “final destination” to enable Sugihara to issue Japanese transit visas. Thanks to Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch businessman and consul in Lithuania, Sugihara’s visas bore the stamp “Valid for travel to Curaçao.” 

All in all, Sugihara and Zwartendijk may have saved as many as 6,000 Jewish lives, though Sugihara’s actions ultimately cost him his career. His postwar life was quite difficult, and he lived in obscurity. In 1984, two years before his death at the age of 86, Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations. 

It was thanks to Sugihara and Zwartendijk that Leon was able to leave Vilna in 1941 and travel to Japan. Like many other “Sugihara Jews,” he boarded a Japanese ship in Vladivostok that took him to the port of Tsuruga. There he was taken in hand by a Jewish relief committee based in Kobe. Leon hoped to get to the United States, but since the State Department put as many obstacles as possible in the path of Jewish refugees, he had no choice but to stay in Japan. 

But another unexpected benefactor came to Leon’s aid: Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador to Tokyo, who during the war helped many Polish Jewish refugees. Ordinarily, Jews who were unable to leave for a final destination were rounded up by the Japanese and sent to Shanghai, where most of them survived the war. But Romer had been given some blank visas to British dominions, including Canada, and perhaps charmed by Leon’s musical talent and cultured personality, he offered him one of the precious visas to Canada. Romer’s friendship, as well as the support that Leon received from Eugeniusz Morawski, serve as important reminders that, however much Polish Jews rightfully complained about Polish antisemitism, there were many Poles who treated Jews with respect and humanity.

Now Leon had his Canadian visa—but how to get to Canada from Japan? The only way was through Australia via Shanghai. Romer and HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) provided  him with the money he needed to make the trip. Leon arrived in Australia just a few days before Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In February, with the war raging in the Pacific, Leon managed to find a place on a freighter that docked in San Francisco, where the American authorities decided that, even though he had a Canadian visa, he lacked an American visa and therefore had to be shipped back to Australia! Happily, Leon’s sister managed to drum up help, and Leon was escorted, under armed guard, to the Canadian border. 

In October 1943, Leon was finally able to enter the United States. After the war ended, he learned that his mother and younger sister had shared the fate of the other Jews of Pruzhany, whom the Nazis deported to Auschwitz and murdered at the end of January 1943. Like so many other survivors, Leon felt terrible guilt for having left Europe while his mother and sister stayed behind. Years later he added their names to Yad Vashem’s Names Database of Holocaust victims.

How Leon managed to retrieve his educational credentials from war-torn Warsaw is a story in itself. He enrolled in Queens College, earned a master’s degree, and served on the college’s music faculty until his retirement in 1985, after which he taught at the Mannes School of Music. Leon won widespread recognition as a pianist and accompanist and was nominated for a Grammy in 1986. He played with Benny Goodman, Nathan Milstein, Yehudi Menuhin, and many others.

For several years after arriving in the United States, Leon lived with his sister Bertha. In July 1954 he married Warsaw-born Irene Perlman, who had been widowed. Her daughter, Alice Greenwood, became his stepdaughter. They lived in Forest Hills, New York. Those who remember Leon—his stepdaughter and his grandchildren—recall his charm, his refined European manners, and his sense of humor. 

Leon Pommers died on June 7, 2001. He was 86 years old.

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Additional readings and information

Leon’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/collections/5/collection_resources/2995.

Holmgren, Beth. “Cabaret Nation: The Jewish Foundations of Kabaret Literacki, 1920–1939.” Polin Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 31, 2019, p. 273–288.

Levine, Hillel. In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust. New York: Free Press, 1996.

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