Sick and exhausted, twenty-year-old Henry Meyer lay on a cot in the Auschwitz infirmary. Both parents had been deported and his only brother had already died in Auschwitz. The young man began to talk with the prisoner-doctor tending to the inmates, and the doctor soon recognized Meyer as the child prodigy he had seen perform years before in Breslau. Before the SS came through the barracks to conduct their selection, the doctor switched Meyer’s number card with that of a nearby corpse and carried the sickly violinist to a concealed corner. Saved from an almost-certain death, Henry Meyer was to be transferred soon thereafter to Birkenau, where he played in the orchestra. After brief periods spent in several other camps and after surviving a death march, he was eventually to emigrate to the United States. There he became a founding member of the renowned LaSalle Quartet and worked as a professor of music at the University of Cincinnati for over 25 years.
Henry Meyer was born in 1923 to an affluent German-Jewish family. With a piano-playing mother and brother, and a father who played both violin and viola, it was no wonder that the young prodigy dreamed of becoming a professional chamber musician. When the Nazis came to power, many of the Meyers’ Jewish friends began fleeing the country and the Nazis seized most of their possessions, leaving them in a financially precarious position. They wrote to distant relatives in the United States asking for financial sponsorship to allow them to emigrate. The relatives declined, however, citing their own financial constraints. At the time the Meyers were not overly worried, assuming, like most German Jews, that the Nazi menace would die out in a year or two.
The new anti-Semitic regulations, however, had an immediate impact on Henry Meyer’s musical education. He was forced to leave his school, managing for only a short time to get private lessons from a concert master at the opera house. As he was unable to pursue his studies productively in Germany, in 1936 Meyer was sent to Prague for two years. Coincidentally, the young violinist returned to Dresden on 9 November 1938 for a performance in a concert by the Jewish Cultural League (Jüdischer Kulturbund); this was the night of the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, and he was promptly arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. After several weeks in the camp, however, he was released. Meyer then moved to Berlin, where he was accepted into the Kulturbund orchestra.
After the dissolution of the Kulturbund, Meyer held several factory jobs in Berlin, before moving back to Dresden with his family. Two weeks later, in January 1942, his parents were deported to Riga, where his mother was to die. His father survived the ghetto and the transport to Dachau, where he perished several months before the camp was liberated. Meyer, along with his brother, remained for a year in Dresden, working at menial jobs in armaments factories and subjected to random and brutal raids by the SS.
In 1943, the boys were deported to Auschwitz. Crammed in freight cars without food and water, and regularly beaten by the soldiers, they were subjected to a selection upon arrival in the camp. A few weeks after their arrival, Meyer’s brother disappeared, a sure sign of death. Henry himself became ill and was brought to the infirmary – the final stop before the crematoria. Then came the lucky act of salvation.
As a musician he was soon transferred to Birkenau, where he was assigned to the orchestra. A trained violinist, he played the marches demanded of the musicians when the prisoners went to and from their work, and the jazz and swing music the SS demanded during their evening parties. Reflecting on his pre-Nazi musical training, and then his time in the Kulturbund, Meyer was to say with some cynicism of his time in Birkenau: 'that was then my third musical career, and so I managed to survive'.
In the late autumn of 1944, as the Red Army was approaching the camp, Meyer was transported to Sachsenhausen for a few days, then to Buchenwald for two days and then to Ohrdruf, a small satellite camp. On the death march back to Buchenwald in the last days of the war, in the spring of 1945, he managed to escape along with three fellow prisoners. Meyer hid in the woods for seven days, and finally fled to the American front as it approached. He was treated well by the Americans and was soon sent to Paris, where he remained for three years, waiting to realise his dream of emigrating to the United States. In 1948 he received a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied for a year and became acquainted with the musicians with whom he was to form the LaSalle Quartet.
Immediately after forming the quartet in 1949, the young men were offered a position as quartet-in-residence at Colorado College. Four years later they moved to the University of Cincinnati, where Henry Meyer worked for over 25 years.
Broder, H.M. & Geisel, E., 1992. Premiere und Pogrom: Der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933-1941, Berlin: Siedler.
Meyer, H., 1993. Musste da auch Musik sein? Der Weg eines Geigers von Dresden über Auschwitz nach Amerika. In H. Heister, C. M. Zenck, & P. Petersen, eds. Musik im Exil: Folgen des Nazismus für die Internationale Musikkultur. Frankfurt/ M.: Fischer, pp. 29-40. .