The Polish Pope's Maestro

Author: ZENIT


The Polish Pope's Maestro

Part 1Interview With Sir Gilbert Levine

By Kathleen Naab

When Gilbert Levine took the job of Artistic Director and Conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987 — coming under the shadow of Communism in the heart of the Cold War — he had no idea his decision would lead to his becoming the "Pope's Maestro."

But when Pope John Paul II learned of this young American Jewish conductor in Poland, the seeds of a plan were planted — a plan that would become a 17-year spiritual friendship and collaboration in the rapprochement of Catholics and Jews.

Levine tells of his experiences in his memoir, "The Pope's Maestro" (Jossey-Bass).

Levine spoke to ZENIT about his book, which he believes carries a lesson from the Polish Pontiff: That with 2,000 years of misunderstanding and "terrible difficulty" between Jews and Catholics, "if you put your mind to it you can begin the process of healing. It's not overnight. It doesn't happen overnight. But it can be done."

Part 2 of this interview, detailing the "miracle" John Paul II worked in Levine's mother-in-law, will be published Thursday.

ZENIT: Why did you write this book? As a personal friend of Pope John Paul II, you are undoubtedly the envy of millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But the book is about more than your personal good fortune.

Levine: Well I didn't think of myself and I don't think of myself as a personal friend. Cardinal Dziwisz described me in an interview as having had a deep spiritual friendship, and there was certainly an element of friendship that developed over the years, but the Pope had personal friends — even one very well-known Jewish friend in Jerzy Kluger, whom he had known from Wadowice — so I would never call myself a personal friend, though we had a deep artistic and spiritual, as Cardinal Dziwisz said, relationship. I felt that this was so generous and so remarkable, and so, as you say, unique, that I wanted to tell the story, and the Pope himself encouraged me to tell it, as did Cardinal Dziwisz.

The relationship developed so deeply over so many years — 17 years — and covered so much spiritual ground. I did the very first concert in 1988 and it was all Catholic music, music I had never performed in public before, in a very Catholic setting before an entirely Catholic audience, and that was a journey that I had to make as an artist. And then over the course of the next years, many years, I came, we came, to view music — and he very much, importantly — viewed music as a way to bridge the remarkable history, much of it pained, between Catholics and Jews.

I wrote the book because this is a journey that I think can tell people about our history as Catholics and Jews, as children of Abraham — including Muslims — but also can tell a child or an adolescent, "You can be anything. You can do anything. Anything is possible with the human soul open to others." And I think that's a big part of the lesson of this book that the Pope was teaching. That if he and I could develop this kind of trust and friendship, then it was possible for anyone.

I really believe that was the lesson, for instance, from World Youth Day [in Denver], where in front of 500,000 Catholic kids he showed his affection for me, his joking with me. For all those kids and all the bishops who were there and priests with their flock from all over America and many parts of the world, and many of the people from the Curia were there: He was showing them, "You know, I can do this. I have this relationship that's easy — it's open, it's close — with this artist who is Jewish. You can do the same in your home dioceses." And I think that lesson is very powerful. And I think the lesson of the book is that lesson — of this journey that I had with this incredible man.

ZENIT: So almost a look toward the future — something for new generations to take up ...

Levine: Absolutely. I think John Paul was ever the teacher. Was absolutely ever the teacher. And I thought that he was teaching through me, and through the concerts we did — was teaching the world about what was possible. Two thousand years of misunderstanding, of terrible difficulty — and if you put your mind to it you can begin the process of healing. It's not overnight. It doesn't happen overnight. But it can be done. And what he believed — and believed powerfully — was that my music and my art, could be as he called it, a way of addressing these deep hurts in the human soul, in the fabric of human relations, and can be a wordless way to find ourselves at one with the other. As I say, he was always teaching everyone, including myself, every day I was privileged to know him.

ZENIT: You recount the experience you had of praying with the Pope. Can you describe that for us?

Levine: It was astonishing, astonishing. [Israeli] Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated. I was meant to go to the Vatican and visit with various people — sort of, well I wouldn't call it routine; nothing at the Vatican is routine — but to visit with various people about the projects I was working on. I went to see Monsignor Dziwisz and told him I'd just arrived. I hadn't seen the Holy Father since I was bestowed the knighthood in 1994, and he [Monsignor Dziwisz] asked if I could come to St. Peter's Basilica. I was extremely quizzical because I had never been asked to do that. And to make a very long story — but an amazing story — short, I was ushered into the Pope's private chapel inside St. Peter's where he was praying silently, sitting on a chair facing a crucifix on the wall. I was positioned to look into him, into his closed eyes — and not towards the wall — and he had wished that. He had thought about that and wished me to pray with him silently. I was drawn powerfully into his prayer.

People talk about the incredible amounts of time he spent praying alone, sometimes prostrate on the floor, in deep prayer, and this was something like that. An incredible, powerful, private prayer.

I went through the prayers in my Jewish background and then the prayer became music and I imagined the Adagio of the Bruckner 9th Symphony, which to me is just wordless communication between Bruckner and his God. Then the Pope was moved forward to kneel on a prie dieu and he was helped by Monsignor Dziwisz to do that. He didn't look at me — never looked at me — but the connection between us never broke. I was drawn even more deeply into his prayer, into his profound ... stillness. There was an incredible stillness in that room. There were two other priests on the wall and they stopped — seemingly stopped — breathing. It was absolutely amazing.

And then, finally, the Pope got up and came to me, reached out his hands to me, grabbed my hands in his and looked me straight in the eye with such power that I closed my eyes. I couldn't even look him in the eye. And he said, "With him gone, can there be peace?" And he was praying, I think, for the soul of Itzhak Rabin, for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, for the tragedy of the Holy Land that has been the lack of peace there, and it was just absolutely amazing.

I had been so oblivious to what was about to take place that I had brought a VHS tape of the Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust to give him. I had no idea where I was going to go. I felt like such a silly person for doing that — but it didn't matter because I was drawn into this prayer ... And then he rose and breaking off his prayer, as suddenly as you can imagine, the atmosphere changed and he said, "So I hope I didn't cause you too much jet lag, Maestro, please pardon me." And then asked about my kids, which he always did, and my mother-in-law, and then was gone. It was absolutely flabbergasting.

I went across the way to the house where Palestrina had lived and worked at the Vatican, across from St. Peter's, and spoke to a friend of mine, and said, "Do you have any idea where I was?" She had worked at the Vatican for 25 years and she said she didn't know it existed.

Then finally I called Monsignor Dziwisz at the end of the day and said, "What was that?" and he said, "Don't you know, Maestro, we pray to the same God?" It was unbelievable. It was astonishing.

And he had planned the whole thing — the Pope had. It was just breathtaking. And the look on the face of the other two priests, to see me of all people in that private chapel, in that Holy of Holies inside St. Peter's — they were absolutely astonished, absolutely astonished.

ZENIT: It strikes me — especially combining it with the way that Cardinal Dziwisz summarized it — it strikes me almost as if it symbolizes everything that the Holy Father wanted you and he to accomplish together.

Levine: Absolutely.

ZENIT: It was music and then it came to prayer — to the same God ...

Levine: Exactly. And it was this intertwining of music and prayer, music and spirit. Even beyond prayer, it was music and spirit. I always had the impression of John Paul — that it was this incredible stillness, this mystical union that was most profound for him, and in that, we could share. Because it wasn't about Catholic prayer anymore, and it wasn't about Jewish prayer anymore. It was about our common devotion to one God. Absolutely amazing.

ZENIT: After all these years, what do you think now of the audacious comment you made at your first meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1988: "I believe, Your Holiness, that it is you who can achieve the coming together of our two peoples [Jews and Christians] ... I believe you were sent by God to do just that." You reflect in your book that it was somewhat audacious: telling the Vicar of Christ "what he was preordained by God to do during his Pontificate."

Levine: I don't know who said that (laughing). I don't know where those words came from, but they were necessary. I didn't imagine I was going to say anything to him. I was told specifically not to prepare anything to say and that I would be having what's called a "baciamano" and he would bless me and I would be on my way, and I would have a nice picture for my grandchildren. [...] Instead of that, I was ushered into his private library and he clearly had an agenda, and he clearly wanted to get to know me, and to find out who I was.

I felt, if I have this opportunity which will never happen again — I will never be with this man again — I have to say what's on my soul. I had to say it, and I believed it profoundly, because of where he came from, because he came from Wadowice, because he came from Poland, and because he came from the country that had witnessed the murder of millions of Jews, that he was uniquely in a position to understand that. He witnessed it. He suffered under the Nazi occupation. There were Polish priests who were murdered, many of them his friends, rounded up and murdered. He knew what the Holocaust was firsthand, watching it from the other side of the barbed wire fence. I believed that if anyone could do it, he could do it.

Now, that I would have anything to do with that, that was inconceivable to me at the time. And that was not what I had in mind. I just felt I had to say it, as the son-in-law of Holocaust survivors who had lost 40 members of the family in that horrendous period. I just felt it was incumbent upon me to say it. The crazy thing was — not crazy — the incredibly impacting thing was that he didn't say a word. That was the last thing that was said in that truly private audience, in that tête-à-tête. He just looked down and was incredibly thoughtful for the longest time. I was sure that I had said the most ridiculous thing to him, that it was a preposterous thing to have said, and that he was waiting to be saved by his papal staff who would get rid of this strange interloper. I was convinced, because he didn't say a word. He looked almost consternated, because he was so deep in thought.

I think that it was important for me to say. And I don't know where it came from. I certainly didn't think of it. It came into my head as a whole thought. You know, when I was writing this book — I am not a writer — so I can't write as a craft. I can't sit down and say, well I have three hours this afternoon, I think I'll write a chapter. I had to wait until in the back of my mind, everything came together — and my wife would know it because it would be three weeks, and my editor would be crazy, and I'd be traveling around the world and come back, and I would show up in my robe in our den, and I would say, "I need a cup of coffee." And she'd say, "ah-ha!" I would go with the coffee and write a whole chapter, because it was sitting in my unconscious. I believe that by the same token, that phrase, that sentence had sat there, maybe almost from the time I went to Krakow. [...]

I think it must have struck a chord that was in fact a voice that was deep in the Pope's own soul, that maybe there's something that can be done with this. This strange American has arrived in Poland and maybe he has a role to play. John Paul must have thought that, because instead of throwing me out and never seeing me again, it was the beginning of this spiritual friendship that developed over the next 17 years. Looking back at it, it was as we say in Yiddish, bashert, it was fated, but who would have known? Who could have imagined it?

But he knew. He knew because his vision was so incredibly clear. There's a picture which you may have seen of him standing on top of a mountain looking out over the Judean hills in his trip to Israel in 2000 and that's how I see John Paul — as a visionary, a person who looked beyond the valleys and the difficulties, to where the next peak is. How can man and God come together in a powerful way, in different, diverse ways, but in a powerful way? And I think he saw in that crazy sentence the beginnings of what I couldn't imagine was anything but the end of my relationship.

______________________________________________________________________________ Part 2Interview With Sir Gilbert Levine By Kathleen Naab

Sir Gilbert Levine has the highest rank of pontifical nobility achieved by a Jew in the history of the Vatican.

He is a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, invested with the Silver Star of St. Gregory.

But these high honors speak to a more inward privilege: what Levine calls the "most incredible privilege that I could have had as an artist." And that was the privilege of forging a spiritual friendship with Pope John Paul II, cooperating with him in his dream of reconciliation and peace for all mankind.

ZENIT spoke with Levine about his 17 years as the "Pope's Maestro," a story he has told in his memoirs by that name.

Part 1 of this interview was published Wednesday.

ZENIT: As you've mentioned, your mother-in-law, Margit Raab-Kalina, was a Holocaust survivor. You note the Pope's special concern for her, beginning with the first time they met. What did he tell her at that first meeting?

Levine: Well, you have to understand that my mother-in-law was in Auschwitz, and there were people in Auschwitz who wanted the Allies to bomb Auschwitz, to kill them, [so as] to stop the killing. They wanted a voice to come that said, "Stop. This is insane." Men are killing men and women and children. Have you ever been to Yad Vashem and heard the names of the children in a darkened room? You can't imagine the horrors she lived through and anyone who says they can — and I've listened to the stories, and I've read the stories and I've been to Auschwitz — and you just can't imagine it.

So she was not open to this in the sense that she thought there was any way that she and the Polish Pope would come together. And then her son-in-law gets this crazy job. But instead of saying, "What are you doing going back? I suffered this incredible pain there." She says, "Go. You'll show them that we live." That already was an amazing thing. And my father-in-law who had lived Anne Frank-style opposite the Gestapo headquarters in Bratislava would have nothing of it. He had no interest whatsoever in what I was doing in Krakow. He thought I was crazy to go there, especially with no money and the Cold War and Communism. Crazy. But my mother-in-law said, "Go and show that we live."

When I invited her to the first concert I did in 1988, she decided to come and frankly I was almost surprised that she did, but she did. When the Pope asked to see me after the rehearsal, and asked specifically that I bring her and my wife along with me, in that same private library, she couldn't imagine why, and I couldn't imagine why.

I walked in and the first thing he said to me was, "Have you had enough rehearsal time? You know the Pope is coming tonight. It's a pretty important concert." He was making a joke — an unbelievable joke — and that was him. And it was fantastic. He was very purposeful. He was trying to calm me down because it was the first time I'd ever conducted before the whole world, which is what you're doing when you're conducting for the Pope.

Then out of that atmosphere of almost jocularity, he calls Margit over to him, and puts his arm on her shoulder and looks at her deeply and starts speaking to her in Polish. My mother-in-law's father spoke Polish, and she was incredibly linguistically gifted so she understood Polish. Czech was her native language — and German — but she understood Polish and they started to speak. When you were there in that room, you could see that something unbelievably strange was going on. It was like they were in another world, even though they were five feet away. And they were speaking to each other like two people who had seen the same darkness, who understood that incredible, powerful evil, because they had seen it from two sides of the same barbed wire. He began a process of reaching into her, saying, "I hear you. I know what you went through." We were just amazed — because the atmosphere was completely different. She was rapt in him in a way that I don't think she absolutely expected to be. I don't know what she expected, but she didn't expect that. And when she left, she couldn't speak for the longest time.

Then that night after the concert, he comes up and puts his arm around me and says, "Thank you for going to Krakow, thank you for bringing Krakow to me. And where's your mother-in-law?" [This was in] the Sala Nervi. There were 7,500 people there, television cameras all over the place, an orchestra and a choir, and he's asking we where my mother-in-law is (laughing). And I said, "I don't know — she's out there, she's out there — I don't know."

I don't know what he was expecting. It was so incredible. That he was going to reach out and bring her on the stage? That he was going to go down and greet her? I really don't know. But she began a process of change. And then in 1994 when she came for the concert to commemorate the Holocaust — which I really initiated in the sense of saying I wanted to do a concert in Rome that I would invite the Pope to, for her — I wanted to do it for her; I felt that it was fated and that I could do something for her.

The Pope made it about every survivor because he had the audience [with survivors] on the morning of the concert, April 7, 1994, and he greeted every single Holocaust survivor. Some of them couldn't say a word — they were so dumbstruck — and some of them went on and on. But he listened to each one. And the prefect of the Pontifical Household came up and made a sign, as if to say, "You know, Your Holiness, it's time already." He shook him off and listened to each one. Then he came to Margit at the end, and my wife was holding my son Gabriel, and the Pope kissed my son Gabriel and then looked again into Margit's eyes, as if to say, "You and I have been apart but we have not been separated. I have been thinking about you." And it's true because almost every time I'd seen him in the intervening six years, he has asked about her. She was so moved. She was one of the six who lit one of the candles in the Sala Nervi, the menorah from the Holocaust. She lit one of those candles and you could see her trembling as she lit it because she knew what history was being made.

She died then several years after that — at peace. It was amazing. She could finally live life with her grandchildren, finally find joy in her family — and she was actually angry when she died because she had finally found peace and now God was calling her. She couldn't understand that. "You put me through all of these years of torment, and all the years after the War when no one would understand. And then finally I found peace, and I could play with my grandchildren with abandon, with incredible intensity and wonderful joy, and now you're taking me?" She died with pictures in her room of her mother and father, murdered by the Nazis, her brother murdered by the Nazis, and a picture of herself and the Pope. And she died a Jewish woman, but she died at peace.

I know it's miracles that happen after he passes that count toward beatification and canonization, but if there is another miracle from when he was still alive, I saw that miracle in her. I recently asked my brother-in-law about it. He hadn't met the Pope and he'd only seen it through his mother's eyes, and he said, "For sure. She died at peace. She was at peace in those last years of her life and it was because of him." There's just no question about it.

ZENIT: We spoke about your moment with him in prayer. It's almost as if Margit is another symbol of everything he wanted your relationship to be — to put these survivors at peace, to put so much of the violence to rest.

Levine: In the past. Absolutely. And then what he tried to do even more after that. Even in 2000. Think about the fact that I was doing the concert to commemorate his 80th birthday in the Jubilee year. It's his birthday concert; he can have what he wants. I suggested that we do "Creation" by Haydn, which sets the first verses of Genesis up until the point where the three faiths divide, so just before that place where Isaac and Ishmael come. He wanted that. He wanted this symbol in that incredible year of reconciliation. If you remember the statement of the sins that he was involved with — the contrition he expressed — he wanted that concert to embody a reaching out to Muslims. And that was before 9/11.

After 9/11, his incredible wish was that some of the same reaching-out could be done — that what he had done with me through music toward the Jewish community could be done also toward Islam, bringing the three monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths together. We did that Papal concert in 2000 and then we did a concert in Krakow with the Dresden Staatskapelle doing the Brahm's Requiem on the first anniversary of 9/11, which he was very involved in planning. And then we did the Concert of Reconciliation in 2004 — all striving to use my art in that same quest: the quest that he had found so powerful toward Jews could now be extended toward Islam.

He wanted that very, very badly. I think it was unfinished business for him. It's unfinished business for the world. We are all trying to find a way, a language, to find that at-one-ment with one another. That was a huge part of what he was searching for, as I say, even before 9/11. Even before that shock of "How can they have killed in the name of God, with the name of God on their lips?" He couldn't imagine that. But it was before then, it was before the crisis hit. It was what he thought was the natural next step. And that I could work with him and give my art to that and understand that that's what he wanted. He wanted to find reconciliation.

It was the most incredible privilege that I could have had as an artist. What more can art do? Than to fulfill that kind of dream of all mankind.

ZENIT: My last question: From your perspective, as a Jew — does it have a special meaning for you now that John Paul II will be Blessed John Paul II?

Levine: Huge. I believe the signs that were there on the day of the funeral: "santo subito." I believe that he is already a saint in the eyes of many. And what was amazing at the funeral was that there were so many millions there. If you looked from my perspective — I was so privileged — I was 20 feet, 30 feet from the coffin and I saw the heads of state: some of them Anglican, some of them Jewish, some of them Muslim, all in the front row, all there, to honor the spirit of this man. The spirit of this man — not the death, but the spirit, the ongoing spirit of this man.

What beatification, and I believe canonization, will do is to literally enshrine that spirit, to make us think of that spirit as a goal toward which we should strive in our daily lives. My work goes on. I hope and know there are so many inside the Church and outside the Church who view him as a beacon to which we have to strive — to find our way to that light that he showed us. I think beatification and canonization are the natural outgrowth of the life he lived — certainly a life of heroic virtue, but one that can be a beacon to people, both Catholic and non-Catholic all over the world.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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