The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Accordion World Magazine The following essay was originally published in the May/June 2006 edition of Accordion World magazine (editor: David Keen) and is presented here by the permission of Accordion World.
(See our review of Accordion World Magazine).

Jehuda Oppenheimer - A Remarkable Story
Israel's 'Prophet of the Accordion'

by Peter Ayers

In July, 1997 Jehuda Oppenheimer and his wife Adina came from Israel for a holiday in Britain. His schedule included a few days in Norwich and he was very surprised to see an advertisement in Cooke's music shop for a concert on Saturday, 5th July in St George's Church, Tombland, Norwich by an accordion quintet called Norvic Concordia. Admission was by ticket, so he had no idea what they would be playing.

Imagine his surprise when he opened his programme to find that his duet 'Rush Hour' was to be performed. Even more surprised were the performers, Margaret Ledger and Peter Ayers, when, after their performance, the announcer said, 'Please stand up, Mr Oppenheimer'. At the end of the concert the group got into conversation with the unexpected guest, who even performed some pieces of his own. However, Jehuda offered to send some more of his compositions and so an address was left.

Since this chance meeting nearly nine years ago Jehuda has been as good as his word, sending sheet music and recordings of his compositions and communicating by phone and more recently by email. He has given permission for me to make arrangements of his works and so Norvic Concordia will be performing some of his compositions in the coming year.

I thought the readers of ACCORDION WORLD would be interested in learning of Jehuda's background and the reason he is known in Israel as the 'Prophet of the Accordion'. I was interested in learning that he was very fortunate to survive anti-Semitic persecution during his early years and so persuaded him to write about his early life. He has not written about this before, because, as he says, 'So, my dear Peter this is my longest letter I have ever written, I hope you will know me even better .....

Jehuda Oppenheimer was born in Frankfurt am Main in April, 1925. As a child of three he tried to play on the piano all the tunes that he had heard in his kindergarten. When he was six he terrorized his parents to buy him an accordion. From that moment, he succeeded in playing the instrument and made great progress, despite the fact that he never had one accordion lesson in his life.

Even before Adolf Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933, the Nazis began to make life uncomfortable for the Jewish population in Germany with unofficial boycotts and attacks on Jewish shops. However the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made life very difficult for Jews, who were virtually excluded from all forms of public life. Jehuda's parents saw that life was impossible and so moved to Holland in 1937. (Jehuda's mother was of Dutch origin.)

In May, 1940 the Germans invaded Holland and the same sad story of Jewish persecution continued in Holland. Jehuda was 15 and he attended a school to be trained as an electrician. However, two weeks before the final examinations, all Jews had to leave this school. He was the only one who was happy because he could now spend more time studying the piano but not for long. His parents were taken away to Westerbork transit camp, situated in a desolate heathland area in northeast Holland, just south of the town of Assen, not far from the German border. However, the day before, Jehuda decided to leave home and go into hiding. After staying in some unsatisfactory places he finally found a Christian family in Hilversum who took him in. He lived there, in the attic, for nearly three years without ever going out, for fear of being discovered. His main occupation was listening up to twelve times a day to the BBC, hoping that in a few weeks the war would be over. Twice the Germans came looking for hidden people, but they never heard or saw Jehuda hidden in the attic.

These courageous people, whose son now lives as a clergyman in Australia, had a harmonium, which Jehuda was sometimes allowed to play. However, the neighbours noticed what extraordinary progress their son had made in such a short time and so Jehuda's playing had to stop.

On Sundays, when Jehuda's hosts went to church he was forbidden to run water in the toilet. Some Jews had been caught and executed because neighbours had called the police after hearing running water when the house was supposedly empty. Forunately Jehuda survived the war and after the liberation he managed to get to Israel, where he was reunited with his parents who, after spending two years in Bergen-Belsen were exchanged for German prisoners from Palestine.

In Israel Jehuda, now 20, studied the violin at the Conservatoire in Jerusalem. He then found out that he could earn a living by playing the accordion at convalescence homes and hotels. He toured the country doing this and would sometimes earn money busking, describing himself as a poor artist-student. In the 1948 War of Independence (Independence was proclaimed on 24th May, 1948), 23-year old Jehuda was in the army entertaining his fellow troops.

After leaving the army he established himself as a teacher of the accordion and has, over the years, taught many students from all over Israel, some of whom won first prizes at international competitions. It was during this time that he wrote, with his friend Jozef Pritsch, his Accordion Method. He also wrote many albums of arrangements of Israeli songs and classical pieces, which were published in Italy, Germany and Austria. He has served as adjudicator in CMA Trophee Mondiale competitions and his original composition 'Ciaccona' (Chaconne), dedicated to Gervasio Marcosignori, and published by Edizione Berben, was chosen as the test piece at the 1966 CMA Trophee Mondiale in Valencia.

In the late fifties he founded an accordion orchestra with which he worked for thirty years. In the meantime he recorded his first accordion album in 1998 'The Magic Accordion of Jehuda Oppenheimer', which is half in the light-music style and half master arrangements of Classical music and an original piece for orchestra and accordion [ed note: please see our review of this CD], Rhapsody Israelienne, written for him by one of the foremost Israeli composers, Marc Lavry. Jehuda performs this with the NDR Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg. The second CD, called 'Two Friends', contains compositions of Jozef Pritsch, who was an accordion teacher and half pieces by Jehuda. Lately he produced, as a present for his 80th birthday (in April, 2005) another CD with his latest works, all typical accordion pieces.

Perhaps the only disappointment that Jehuda expresses in his later years is that the accordion in Israel, which he has spent so much time in promoting, is declining in popularity. As he says, 'Even though the Russian immigrants have brought in some very good bayan players, you hear hardly any accordion music on the radio or television.'

Copyright 2006 - ACCORDION WORLD
About The Free-Reed Review
Invitation to Contributors / Submission Guidelines

Back to The Free-Reed Review Contents Page

Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page