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Monday, April 28, 2014

Remembering Pianist Otto Gruenbaum

by Jan Carr

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014 runs from the evening of April 27 through April 28. As we at the BAM Hamm Archives catalog the years during and leading up to WWII, we’re struck by the number of émigrés who escaped from Europe and performed at BAM. Some names are quite familiar: Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Mrs. Béla Bartók, some less so.

A pianist named Otto Gruenbaum is listed in a busy program of seven acts opening the fall 1940 season. An Internet search revealed that Gruenbaum has a page in the Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial, and it tells a harrowing story. Gruenbaum was born in Vienna and studied at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. When Germany annexed Austria, he cleverly escaped by entering a piano contest in Belgium, then quickly made his way to the US. While he was here, he played the 1940 concert on the Music Hall stage. But after being in the US only a few years, he was required to “either join the US Army or be deported as an enemy alien.” His story ends thus: “Otto was stationed in Germany at the end of the war. A day before he was to return to America, he was killed. The cause of his death is still under investigation.”

It’s chilling to think that Gruenbaum escaped so narrowly, but was then sent back. As we catalog, it’s staggering to realize how many stories, some sad and disturbing, march across the stages at BAM, and how many we’re not even aware of. We wish we could have heard Gruenbaum’s concert. But in remembrance, we catalogued his name.

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