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A Rare Piano That Escaped The Holocaust Gets Restored To Glory


A 100-year-old piano with thousands of miles on it is resting in a Pennsylvania workshop. It was spirited out of Nazi Germany with a family bound for the U.S. And now the baby grand is being prepared for its next life, as Michaela Winberg from member station WHYY reports.

MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: The piano is laying on its side in a closed school building in Philadelphia. It's seen better days. The soundboard is cracked. The strings are buzzy. And the finish is weathered. The instrument is in such disrepair that it can't be played anymore. But this German-made Ibach piano still tells a story.

TOM RUDNITSKY: You don't see pianos like this - not this sort of monumental, world-shaking trauma embedded in it.


WINBERG: That's Tom Rudnitsky, who's working on another piano at his restoration shop Philatuner. Next up for him is the Ibach piano, which first belonged to a German woman named Heidi Brauer. Her son Sidney Brauer is 84 now and living in Warwick, Penn. He says his mother was thrilled to bring the piano with her to America.

SIDNEY BRAUER: When it came here, it was, like, magnificent.

WINBERG: Heidi was a classically trained pianist who instilled a love of music in her family that has persisted for four generations. Her family fled Germany in 1936 thanks to her brother, internationally known lawyer Hans Frank. He helped Jewish people come to the United States. When his sister couldn't bear to leave her piano behind, he managed to buy passage for it, too.

Heidi and her family settled in the Philly suburbs. Her grandson Eric remembers the piano as the focal point of her home.

ERIC BRAUER: She played incredibly difficult pieces. To see her sit there and be able to do what she did was pretty extraordinary.

WINBERG: Over the next half-century, the family heirloom would take shifts with relatives in South Carolina and Florida before it eventually came back to Philadelphia. In their time, Ibach baby grand pianos were innovative, small but built to produce a full sound. When Rudnitsky's restoration is done, the piano should sound like this Ibach piano at the Roberts Pianos workshop in England.


WINBERG: These pianos had the standard treble and bass strings stacked on top of each other. Then the builders tried something new. They added a third layer of strings to the stack. So the piano didn't get any longer, but it had a much more powerful sound. Rudnitsky is still impressed by the technology today.

RUDNITSKY: This is sort of like the equivalent of a foldable screen on a phone or something. Pianos in the 1880s to 1920s occupied the same cultural and social space that, like, a Tesla does today.

WINBERG: It's also gorgeous on the inside. The cast-iron plate is painted gold and hand-carved with an intricate floral design. For many years, it was the centerpiece of Eric's home, too, according to his former wife Tami Brauer.

TAMI BRAUER: I loved telling the story to anybody that would come in, how it came from Germany before the war and how it survived.

WINBERG: The piano's future came into question again when their family downsized a few months ago. Who would get it next? Eric's son offered to bring it to his home near Washington, D.C. He wants to teach his daughter to play on the restored instrument.


WINBERG: Before the move, the family decided on a partial restoration. Rudnitsky is going to make the piano playable again but leave the exterior finish as is. Eric likes that the instrument shows the scars of its past.

For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michaela Winberg