Interview with Sir Gilbert Levine, The Pope’s Maestro

POPE JOHN PAUL II AND SIR GILBERT LEVINE talking around the time of the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah. From the new book, “The Pope’s Maestro.”THIS WEEK we are sharing great ideas for Thanksgiving; and fresh news about the urgent need to remember the Holocaust. TODAY, we bring those two themes together in our interview with Gilbert Levine, whose new memoir, “The Pope’s Maestro,” is now on sale at Amazon.

Levine has been called “Sir” Gilbert Levine since 1994, when Pope John Paul II honored this Jewish musician by making him a “Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.” That’s a high Vatican title bestowed by John Paul because of Levine’s partnership in efforts to bridge the Catholic Church’s chasm with Judaism.

For Levine—whose mother in law survived Auschwitz and whose extended family was devastated in the Holocaust—working with John Paul was a startling development. The two became friends because Levine, in 1987, agreed to lead the Krakow Philharmonic in Poland. He was the first American to become the full-time conductor of an eastern European orchestra. His move to Krakow was regarded by both U.S. and Communist officials as a symbolic parting of the Iron Curtain. Of course, John Paul was eager to see that “curtain” torn completely off its rusty rings. The friendship of the pontiff and the musician quickly deepened as Communist regimes toppled like dominoes.

Their friendship grew until, in 1994, Levine helped John Paul produce the now-historic “Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah.” Later, Levine helped John Paul with musical settings for the 2000 “Third Millennium” celebration—an event at which John Paul unveiled some of his most urgent appeals for worldwide religious unity. Finally, in 2004, Levine conducted the Papal Concert of Reconciliation, which marked John Paul’s 25th anniversary as pontiff and also emphasized John Paul’s strong commitment to strengthening interfaith relationships.


DAVID: Let’s start with your own family, a dramatic story in itself.

GILBERT: My grandfather and grandmother left Warsaw in 1907 and came to this country through Ellis Island as Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. My grandmother used to laugh that she spoke only 14 words of Polish because she had lived in a community in Poland that was almost entirely Yiddish speaking. They were poverty-stricken people who came to this country and worked very hard to make it possible for my father to go to college and my family to have a better life. They lived the American dream.

I was bar mitzvahed in a very normal way for Jewish kids of my era but, in that process, I came under the influence of a rabbi from our synagogue in New York who really kindled in me a sensitivity to and an understanding of Judaism that I had not had before. That’s exactly what a bar mitzvah is supposed to do and, in my case, it really worked and produced a Jewish awakening in me.

DAVID: You describe in the book how close the Holocaust is to your family.

GILBERT: My mother in law had her entire family murdered in the Holocaust: her brother, aunts, uncles and cousins were killed at Aushcwitz-Birkenau. She is the only member of her family who survived.

DAVID: That’s why your first visit to Krakow in 1987 also was your first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. You describe this moving, personal pilgrimage you made in honor of your mother in law and her family.

GILBERT: In that first trip to the area in February 1987, I had promised my mother in law that I would make this visit. I went to Birkenau, the part of the Auschwitz complex that was a place of large-scale mass murder. The place was stark and forlorn. It has not been reconstructed. The experience was very powerful. I was standing in a graveyard without gravestones, yet I could imagine in all those deaths that each person had a story, each had a family. And, in many cases, entire families were obliterated along with their stories.

I realized how lucky we were to have my mother in law. She was at Auschwitz and survived the death march at the end. Huge numbers of people died on those final death marches so it’s a miracle that she survived.

DAVID: After that first guest visit to perform in early 1987, an amazing and unexpected thing happened: You were offered a job as conductor and artistic director of the Krakow Philharmonic. I was a reporter in Eastern Europe in that era, assigned for a while to cover the revolutions there for Knight-Ridder newspapers. I found scenes in that section of your book, describing life behind the Iron Curtain, were haunting.

GILBERT: The oppression at that time was total. My orchestra lived and worked under that oppression. The pope had lived and worked under that oppression in Poland, too. What amazed me was how, when we stepped out onto the stage as musicians in Krakow, music really was a tonic, a form of communication and communion so powerful that, for a time, we could erase some of the barriers between us. Through our music in Krakow, the fact that I was an American—and my musicians were not—no longer mattered. The fact that they were Catholic—and I was Jewish—didn’t matter. Music truly became a universal language.


Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, as a child in Poland.DAVID: That power of music to transcend differences became an important tool as you got to know John Paul and, together, you planned these historic concerts. You describe the personal commitment of the pope to this whole process of interfaith reconciliation. You describe how he personally remembered scars from the Holocaust that he witnessed in his Polish hometown.

GILBERT: The town where John Paul grew up was 30 percent Jewish. He attended the public school, where his friends were a mix of Catholic and Jewish children. He was an avid athlete and was the goalie on a soccer team with many Jewish members. He had friends and schoolmates who were murdered in the Holocaust. This made an enormous impact on him. This burned itself into memories. He realized at an early age that inhumanity can become devastating.

My book is not a history of John Paul’s pontificate. It’s my own story of those years, but this is one reason I thought it was so important to write the book and describe my work with the pope—so that others could see the character of this man’s soul.

DAVID: As you describe the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah, we can see that it truly was a creative collaboration. This was not a case of the Vatican just wanting to hire a great musician. You presented ideas for a concert and John Paul took the idea further.

GILBERT: Yes, I had just wanted the pope to attend the concert, but he immediately made it a world event by bringing it into the Vatican—and, along with that decision, he was welcoming Holocaust survivors into the Vatican for the first time in an official way. I was the one who said it was important for him to meet Holocaust survivors and 150 or so survivors did come. They met with him one by one.

John Paul II said that the millions who were killed—they were us. They were humanity. He used the term the Shoah. This all was groundbreaking and led to new kinds of relationships between Catholics and Jews. This was the incredible genius of John Paul. Yes, I did present my ideas, but he took basic ideas to a new level. If he had just attended a concert, that moment might have been a historical footnote. But this became a watershed because of the way he brought this into the Vatican and participated in so many ways.


JOHN PAUL II in Jerusalem in 2000.DAVID: John Paul went even further than reaching out to the Jewish community. I can remember myself the urgency and the scale of his pleas for unity around the new millennium.

GILBERT: Yes, he went on to bring Muslims more fully into the process. The whole thrust of my first years of working with John Paul represented a reaching out to the Jewish community. But, starting in about 1998, Islam became a huge interest for John Paul. He wanted to reach out to the people of Islam. This became a major focus in the final years of our relationship: how to reach out to Islam.

DAVID: I think many readers will be inspired to read these behind-the-scenes chapters. It’s one thing to read about John Paul from writers inside the church or inside Catholic media. It’s another thing to read your memoir as a relative “outsider” at the Vatican. I was struck by how long he seems to have been fully engaged in this work.

GILBERT: People are wrong if they think that, as he aged, John Paul slowed down. Physically he did slow down but mentally he was as sharp as ever. He was as adventurous and revolutionary as I’ve ever seen in his final years. His entire approach to the coming of the new millennium was astonishing. There is a wonderful photograph of John Paul standing on the top of a mountain looking over the hills of Judea in his visit in 2000. That’s how I will always see him—as a man of incredible vision who could see beyond the horizon. He always was inviting people to join in his vision of peace.

REMEMBER: You can purchase “The Pope’s Maestro” at a discount from Amazon now.

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