My friend George

Monday June 29, 2020.

My close friend and neighbor, George Wolf, aged 92, passed away yesterday. The day I moved to this building (in great stress and haste, having been forced out of my previous abode by ongoing leaks) there was a note under my door. It was a card with a cat on it. The note said, “I hear you are a concert pianist and love cats. Welcome to the building. I too love music, the piano, and cats. Please let me know if you need help with anything. I look forward to meeting you. Your new neighbor, George.” A retired garment manufacturer whose late wife had been a pianist, George worked as a volunteer for the Blue Card, a charity which helps holocaust survivors in need. He, his mother and father had fled his native Czechoslovakia from the Nazis in 1939, traveling through France to Switzerland, never to see his extended family ever again. Most of them had perished in Auschwitz.

I mentioned we had a lot in common as my parents were holocaust survivors. He told me that he knew that. From the start George and I shared histories and stories, visits, dinners, after dinner drinks, and conversations about the world, history, politics, friends, musicians, art, music, and people. A highly astute, intelligent man and a great letter-writer, George was witty, gregarious, entrepreneurial, generous, delightfully proud, caring, and kind.

George loved attending my piano soirées which include recital and my introductory speaking about the music, along with wine, cheeses, dessert, and a room filled with friends. He always asked me to reserve for him the purple chair that is by my piano: “I wish to see your hands close-up and have the best seat in the house.”

Occasionally George invited me to functions at the Austrian consulate where he was a distinguished guest. In August we attended the Czech photography exhibition, “Memory Traces – Exile/Emigration to the USA.” There, at the age of 91, George delivered to a large audience an impromptu, succinct speech about the historic significance of the portraits. We also attended the Austrian consulate’s December Chanukah celebration which featured the singer/guitarist Peter Yarrow. George was clearly adored and respected among the consular community. The night was memorable. Bob Dylan’s lyrics that Yarrow sang on that mid-December evening have been an immovable mantra resonating in my mind ever since, seemingly relevant to every moment of 2020: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind …”

George was taken to hospital on March 26 with pneumonia. In those early weeks of the pandemic, Mount Sinai West was a NYC hotspot. One of the hospital’s young nurses had just died of COVID, perhaps one of the first NYC nurses to die of the virus. George contracted COVID and developed the worst, explosive lung cough and gasping for breath that we all read about. He sounded like he was dying. Miraculously he recovered. But he continued to battle cancer and occasional COVID tests that came back negative, then positive. George spent the last three months completely alone in hospital, a nursing home, and since Friday, in hospice. His devoted circle of friends in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Vienna – most of whom had never met one another — were drawn closely together on an email chain during these surreal three months. I spoke to George almost every day. He told me that another neighbor Joey had become his adopted son, our neighbor Rena had become his granddaughter, and that he was adopting me as his daughter. He was my family here. He told me he knew that.

George was taken to hospice on Friday. I feel blessed that at last on Saturday, via Zoom, I was able to play the piano for him, to which he was responsive. Two friends were able to visit him. We planned the same for Sunday afternoon, this time among a Zoom audience of his friends. George passed just one hour before the second planned Zoom recital. Gathered on Zoom, Rena and I recited Kaddish for him. After sharing a long silence, I performed for his close friends, praying his soul would hear. George left us with a gigantic double rainbow over Central Park that evening. Simultaneously there was also a huge double rainbow over Sydney. Dearest George, I will miss you so much. I hope you will always hear my music from your purple chair.

Sarah Grunstein

George Wolf at the exhibition “Memory Traces – Exile/Emigration to the USA.”
Austrian Consulate General, August 2019.

Binem Grunstein, National Portrait Gallery

I often asked my father how he survived fourteen concentration camps, including Dachau.  His reply was always the same: “I could do anything with my hands.  I built Nazi aeroplane parts … I painted portraits of the Nazis.  And there was miracle, after miracle, after miracle.”

So much of the memory, the mind, the senses, and the soul are in the hand.  It is through these entities that the artist is guided by the teacher — whether or not the teacher shares the same artform, and long after the “lesson” has ceased.  Among the things that have inspired me the most deeply, in my music and my life, are the things I learned from my father, Binem Grunstein.  (He was also fondly known as Bolek or Bolciu).

Father BROWN

Binem Grunstein, c.1948.  Photo: courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Australia

Binem (Bill) Grunstein (1921-2013), garment manufacturer and artist, escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.  Here is the link to his brief biography at the National Portrait Gallery, Australia, where his photographic portrait is held in the permanent collection:



Nancy Salas and thinking about Bach

One of the deepest influences on my thinking is my earliest training at the piano with my first mentor, Nancy Salas (Australia), who was a pianist, harpsichordist,

Continue reading Nancy Salas and thinking about Bach