Some time around the time of the turn of the third millennium, through my dear friends, Lois and Alfredo, I met a rather remarkable man defying age and gravity, his shock of white air levitating him about the hills of our Washington Heights neighborhood. I would meet him in in Fort Tryon park while I would practice Tai Chi -- Sigi staring at me like a child watching the movements of a strange animal -- at dinner parties, where, with lightning wit and irrepressible enthusiasm he usually became the center of attention --- it was hard to fight the urge to learn everything about his life, because he exemplified the courage and passion so sadly lacking in our own post modern generations. This was a man who saw first hand the worst of horrors of World War Two, but persisted to love the cultures and humanity that had bred him; it was an extra joy to learn that his background had much in common with my own European ancestors, and that somehow such an exalted perspective might be my own birthright if I could only just get it straight.
It was always a joy to run into Sigi Stadermann, no matter what state of mind one happened to be in at the moment of encounter He generated excitement in the heart -- curious and optimistic, he experienced life with a frightening immediacy, which awed those even half his age. The stories he would tell were so palpably real, they would animate themselves in front of his listeners’ eyes. He demonstrated the promise of a life offered to those who embody bravery and kindness. Like many here, I am sure, I only wish I had been able to spend more time with him. I believe he was a rightful modern sage, rejecting easy certainties, but never wavering in his convictions as to what was right, beautiful and true. Sigi negotiated reality on his own terms. He breathed in his own life, spoke his thoughts, and loved people and things for what they were. He could understand the human experience of all ages, and though it was pure fascination to speak to him of his sojourns throughout Europe and Israel, his experiences during the war and the years thereafter, he would be equally fascinated to listen to the mundane details in our own lives as well.
He was a great walker, and a great listener, and he inhabited the moment, with a mind penetrating, original and vast. In his company time would meander from past, future to present over and around whatever obstacle might be appearing at the moment. He reminded people that life was a gift not to be wasted, not a single moment. To those who knew him for some time, he inhabits the hills and gardens of Washington Heights and Fort Tryon Park. It is hard to conceive that we won’t be able to meet him there.
Thank you all for coming to remember and celebrate the life of our dear friend and neighbor, Sigi Stadermann. Alfredo and I want to especially thank Kim Campi and David Winn for all their help the last couple of years, and for providing all of the food, drink and flowers today; Moran Katz, for playing her clarinet; Tamala and Michael Bakkensen, for reading and playing guitar; Sigi’s friend Annette in Germany, who helped pay for flowers; his friend Gianna in Tel Aviv, who sent something to be read, as well as many old photos, and who also gave Sigi a beautiful photo album one year which is on display; and of course his nephew Dani and brother Joachim in Germany, who are helping financially with all the arrangements. We also want to thank all of Sigi’s neighbors who helped look out for him over the years, especially recently. Sigi cherished his independence, but he also cherished and drew strength from his friends and neighbors.
When people asked how Sigi met us, he would say with a twinkle, “We met at a crime scene.” It was November 1998 and we were walking up Cabrini Blvd. with our dog. We came upon a parked car whose passenger door had been stolen. It looked as though it had been surgically removed, without a scratch.
Next to the car, leaning against the fence, stood a young man with a bemused look on his face. It was his car. He was waiting for the police to come. While we were meeting him, along came an older man with thick white hair and a dark wool cap. He said, “Oh! What have we here?” The young man explained what happened. Sigi replied, “We should take a picture and send it to Giuliani to show him what a wonderful city he presides over.”
The four of us stood there for close to an hour, during which time Sigi learned the man was from Israel, and they spoke in Hebrew to each other. It was a lively discussion, and Sigi’s sense of humor popped up throughout the conversation. Eventually, though, our dog was getting restless for the walk to continue. Sigi asked if we would mind if he joined us. We had a walk through the park, and then when we were ready to go home, Sigi invited us over for tea. “Well, we have our dog with us…” “So what? Bring him! He is welcome, too.”
Ever since, there was hardly a month that went by that we didn’t get together with him at least once. We took walks, had tea and cookies or dinner and dessert at his house, listened to music (sometimes his reel-to-reel recordings from Abu Gosh, the famous music festival that he ran in Israel which I will tell you more about later), went to recitals at the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard (he picked up programs weekly, in person, on his rounds), and even played duets a couple of times. We occasionally took short trips out of the city, including the Pepsico sculpture garden, his friend Bill Chaiken’s art exhibits, and once even up to our hometowns of Ithaca and Skaneateles for Thanksgiving. Sometimes he played his piano for us, though that tapered off in recent years—though we got a rare treat of a jazz improv in the spring, proving to us he still had his chops—“and how.”
Of many remarkable things about Sigi, one of the most remarkable was his story of how he rescued his parents from Chemnitz, Germany at the end of WWII. First, though, let me lead up to that with some background. Sigi was born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, and had a brother one year younger than he. They lived a fairly non-sectarian life, as he tells it; he said, “Before Hitler, we weren’t ‘Jews,” we were Germans.” At Christmastime they had a tree, with candles lit. We never saw this in his NYC home, but he told us that he used to have a tree with candles here, as well, until he decided he didn’t like the idea of killing a tree, and definitely didn’t like the idea of an artificial one.
In 1938, when the future in Germany was looking grim, Sigi and his brother Joachim were both sent away, though months apart, he reports, along with thousands of other Jewish children, on the Kindertransport, an international effort to rescue children from an impending war zone. A few months ago, Sigi showed us his birth certificate: It had a swastika stamped on it, and we could only imagine that his parents had sent him away with this document on his person, and he had carried it with him in every subsequent move.
They were put up by host families in northern Europe, and eventually they moved to the British protectorate of Palestine. They lived on Kibbutzes until they enlisted in the British army; Sigi enlisted in 1941, when he turned 18. If I recall correctly, his brother enlisted the same year, having acquired forged documents to pretend he was 18.
Sigi told us very little about the war, though we know he was stationed predominantly in north Africa and in Italy. We also know his position was “Driver,” and in his papers he was known as “Driver Stadermann.” He learned his first English from his British unit, and would joke to us about what kind of language one learns from soldiers. He also said that the British had certain standards, and he would joke that they would stop fighting at 4:00 every day to have tea.
At the end of the war, Sigi’s unit wastationed in Italy and they were waiting to be de-enlisted. He reminded us that there were millions of soldiers all over Europe and Asia, and they couldn’t simply be sent home all at once: housing and jobs had to be arranged; trains and boats had to be ready to transport them. It would be a while before he could leave and return to Palestine.
He asked his commander for permission to go to Germany to look for his parents. His commander replied that he was not allowed to let anyone go to Germany; there were too many people who were curious about how it looked after the war and they had to limit the movement of all these people. Sigi made the decision to go anyway. He told us, “After all, why had I fought in this war? To see my parents again.”
He had a friend who worked in the office of his unit, who used the typewriter and knew all the language and codes of official papers. This friend helped Sigi create a number of faked documents giving him orders and permission to cross at the highly-guarded Brenner Pass through the Alps and enter Germany to locate his parents. He got a ride to a small airport, where he saw a pilot getting ready to take off. He asked where he was flying to, and the pilot replied, “I’m going to Beirut.” Sigi heard it as “Bayreuth,” a town in Germany, and thought, “Perfect! I won’t have to cross the Brenner Pass, I’ll just hop right over into Germany and be on my way.” Sigi asked if he could get a ride with him and the pilot agreed. But then the pilot said, “First, though, we have to make a stop in Cairo.” Sigi thought, “That seems a very odd route—Cairo is hardly on the way to Bayreuth.” He asked again where the pilot was going, and this time heard him correctly: Beirut. Sigi said to us, “I came very close to a real disaster. If I had gone there, I might still be there now, in prison.”
At this point, he realized he would have to travel by road. He got rides from various military personnel, showed his papers at the Brenner Pass (where the papers were examined very carefully, and Sigi was glad he hadn’t followed his friend’s advice to just go without papers—“I know you, you’ll make it there”), and was given permission to cross. Eventually, after a series of rides, he got a ride to a location in Germany about 20 km from his hometown of Chemnitz. The driver said at that point, “OK, you’re on your own from here.” Sigi was puzzled and asked why. The driver said, “You see that line of soldiers? Those are not Americans; those are Russians. That is the Russian line. I’m not going any further.” Sigi got out of the car with his bag and rifle and started to walk.
He knew one Russian word, and that was the word for comrade. He approached the line of soldiers and called out with a smile, “Hey, comrade!” He got a smile and “Hey, comrade!” in return and was waved right through. For the rest of his life he couldn’t believe it was that simple.
He walked the rest of the way to Chemnitz. He arrived in the middle of the night and was shocked by what he saw. Chemnitz had been bombed a week after Dresden, and few structures remained standing. His heart sank as he made his way to his old neighborhood. He got to his street, and couldn’t believe what he saw: his block was flattened. But surrounded by rubble was one building: his house, still standing. A light was on. He went to the door and there was his house number and the name Stadermann still over the door.
He rang, and his parents came to the door. Both had survived. His mother had been taken to a concentration camp several months before the end of the war, but had been released with the other prisoners when the war ended. His father had been performing manual labor for years (his symphony job had been taken away from him before the war, when he refused to leave his Jewish wife).
After a few days with his parents, the American commander west of the Russian line told him, “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but in 24 hours, that Russian line is going to move about 100 km west, and we’ll be out of here. You’d better get out of Chemnitz before then, because this whole area will belong to Russia. If you’re going to bring your parents, they have to get out now, too. I will provide you with a German driver to get you past the line.” Sigi walked the 20 km back to his parents and told them. They thought briefly, then decided to join Sigi. They took a few hours to pack the most important belongings, including his father’s clarinet, and left everything else behind.
When they got to the Russian line, they were stopped by a guard. Sigi handed him a document that had a bit of Russian writing in the corner; the guard eyed it with a frown (Sigi thought he probably couldn’t read), and said he would show it to his superior. As the soldier headed back to the guardhouse, Sigi yelled to his driver, “Go! Go!” The driver hesitated and Sigi yelled again, “Go!” The driver stepped on the gas, while Sigi aimed his rifle out the side of the jeep—literally riding shotgun. They had crossed back into American territory.
Eventually, Sigi was able to bring his parents back to Italy, where they joined thousands of other refugees who were then settled in Palestine. Sigi returned to his unit one day before a month was out, at which point the punishment would have been much more serious (though since the war was over, it would not have led to the death penalty); he was put in military prison for two weeks, but with a wink from his commander and accolades from his unit. They praised him for what he had done, and he was well treated in prison.
It was nearly a year before he and his brother were de-enlisted and returned to Palestine. They joined their parents, and went about building their lives and building the new country of Israel. Sigi enrolled in university to study music, while his brother began working. It was a hard life, for his parents as well. Sigi fought in two more wars as an Israeli soldier.
Sigi was such a rich part of our life, and made our lives so much richer—his humor, wisdom, morality, skepticism, and undying optimism (despite an underlying pessimism), zest, and spunk were unique. He made puns in English, his third language, more ably than most native English speakers can. And until just a few years ago, I had to work to keep up with him when we were out walking, even through deep snow.
Long live Sigi.
To read after Dina Kraft reads Gianna’s tribute to Sigi:
In 1957, Sigi was given an opportunity: someone who had been holding a small music festival of singers every spring in the Arab-Christian town of Abu Gosh turned the festival over to him. As one can read at length now on the Internet in many different languages, the Abu Gosh Festival became a wonder to behold. It was Sigi’s crowning jewel. He conducted a volunteer choir and orchestra from around the country and later even internationally. Musicians returned year after year, and tickets were routinely sold out. They put on the famous festival for four weekends every May from 1957 to 1972. Sigi’s goal in all of this was to perform great works of art, regardless of the religion of the composer or of the religious meanings of the works. To him, great music transcended religious boundaries. He also intended to bring together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim elements in both his musicians and the location of the concerts: a Christian church in an Arab-Christian town.
In 1972, trouble ensued, as religious forces in Israel had begun raising increasingly louder voices about the performance of what they called “Christian” music. It finally resulted in a Supreme Court case that voted 3-2 against Sigi. The festival met an abrupt death. A disgusted Sigi took what was important to him and moved to America. He never once returned to Israel, though maintained close friendships with a few people there, and stayed in contact with some of the singers from his choir.
Israel’s loss was our gain.