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Composer Tells Father’s Story From Auschwitz To St. Louis In Rock-Opera Concert

Jeremy Schonfeld describes his upbringing as one in the shadows of a Holocaust survivor. His father, Gustav Schonfeld, was 10 years old when he was forced into a Nazi concentration camp. Nearly 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, including many in the Schonfelds’ extended family.

After surviving the Holocaust, Gustav moved to St. Louis and became a doctor at Washington University. He continued to search for answers, and he detailed those quandaries and journey from Czechoslovakia to the St. Louis area in his memoir “Absence of Closure.”

Jeremy Schonfeld joined host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to delve into how he sonically captured the essence of his father’s memoir and learned more about his father’s life.

“The facts, I knew. The stories, I knew. But really, it was more about the way that they had sort of transformed him psychologically. That for me was sort of an emotional attacking point for what I do musically. After many thoughts and attempts at trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say, that ended up being my entry point, the psychological,” he said.

The result was a rock-opera concert, “Iron & Coal,” that debuted in 2018 at the Strathmore Music Center in Maryland. It originally began as a concept album, which Schonfeld said his father helped shape before he died in 2011.

Schonfeld said it was important that he received his father’s blessing to go through with this project.

“This isn't always the kind of subject matter that people think is ripe for musicalization. So I think that he respected that, for me, diving into the deep end of the pool was really kind of where my passion is, when it comes to creating stories and emotionally compelling pieces,” he said.

Schonfeld described the project’s themes as a generational conversation with his father across time.

“It was important for me to feel like I could emotionally connect and emotionally say these things: the doubts, the sort of time-honored, ‘Did I ever make you proud?’”

Schonfeld also recalled his experience during the world premiere of “Iron & Coal.”

“It was unbelievably gratifying just to be able to sit there and look around and think that something that I sat at the piano and toiled over could end up being something so huge and impactful,” he added.

This Thursday, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is presenting the concert for free online.

Related Event

What: "Iron & Coal"

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Virtually on Vimeo

Admission: Free

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.