Wordless Mendelssohn Is Backdrop For Stories Of Jews In New World

Songwriter Alison Loeb and (a cutout of) Felix Mendelssohn enjoy a moment near the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. (Photo by Ron Guncler)

NEW YORK — To turn her fascination about the lives of the immigrants in her neighborhood into a musical walking tour, the songwriter Alison Loeb interviewed dozens of her neighbors — German-Jewish immigrants who had moved from Europe to northern Manhattan to escape the perils of the Nazi regime in their home country. The neighborhood, Washington Heights, had so many newcomers from Germany it was known as “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” Loeb put this oral history together with music by Mendelssohn and called it “Mendelssohn on the Hudson.” The podcast will be available on all podcast platforms from Oct. 1-31. 

In a way, Mendelssohn was the soundtrack for these people’s lives. His music — along with that of other composers of Jewish heritage — was forbidden in Nazi Germany. “Mendelssohn wasn’t played in Germany for the longest time because of the ban,” said Loeb. “But he was being played here on most of the pianos the Germans were able to bring over here. The Jews saved Mendelssohn. And Mendelssohn, in certain stories here, saved the Jews.”

Loeb related a story told to her by Eddie, a telephone repair technician, about one of these local residents. He had fixed the wiring on a woman’s landline, but she didn’t have enough money to pay the bill. Eddie, a classical music lover, sees that Songs Without Words is on her piano. “He says, ‘Tell you what, if you play Mendelssohn, I’ll take care of it.’ She did. He did. And that was the first song.”

Bennett Park, the site of Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War and the highest point in Manhattan. (Photo by Robbie Bailey)

After hearing that tale from Eddie, Loeb would talk with anyone who had a German accent whom she encountered in her neighborhood. “All of a sudden, I found all these people who wanted to tell me their stories. I started by saying, ‘Just tell me about anything. We don’t have to talk about the camps. We don’t have to talk about anything horrible.’ And they’d tell me about being in Honduras. They’d tell me about being in Santo Domingo. There were all these amazing stories.”

One of the women Loeb spoke with told her how a gold bracelet saved her life. She desperately needed a visa to get out of Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (the night of November 9, 1938, when Nazi leaders rampaged throughout Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, destroying Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes). She had no money and no possessions besides the clothes she wore and that bracelet, which she was finally able to pawn to pay for the visa and passage to America. Another woman was on the Kindertransport (the rescue effort that sent thousands of Jewish children from Germany and elsewhere to the United Kingdom, just before the outbreak of World War II) as a youngster, and threw a fake tantrum to bypass the German authorities. Others told of winding up on a farm in the Dominican Republic, since it was the only country that agreed to accept an unlimited number of Jewish refugees.

Actor Sam Guncler narrates the walking tour.

For her podcast, Loeb set each of these stories to one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, adapting the language of each to be supported by Mendelssohn’s music. In the process, she listened to every one of these 48 miniature works for solo piano.”It was like, ‘Talk to me, Mendelssohn,’ and all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, my God, this would be the perfect one.’ It was like setting a gem inside a gem, finding the perfect jewel-like setting for each song.”

Originally, Loeb had planned to make these musical stories into short films, but the funding for that project didn’t come through. “It was COVID,” said Loeb. “What do you do? Let’s take people for a walk. That’s how the idea for the podcast walking tour started.” With the help of Aaron Simms, executive producer at Inwood Art Works, a production company in the neighborhood, the hyper-local oral history set to music became an audio podcast. “It’s a self-guided musical historical tour of German Jewish Washington Heights,” said Loeb. “It’s 12 episodes describing different aspects of these people’s lives, whether in Germany, coming here, or living here. Each episode focuses on one story that was told to me from the late 1990s through early 2000s by somebody who came over either right after Kristallnacht or way after that.”

Loeb and Simms hired pianist Naoko Aita and professional singers, including Robert Osborne, Bernard Damon Holcomb, Mary Illes, Karen Jolicoeur, and Laura Pfortmiller, and actor Sam Guncler, “a great narrator,” who happens to be her husband. “He’s also a ‘2G’,” a second-generation Holocaust survivor,” said Loeb. “His dad survived at least two camps. That’s how I started getting really interested in all the levels of dealing with something like what the German Jews and all the others had to deal with. Being ousted from their homelands and just being lucky enough to get here — I mean, getting to the U.S. was a huge deal because not everybody could.”

As producer, Simms chose 10 of the songs and identified 10 locations in the neighborhood that related to each of the songs. The walking tour is focused around these 10 spots, essentially as listening stations.

One of the locations is Bennett Park, the site of Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War (and the highest natural point in Manhattan, at 265 feet). Another is the “step street” at West 187th Street, one of the open-air staircases that dots this hilly part of upper Manhattan. The tour ends in Fort Tryon Park, home of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters Museum.

The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Fort Tryon Park. (Robbie Bailey)

Loeb said she learned a lot from talking with and getting to know these neighbors. “This is a combination of history and drama and stories of survival, and how to grow old gracefully,” she said. But to create the five-minute episodes that make up the podcast walking tour, Loeb had to leave a lot of material on the cutting room floor: “We’ve got one hour to tell as many stories as we can and explain how the German Jews got here, and what they dealt with, and the different kinds of religious observances, and the ethics, and all of this, trying to shove all of it into the hour of the tour. We hope that we’ve gotten close.”