NATICK — He’s hovered over Robert Berkowitz’s life for decades, a spectral promise of what might have been.
He’s there in the family album, a composer looking older than his years in a bulky overcoat and fedora, his mustache cloaking the scar that marred his upper lip. Strolling along a busy Hungarian street, he towers over Berkowitz’s mother, Pauline, who strides confidently beside her suitor — a pianist whose collaborators would later be counted among the titans of 20th-century music.
The photo has weathered with age. It’s torn in the upper left-hand corner. No one remembers precisely when it was taken or by whom, but it is this moment — this instant before the war, Hitler, and the lethal machinery that tore the couple apart — that has obsessed Berkowitz and shaped him as he followed the trail of his mother’s recollections.
“I’d hear the story about how he was courting my mother and then how he entered the ghetto looking to try to rescue her,” said Berkowitz, a Natick-based psychiatrist. That noble choice, made for love, was deadly, Pauline would tell her son. “He lived very much in my head as an important exemplar,” Berkowitz explained. “He really was the idealized man.”
Lajos Delej (pronounced DELL-lay) was a composer of great promise, Pauline would recount, describing the musician’s aristocratic bearing, his sensitivity as a pianist, and the celebrity that seemed to attend him everywhere. His works were played on Hungarian radio, his performances written up in the papers.
But then the Germans invaded Hungary. Pauline was sent to Auschwitz, and Delej was never heard from again — his young talent extinguished by Hitler’s enterprising cruelty.
Doubt would creep in as Berkowitz, mining archives wherever he could find them, was unable to confirm a single detail of Delej’s life. He began to question his mother’s tale of musical genius and a great love lost.
“That was very discouraging” said Berkowitz, 57, a high-caliber amateur pianist in his own right. “She said he was so famous, playing on the radio all the time. I imagined there’d be recordings of him. I found nothing.”
Over the past year, however, Berkowitz has embarked on a revelatory journey, reclaiming Delej’s life while excavating his musical legacy. Along the way, he’s developed close ties with members of Delej’s American family, who have uncovered a trove of correspondence and memorabilia providing an intimate window into the composer’s life before the Holocaust, including a handful of lost works for solo piano.
“I can’t help but think that something about this tortuous, strange journey has allowed me to communicate something about him,” said Berkowitz. “That conduit of love that extended from Delej to my mother, and then from my mother to me — does it not carry something that could be communicated in music?”
Life in Weimar-era Berlin had been rewarding for Imre Delej and his young wife, Leonora. As the parents of three children — Hillbrich, Livia, and the baby, Lajos — the Delejs were firmly established in the city’s more accomplished Jewish circles, holding an open house each Sunday where they hosted actors, artists, and physicists.
Born to an affluent Budapest family, Imre spoke fluent French and traveled frequently. His hat factories provided a comfortable living for the family.
Still, the Delejs remained outsiders in Berlin. They never became German citizens, and their dual-minority status made them particularly vulnerable as the Nazi Party rose to power.
The family, led by Imre, returned to Budapest in the early 1930s, but their world would soon unravel.
Hillbrich had already immigrated to Buenos Aires, and daughter Livia sailed for the United States in 1937. Imre lost his German factories the following year, confiscated by the Nazis.
But even as life in Budapest became increasingly fraught, the Delejs took great pride in Lajos, known as “Loulou” (occasionally “Lulu”), whom they recognized early as a musical prodigy.
“You are surely curious about Lulu’s exam,” Leonora wrote Livia in September 1938, when Delej was 14. “He played 16 compositions by heart, flawlessly!!”
Though Imre was confident war could be avoided, the family was determined to keep their precious son safe, and Delej began learning English before his expected move to the United States, where he hoped to support himself.
“Loulou would like to learn saxophone as his second instrument,” Imre wrote his daughter in October 1938. “This also seems to be practical for the employment possibilities that will be necessary for him ‘over there.’ ”
Soon Delej was studying with the esteemed pianist-composer Pál Kadosa , who counted György Ligeti, later one of Hungary’s greatest composers, among his pupils.
“Mr. Kadosa found barely a mistake,” Leonora wrote Livia in September 1939. “Only in the recitation did he point something small out to Lulu! Do you know, my angel, what that means? He’s already absolutely independent.”
Robert Berkowitz knew none of this when he and his longtime partner, Beverly Benedetti, visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in October 2015.
Though the couple had visited the museum previously, running Delej’s name through its huge database of Hitler’s victims, they’d never discovered anything about Delej, reinforcing Berkowitz’s suspicions that his mother had embellished the tale.
And why shouldn’t she?
Life after the war had been difficult for Pauline, who lost her father and stepmother during their internment at Auschwitz. Though she later married and immigrated to the United States, her challenges grew when Berkowitz’s father, Ernest, entered a nursing home incapacitated by multiple sclerosis. With limited English and scant formal education, Pauline was left alone to raise their son while working as a seamstress in Los Angeles.
“It was my mother and me,” recalled Berkowitz, who began piano lessons around that time. “My mother maybe had the freedom to tell these stories, because my father wasn’t in the house.”
Pauline confided to her son that she’d met Delej during a piano recital of a cousin — a lithe and musically gifted young woman, the more obvious match for Delej.
“From the minute he saw me, he kind of fell in love,” recalled Pauline Herzek, who today uses the surname of her late second husband. “From that moment on, he wrote me and came to visit.”
Herzek regaled her son with tales of Delej’s artistry. He had excelled at Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise, so Berkowitz soon mastered a simplified version of it.
“It was clear from the stories I heard that my mother felt she was really supposed to marry this other man, Lajos Delej,” said Berkowitz. She sought refuge in his memory, and the life that could have been hers. “Here she was working as a seamstress . . . raising a son by herself. It’s all very hard.”
Growing up the son of a Holocaust survivor had special challenges of its own, he added.
“I could sense my mother’s sadness, and I think I wanted to attend to it in an important way,” said Berkowitz. “One of the things I could do was become like the guy she really wanted to be with. . . . My mother will tell you that she feels I was Delej’s son.”
These days Herzek, 94, can be a touch forgetful, but she vividly recalls that Delej once gave her a ring. Though they were not engaged (“it was too soon”), she is convinced they would have married were it not for the war.
“We belonged to each other,” Herzek said by phone from San Diego, where she now lives. “In my heart he always was with me, and until I die he will be with me.”
At Auschwitz, Herzek was among the nearly 60,000 prisoners SS guards forced on “death marches” while evacuating the camp as Soviet troops advanced in January 1945. When she finally returned to her home village of Nagybánya (now Romania’s Baia Mare), she wrote Delej hoping to resume their romance. His mother replied that he’d perished.
“It was devastating,” said Herzek. “But you get married and you start your life.”
Herzek later wed Robert’s father, with whom she eventually settled in the United States.
Before leaving Europe, however, Herzek visited Delej’s home, where she hoped to pay her respects to his mother. She found only the family’s housekeeper, who told her Delej had died needlessly.
“He turned himself in,” said Herzek. “His silly thinking was that maybe he would find me. But he was in a ghetto. You couldn’t do such things.”
Delej had vanished, leaving no trace Berkowitz could find in his years of research, looking him up online, consulting encyclopedias, music anthologies, and Holocaust records.
“In my heart he always was with me, and until I die he will be with me.”Pauline Herzek
Now visiting the Holocaust museum with Benedetti, Berkowitz again entered the composer’s name into the terminal, misspelling it — as he had his entire life — “D-E-L-E-Y.”
A museum employee suggested the family likely wouldn’t have spelled their name with a “Y,” recommending he try instead the more traditional Delej.
The staffer went back to his desk and began fiddling at a computer. A few minutes later he turned to Berkowitz: “Was this guy a musician?”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Berkowitz, who was soon printing dozens of World War II-era documents. “What had been a two-dimensional man suddenly became a three-dimensional person. It was as if he died all over again. I remember . . . saying to myself, maybe it’ll have a different ending now.”
When a package from Berkowitz arrived a few weeks later at the Manhattan home of Livia’s son, Peter Lengyel, there was one question: “Is Robert a kook?” asked Livia’s granddaughter, Kristen Lengyel, who goes by Cricket.
But the parcel, which contained a letter recounting his mother’s romance with Delej, family photos, and a trove of documents he’d discovered at the Holocaust museum, was too enticing to pass up. They knew so little of their gifted uncle.
“I knew nothing other than he’d been picked up off the street,” said Peter Lengyel. “It was never talked about.”
Delej died when Lengyel was still a child. Though Livia had told him her younger brother was a marvelous musician, she rarely spoke of Delej, saying only that he’d died during the war.
In his letter, Berkowitz, who located the Lengyels online after finding an old US address in the museum files, conveyed his mother’s tale of the composer’s ill-fated attempt to save her. He shared that Delej had died at Buchenwald of complications from an infected frostbite wound on Feb. 17, 1945 — less than two months before American troops liberated the camp. He was 21.
“I just started crying.” Cricket Lengyel
Finally, Berkowitz included a letter Peter Lengyel’s grandmother, Leonora, had written to the International Tracing Service five years after Delej’s death.
“I wonder if you could help me in finding the whereabouts of the remains of my dead son,” Leonora wrote in 1950. “Is there some kind of record showing where and in what kind of grave he was buried?”
“I just started crying,” said Cricket Lengyel, who recognized Delej in the photos and soon began going through her grandmother’s correspondence. “To think of this young man, who happens to be my great uncle, but more importantly he’s [Livia’s] little brother — it opened up this whole new world.”
Three weeks after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Leonora Delej wrote her daughter.
“I would be happy if he goes a year from now,” Leonora said of their plans to send Lajos to the United States. “Lulu is learning English diligently and soon we will, too.”
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Lajos Delej was coming into his own as a musician, giving his first public performance on March 5, 1940. One week later, he dedicated three pieces for solo piano to his sister, a gift on her 25th birthday.
The works had been all but forgotten when Cricket Lengyel discovered them behind the family piano. Had Berkowitz “never found us, Loulou would be gone forever,” said Lengyel, whose grandmother died at age 100, just six months before Berkowitz wrote the family.
For Berkowitz, who has incorporated the works into his repertoire, Delej’s compositions evoke a complicated mix of emotions.
“If Delej had lived, my mother and he would have had children, and I wouldn’t be alive. . . . It’s as if we have mutually exclusive world lines,” said Berkowitz. “This music is just asking for somebody to invest it with a particular way of playing, and I think to myself: Who better than me?”
By the spring of 1940, Delej had begun curtailing other activities to focus on his music, which would soon include conducting as well. Still, he remained a distractable teenager, taking dance lessons, swimming at the pool, and assuring Livia he wasn’t romantically interested in a fellow musician.
“She is much older than I,” Delej wrote Livia that May. “I think now you will be able again to sleep.”
While Delej struggled to find music students of his own to earn money, in time he gave performances and worked as an accompanist through the Goldmark Music School, a conservatory created for Jewish students.
“Goldmark was a safe island for Jewish pupils and teachers,” said Péter Bársony, a violist and professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music who has written extensively on Hungarian Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. “It was one of the few places in Budapest they could work.”
Ensconced in this cultural milieu, Delej composed his first sonata: a work for piano and cello.
“It is supposed to be beautiful,” Delej, who often penned little notes at the bottom of his parents’ letters to practice his English, wrote to Livia in May 1941. “It is only [too] bad that you cannot hear it immediately.”
Bársony, who during his research interviewed the renowned Hungarian cellist János Starker , said Starker told him Delej had written the sonata for him.
He added that Starker, who died in 2013, told him he’d once had the sonata’s sheet music. But no longer: He lost it in the late 1950s after performing Delej’s music at the BBC’s London studios.
“He was in a rush and somehow he left the music,” Bársony said by Skype from Budapest.
“It’s a miracle that Starker lost the music, but through his playing the music survived,” said Bársony, who also interviewed Ligeti’s widow, Vera. The famed composer “considered [Delej] to be an exceptional talent, a genius,” wrote Barsony. “[H]e mourned his loss his entire life.”
In the summer of 1941, Delej traveled to Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca in Romania), the city where he would meet Berkowitz’s mother, Pauline. He may have gone to study with the acclaimed composer Sándor Veress.
Initially, the 17-year-old Delej found the town’s women wanting.
“[Loulou] writes that there are no ‘pretty’ women there,” Imre wrote on Aug. 9, 1941. “My young boy sets almost unrealizable demands with regard to ‘beauty.’”
But later that month, Delej’s romantic prospects had brightened.
“I have again fallen a bit in love, but don’t worry, nothing life-threatening,” Delej wrote on Aug. 24, going on to describe his reception in Kolozsvár. “I had a big, big success; I was somewhat worshiped; it was really uncomfortable, and rather unpleasant. You must not forget that it is, after all, a small town.”
But Delej’s talent was equally recognized in Budapest, where after hearing the young composer play his “Intermezzo” (a work whose whereabouts are today unknown), his piano teacher György Faragó was so impressed, he vowed to record it.
Even as Delej’s celebrity grew, the family began working feverishly to secure his passage to the United States.
Livia had reserved him a space aboard the SS Serpa Pinto, which during the war ferried thousands of refugees from Lisbon to the United States.
“They never lost confidence that he was eventually going to get to America.” Michael L. Miller, Central European University in Budapest
“It seemed like everything was in order,” said Michael L. Miller, head of the Nationalism Studies program and cofounder of the Jewish Studies program at Central European University in Budapest. “The problem was that he also needed transit visas through Germany, France, and Spain.”
Miller, who has been translating the Delejs’ correspondence as part of a broader book project on Hungarian Jewry, said the family’s plight was complicated by US immigration policy, which would tighten considerably after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“They had to get affidavits and tickets and all sorts of things,” Miller said via Skype from Budapest. “Things were going slower than they wanted, but things were going in the right direction. They never lost confidence that he was eventually going to get to America.”
Imre and Leonora envisioned the entire family would eventually be reunited in the United States. Still, they repeatedly had to extend their son’s ticket as they tried to arrange safe passage.
Two days after Delej missed a September 1941 embarkation date, Imre wrote his daughter: “The Serpa Pinto departed punctually on the 12th from Lisbon. The ship should have taken Loulou. Only half an eye is laughing that he’s still here, while justifiably 1½ eyes cry.”
In that same letter Delej’s mood is light, as he finally confesses that he’s met someone.
“In Kolozsvár it was perfect, simply excellent,” wrote Delej. “I met a girl; we write to each other weekly.”
Three months later Hungary, pressed by the Axis powers, would declare war on the United States.
o was the girl from Kolozsvár Robert Berkowitz’s mother?
Her son certainly likes to think so.
“That must be about his meeting with my mother,” Berkowitz said, adding, “I’ve been knocking at a door shaped like that face my whole life. My mother has said: You brought back Lajos Delej to me.”
Still, the dates are a little fuzzy. Herzek doesn’t recall the precise year she met Delej, but she believes they courted for a year or more before she was sent to Auschwitz in 1944.
Did they actually meet three years earlier, during the 1941 trip? Family correspondence offers little insight, winding down after Imre’s death in 1942.
What remains are a few pieces of ephemera — newspaper clippings and a concert program from that June, when Delej accompanied Starker in his sonata and presented other works, now lost. Delej won a recital award in 1943, and that December the German pianist Walter Gieseking was deeply moved by Delej’s performance of his composition “The Flame,” which is also lost. “The famous musician loved the piece so much that he inserted it into his repertoire,” reported a Budapest newspaper.
The Germans invaded in March 1944, after Hungary tried to negotiate with the Allies. Under SS influence, the Hungarian government ordered the country’s rural Jews into ghettos, deporting an estimated 440,000 — many to concentration camps — but leaving roughly 200,000 Jews in the capital.
So was the girl from Kolozsvár Robert Berkowitz’s mother?
That July, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, where (joining other diplomats) he began distributing certificates of protection, or schutzpasses , to the city’s Jews. Wallenberg helped establish the so-called international ghetto, an archipelago of safe houses for Jews bearing protective papers.
The Delej home became one of Wallenberg’s safe houses, and Leonora and Lajos were issued schutzpasses.
In October 1944, however, the Germans organized a coup by the far-right Arrow Cross party, initiating the slaughter of hundreds and forcing many others into increasingly brutal labor.
“All those Jews who managed to survive in Budapest are now in danger,” said Miller. “The Jews in the safe houses are threatened. Jews are shot into the Danube. This is the worst phase of the Holocaust in Budapest.”
Leonora evaded capture by hiding at the base of an elevator shaft, assisted by the family’s housekeeper.
As Soviet troops advanced on Budapest, Hungarian authorities forced Jews without protective certificates into a fenced-off ghetto, while others remained in the international ghetto.
One week later, on Dec. 8, Delej wrote his mother for the last time.
“My dear mommy,” he wrote in a hurried scrawl. “We are now heading in the direction of the Józsefváros train station, and there is no way to know. Do not despair. Really look after yourself. It is a real pity that I don’t have my gear here. Unfortunately, I have no food either. But, we’ll manage somehow. Mommy, don’t be afraid of anything. Our guardian angel will not abandon us. I kiss you warmly. Living just for you, Your Loulou.”
On Christmas Day 1944, authorities transferred Delej to Buchenwald.
Did Delej turn himself in to authorities in hopes of finding Herzek, as the housekeeper said, or was he picked off the street, as the Lengyels heard? The letters are silent. Either way, Delej appears to have been forced into labor sometime after the Germans invaded in March 1944.
“They took our poor little thing to the Albrecht barracks, and from there the wretched ones no longer let him out,” Leonora wrote on May 17, 1945. “May the good God send him home soon, because this horrible waiting is slow poison. . . . I bemoan Lulu’s piano, which has been shattered into a thousand pieces.”
Delej is not mentioned again until June 1946, when Leonora placed a notice in a newspaper:
“Who knows about him? On December 15, 1944, Lajos Delej was taken from Budapest to Buchenwald, and from there he apparently arrived sick at a nearby camp in January-February. Whoever knows anything about him, please inform his mother.”
The saga of Delej goes almost silent after that.
Bársony’s research indicates that some of Delej’s compositions were played on Hungarian radio in the 1950s, but so far only the recording of the Scherzo has been recovered.
Listening to the movement now, Delej’s nephew, Peter Lengyel, is often overcome.
“I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “God only knows how great he could have been.”
James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, said Delej’s death is part of a multigenerational cultural loss.
“The history of 20th-century music is written with an enormous omission,” said Conlon, who founded the Los-Angeles based Orel Foundation to bring attention to Nazi-suppressed compositions. “Part of the loss is what could have been. What could this person have become?”
Berkowitz doubts they will ever recover the rest of Delej’s sonata. Still, he holds out hope that descendants of musicians listed in the early programs may eventually step forward.
Meanwhile, Berkowitz is preparing for a recital at NEC on Jan. 18, and he recently had Delej’s piano pieces published. But nothing could compare to last July, when his performance of them helped him take first place at an amateur piano competition in San Diego — his mother looking on from the audience.
“I always felt that Robert had a connection with Delej, and I still feel it,” said Herzek. “It’s silly to say he inherited his talent, but in my heart he inherited it from Delej.”
Berkowitz has also been invited to perform the solo works with the California Chamber Orchestra this April.
Herzek, who is preparing to move to the Boston area to be closer to her son, plans to attend.
“I want [Delej] to see that Robert is giving a concert and playing his music,” said Herzek, who expressed hope she’d meet Delej in the afterlife. “I want to believe in it so much, but I don’t know how it is. Nobody does.”
Michael L. Miller provided translations for this story. Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.