Cello smuggled out of Austria before WWII
When John-Henry Crawford plays his cello, it connects him not only with generations of his family, but also with a momentous time in world history, during the violent persecution of Jews leading up to World War II.
Crawford, one of the artists who performed in the first two concerts at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival last week, plays a 200-year-old cello that his grandfather smuggled out of Austria in 1938, just weeks before Kristallnacht.
The attacks on Jews on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, came to be called Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues and homes. The first mass arrests of Jews by the Nazis, the attacks are seen as a turning point in the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews.
Crawford’s grandfather, Robert Popper, lived in Innsbruck with his parents and his older brother, Siegfried. Popper wasn’t a professional musician — he was a physician by training — but music was a big part of their lives, and people gathered every weekend at the Popper home to play chamber music, Crawford said.
In fact, it was a shared love of music across borders and oceans that saved the cello and helped Crawford’s grandfather escape to safety.
As anti-Semitism spread, life became unbearable for Jews in Austria. Popper, who wasn’t permitted to work as a physician — he spent a year and a half as an unpaid intern — realized he had no future in Innsbruck.
Unable to persuade his parents to leave with him, Popper fled on his own by train via Germany and Lithuania to Latvia, where he waited several months for an American sponsor so he could emigrate to the United States.
But before he left Innsbruck, Popper enlisted the aid of an American who was touring Austria by bicycle, whom the Popper family had befriended after they played music together.
Popper arranged for the cyclist to take the family’s instruments — two cellos and at least three violins — across the border to friends in Switzerland for safe-keeping. The instruments weren’t extraordinarily valuable, but they were good enough to keep, Crawford said.
The cyclist also connected Popper with a devoted musician in America, who agreed to sponsor him. Popper made the return voyage across the Baltic Sea on a cargo ship, and then by train through Belgium and France to Switzerland to retrieve the instruments. They were shipped to England in a wooden crate for the trans-Atlantic crossing.
Escape from Austria
Meanwhile, Popper’s parents were still in Innsbruck when the Nazis ransacked homes and businesses, searching for Jews. The Nazi rioters threw the parents into the river, where they pretended to drown. They swam to a nearby factory, only to be reported to the police and jailed. They soon escaped to England to join Siegfried, Robert’s brother. Siegfried ultimately reunited with Robert in New York, but Robert never saw his parents again.
Robert Popper arrived in New York in 1939 with the crate of instruments, a few surgical tools, and some of his mother’s linens and jewelry. Despite his medical degree, he initially drove a taxi, painted signs, and worked as a dental assistant. When his English had improved, he passed the medical exam and worked at a hospital in Chicago, where he happened to care for the man who had sponsored his passage to the U.S., Crawford said.
Popper spent most of his career in Memphis, as the chief of anesthesiology for a hospital run by the Veterans Health Administration. He remained a dedicated musician his entire life, playing his cello with his family and local orchestras, including the Doctor’s Orchestral Society of New York, which formed in 1938, the year Popper fled Austria, and still performs concerts today.
He passed on his love of music to the whole family. His daughter (Crawford’s mother) was a violinist who started a Suzuki music school in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Crawford grew up.
Tree rings from 1827
Crawford has learned more about his cello through dendrochronology, the science that analyzes wood to determine age and origin. The instrument is made from wood from the Bavarian Alps. The oldest tree ring dates to 1827.
Crawford takes pride in the fact that the cello has been in his family for more than half of its life, since his grandfather’s family bought it in Vienna in 1918. It’s also been Crawford’s primary instrument for more than half his life, since he’s played the cello since he was 13. He knows its depth and nuances better than any other instrument.
The cello has striking acoustics. Because it’s slightly smaller than a traditional cello, it projects extremely well, with an exquisite sound that’s heard easily in ensembles with piano and other string instruments. “I’ve tried many other cellos — some with fancy names and high prices — and they don’t stack up,” Crawford said.
Crawford remembers his introduction to the instrument at age 5 on a green foam cello in the Suzuki program. By the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. His uncle, also a cellist, thought it was time for Crawford to play his grandfather’s cello.
Since then, Crawford has won international awards, performed on stages across the U.S. and around the world, and recorded several albums.
All the instruments Popper rescued from Europe are still in the family. Crawford’s mother plays two of the violins, and one of his brothers plays the other cello.
Robert Popper was a devoted historian with a keen sense of humor that was tinged with darkness by his life experiences, Crawford said. Popper recorded his incredible story — and that of the cello — in a set of detailed memoirs.
His grandfather was always a central part of his life, Crawford said. Just before he died in 2000, Crawford played a cello piece for him.
The cello is Crawford’s primary instrument at his home base in New York, but he has another cello (a mere 20 years old) for traveling — which he played in the Methow last week — because his grandfather’s cello is so vulnerable to changes in temperature. “It was once a living thing, so the wood expands and contracts. That’s very crucial to the sonic quality of the cello,” Crawford said.
“If the cello could speak and tell us things — I find it so interesting that it’s a silent historian of all of this. It feels like a piece of my granddad lives on through the cello,” Crawford said.
Crawford just released “Voice of Rachmaninoff,” in which he explores the vocal qualities of the composer’s music along with a pianist. His album “Corazón: The Music of Latin America” was on the Billboard Top 10 Classical Chart in its first week. For more information and to hear him play, visit johnhenrycrawford.com.