FORT LAUDERDALE — They're almost 90, survived the Holocaust and love to play music together — so why not?
Saul Dreier and Reuben Sosnowicz, nostalgic for the tunes of their youth, have started a group with an unlikely name that tells just a part of their story: the Holocaust Survivor Band.
Completing its first year, the band has proven popular along the local synagogue/flea market/retirement-home circuit, attracting hundreds of South Floridians who relish klezmer and Big Band music. Dreier, 89, said the band is booked at local venues through April.
With Dreier of Coconut Creek on the drums, and Sosnowicz, 85, of Delray Beach on keyboard, the musicians exude joy at the chords they learned as kids and longing for the families they lost during World War II. Other players also have Holocaust connections, such as Chanarose Sosnowicz, 53, the vocalist and Rueben's daughter, and Jeff Black, 64, the British-born rhythm guitar player from Hollywood. He was the child of Holocaust refugees whose families perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Dreier said he got the idea for the band when Alice Herz-Sommer died last year at 110, the oldest-known Holocaust survivor at the time. Herz-Sommer survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp by playing the piano on orders of the Nazis to fool the Red Cross.
Inspired by her dedication to music, Dreier shared his plan with his wife and rabbi; both said Dreier was nuts, but he was undeterred.
"I decided to go for it," said Dreier, a retired owner of construction companies and a grandfather of six. "I asked everyone, 'How can I find musicians who are survivors?' "
A friend told him about Sosnowicz, who had been playing keyboard at Café Europa gatherings of Holocaust survivors sponsored by local Jewish Family Service agencies. Sosnowicz was a hairdresser, photographer and professional musician who played in New York City Jewish theaters and the Catskills during its heyday in the mid 20th century.
Both men are from Poland. Sosnowicz was born in Warsaw and spent much of the war hiding in a Polish farm. Dreier lived in Krakow and survived several concentration camps, including Plaszow, Auschwitz and Mauthausen. The Nazis killed his entire family.
After the war, Dreier was sent to a displaced persons camp in Italy, where he learned to play the drums. He said he never played again until he discovered a drum set at his synagogue, Temple Haim in Margate, about a year ago. He spontaneously began to replay the music he recalled from his 20s.
The Holocaust Survivor Band plays an assortment of tunes, including klezmer, the joyous Jewish folk music. Many Jews and non-Jews recognize the spirited dance song, Hava Nagila, from bar mitzvahs and weddings, but in recent years, klezmer has proven its flexibility by combining with rap, bluegrass, and swing, said Aaron Kula, director of music performance and education at Florida Atlantic University's Libraries.
"It's ever-changing and evolving," Kula said. "Every generation has changed it to fit their taste."
The Holocaust Survivor Band has achieved success at an optimal time for both Dreier and Sosnowicz. As he approaches 90, Dreier said his energy to pursue this project continues to surge, despite a bout with stomach cancer.
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And Sosnowicz had become depressed after his wife had a stroke, his daughter said. She said playing in the band has restored his good humor.
"I haven't seen him happy like this in years," she said. "He has been able to reinvent himself and find a bigger purpose than taking care of his wife."