An orchestral debut with ‘extraordinary link to the past’

A 90-year-old Holocaust survivor was scheduled to make his orchestral debut with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma Tuesday to benefit a foundation dedicated to preserving the work of artists and musicians killed by the Nazis.

Ma and George Horner, a retired doctor who lives near Philadelphia, embraced warmly in a small room at Boston’s Symphony Hall Tuesday afternoon before a brief rehearsal.

Ma thanked Horner for helping the Terezin Music Foundation, named for the town of Terezin, site of an unusual Jewish ghetto in what was then German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Even amid death and hard labor, Nazi soldiers there allowed prisoners to stage performances.


Tuesday night, they were scheduled to play music composed 70 years ago when Horner was incarcerated.

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‘‘It’s an extraordinary link to the past,’’ said concert organizer Mark Ludwig, who leads the foundation.

Horner played piano and accordion in Terezin cabarets, including tunes written by inmate Karel Svenk. Tuesday, Horner was to play two of Svenk’s works solo — a march and a lullaby — and then team up with Ma for a third piece called ‘‘How Come the Black Man Sits in the Back of the Bus?’’

Svenk did not survive the genocide. But his musical legacy has, due in part to a chance meeting of Ludwig, a scholar of Terezin composers, and Horner, who never forgot the songs written and played in captivity.

Still, Ludwig found it hard to ask Horner to perform pieces laden with such difficult memories.


‘‘To ask somebody who . . . played this in the camps, that’s asking a lot,’’ said Ludwig.

Yet Horner readily agreed to what he described as a ‘‘noble’’ mission. It did not hurt that he would be sharing the stage with Ma — even if he thought Ludwig was joking with him at first.

‘‘I told him, ‘Do you want me to swallow that one?’,’’ Horner recalled with a laugh. ‘‘I couldn’t believe it, because it’s a fantastic thing for me.’’

The program was to feature additional performances by Ma and the Hawthorne String Quartet. In a statement, Ma said he’s glad the foundation is ‘‘giving voice through music to those whose voices have been tragically silenced.’’

Horner was 21 when he was freed by Allied soldiers in 1945 after serving time at Terezin, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald. His parents and sister perished in the camps.