Musicians who perform with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
orchestra year after year are guaranteed a few things: There will be long days,
the Rockettes will kick high, and you’ll get to work with some of the best
musicians in New York.
An additional guarantee is that you’ll have the great honor of
working with an amazing man: Sam Marder.
Sam is a humble, warm soul, who plays in the string section. His
colleagues adore him. For me, he is the heart and soul of the orchestra, the
paternal force and everyone’s favorite person. Talking to him is enlightening,
and a conversation with him is an experience.
What you find out after some time is that Sam came to this city and
this orchestra over 50 years ago in a way no one else in the orchestra has. His
story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. His history is one that I will
never forget. His perseverance and dedication are inspiring.
You see, Sam is a Holocaust survivor.
He was born in a city called Chernovci in Romania. He, his sister
and his parents lived in a small apartment. His father made his living operating
a small grocery store.
Sam started his musical studies at the age of 6. The year was 1936
and fear was already in the air. There were stories of Nazi atrocities in
Germany, but Sam’s father never thought they were real; he thought it was
Communist propaganda from the Soviets. The German people could never follow a
man like Hitler, he thought.
But on Sept. 1, 1939, when Sam was 8, the Nazis invaded Poland. A
year later, Romania joined the Axis side. That’s when life for Sam and his
family got hard. Nazi soldiers moved Jewish people into ghettos. Jews had to
wear the yellow Star of David on their chests, and those who didn’t comply
were shot in the streets.
Sam’s family lived in fear and terror. They didn’t know about
the concentration camps at this point; they only knew what was happening in
their cramped ghetto.
Around this time, a non-Jewish friend of the family pleaded with
Sam’s father to escape, and offered to help him and his family. This was
remarkable, since such courage and morality were in short supply at the time.
Many Europeans were only too happy to get rid of their Jewish neighbors. But Sam’s
father refused the help, proclaiming that his family would stand with the other
Jewish families. He didn’t want special treatment. Sam remembers being
confused and bewildered by this interchange.
Soon enough, Nazi soldiers pounded on Sam’s door. His family was
told to collect any belongings they could carry and come out to the street
immediately. They were being sent off. Where? At this point, they had no idea
what was in store for them.
Ten-year-old Sam grabbed some food and his little violin. He and
his family stepped out into the streets to a tremendous crowd. They were herded
into cattle cars, which became one the dominant memories and images for
Holocaust survivors and their witnesses.
They arrived first in the Bessarabia region of Romania, after which
they were ordered to march in the cold rain and snow. Anyone who was too slow or
too old was shot. Little Sam complained to his father that he was tired and
hungry. His father started to cry. He was trying to hide his tears from Sam, but
the ten-year-old noticed. It would be the last time Sam complained on the
Along the way villagers were lined up by the Nazis and encouraged
to torment the Jews. They were yelling and spitting on Sam and his friends as
they marched on to their terrible fate. Later, a peasant ripped the violin out
of Sam’s little hands and walked away.
Several days later, he arrived at an area called Transnistria,
which had several camps. In the first few weeks they had barely any food. Sam
remembers they would sing from time to time. He and some of the other little
ones were able to sneak out of camp at night, when the guards got drunk and
turned their backs. They went to steal food for their families from the nearby
While many in the camp worked, Sam was too small. He shared a tiny
room with 50 others. Only 12 would survive. His father, with whom Sam shared a
space on the floor, died of typhoid fever. He passed away while Sam slept next
Three-fourths of the people in this camp died, some from disease,
some from starvation and some from freezing to death. When the prisoners died,
the Nazis would leave the bodies until they forced peasants from the village to
come and take them out. Sam saw bodies piling up routinely. One night, Sam
dreamed of visiting his father’s grave. In his dream, there was a gravestone
with his father’s name on it. Of course, this was not reality. Sam’s father
was buried in an unmarked mass grave.
After three-and-a-half years in the camp, liberation day finally
arrived. Sam had stayed alive, along with his mother and sister.
Postwar life wasn’t easy for 14-year-old Sam and his family.
First they went back to their hometown, but the hatred of Jewish people was so
terrible there, they set out for Poland. It was just as bad there.
Many survivors tried to make it to Palestine. Some made it to the
United States; others settled throughout Europe and elsewhere.
Depressed and seeking humanity, the family traveled through
Czechoslovakia to reach West Germany, which was broken into four sectors:
American, Russian, French and English. The American sector had a Displaced
Persons camp, where they found a place to live.
Sam did random jobs here and there and was able to resume his
schooling in camp. Then, thanks to some luck and fate, he rediscovered music at
age 17. His sister told an acquaintance of the family that Sam had played the
violin before entering the camps. As a surprise to Sam, this acquaintance
arranged for Sam to meet a local professional musician, who was a Polish
“My friend Sam here used to play the violin,” he told the
violinist. The violinist was intrigued and ordered Sam to play. He put the
violin in Sam’s hands and little by little it started to come back to him.
“Play more,” the man insisted. As Sam continued to play,
the Polish musician turned to Sam’s sister and said, “He’ll start
“Tomorrow? We’ll try,” said Sam’s sister.
“No try, we start tomorrow. He must start immediately. I won’t
charge him, but he’ll need his own violin.”
The lessons began and they became important to Sam, despite his
teacher’s frequent anti-Jewish tirades. Eventually, the teacher asked Sam,
“What are you going to do from here? Where will you go?” It was a
The question was answered as Sam’s family started doing some
investigation. Sam’s uncle – his mother’s brother – had fled to New York
years before the Holocaust. After years of hard work, they tracked him down, and
arrangements were made for Sam and his entire family to come to the U.S.
Sam was 19 when he arrived in New York. He knew nothing about
American life. It was difficult for him to sleep in a bed after years of being
on the floor. After a few months, a friend of the family told a neighbor that
Sam was once a child prodigy on the violin. That neighbor encouraged Sam to
audition for a conservatory. Sam had no idea how to prepare for an audition, but
he took a shot and auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music. To his
surprise, he was accepted with a full scholarship. This is where he would earn
his Master of Music and Master of Education degrees and where he would be
honored by being the concerto soloist with the school orchestra on graduation
Once in school, he had a lot to learn about making music. It was
hard for him to read and it was challenging for him to play with a conductor.
The first time he played a Beethoven symphony in school, he had never heard the
symphony before, and he remembers admitting this to his stand partner. While in
school – in 1953 – he joined Local 802. Back then, to join the union, you
had to audition, and he passed.
Sam’s first years out of college were not easy and he spent many
days feeling depressed. He felt as though his life lacked direction. Then, one
day on the street, he ran into a fellow violinist who had gone to school with
him. His name was Dick Simon and he had just landed a job with the New York
Philharmonic. He couldn’t believe Sam wasn’t playing professionally. He was
determined to help Sam get a gig.
Thanks to Dick’s help, Sam won his first professional audition,
which was for the Long Island Chamber Orchestra. Sam credits Dick not only for
helping him land his first job but also for saving his life. (Dick Simon ended
up playing violin in the New York Philharmonic for 33 years. He also served on
the Local 802 Executive Board. Dick died in 2002.)
Sam was now in his 30s and life was looking up. His career had
begun. Sam won the position of concertmaster and assistant conductor of the
Leonard Bernstein Gala Orchestra and the job of concertmaster of the National
Ballet of Washington D.C. touring orchestra. Later, Leopold Stokowski would give
Sam a leave of absence from the American Symphony to tour as concertmaster of
the Russian Moiseyev Ballet Company’s first tour of America. Sam performed as
a soloist and recitalist at Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall. He toured
throughout Europe, South America, Israel and Korea. In London and Vienna, he
gave the first performances of Paul Ben-Haim’s “Sonata in G” for
solo violin. And he met and married his wife, Sonia, who would become his piano
accompanist on tour. They’ve been married 53 years.
Along the way, a contractor asked him to play in the Radio City
Orchestra, which was a year-round job back then. It was 1968 and Sam was
reassured that he could sub out some of the Radio City shows in order to keep
his other gigs. He accepted.
Today, Sam still loves playing the violin. When not performing, he
often takes part in discussions about the Holocaust and about prejudice in
general. Sam also writes. He made only one visit back to his hometown, but it
was then that he became inspired to write about his Eastern European life. His
book of short stories and Yiddish poems will be published next year. (This is
not the first time he’s been published: his violin editions have been put out
by Mundimusica of Madrid, International Music Company of New York, and C.F.
Peters of Berlin.)
Another passion of Sam’s is Israel, where he has family and where
he has visited several times. Israel gave Jews a place of their own when so many
nations and people in the world turned them away. But Sam is disgusted at the
continued violence in the fight for such a small piece of land. He’d rather
see all borders of the world go away. “When an Arab child dies, it hurts
just as much as when an Israeli child dies. They are all victims of politicians,
who are just cavemen and cavewomen dressed in modern clothes,” he says. A
lost life is a lost life, and life is the whole world to Sam.
Sam implores people to be informed about other atrocities going on
in the world today. “Bad things are still going on right now and we all
need to get involved to prevent suffering and injustice,” he says.
Sam also says that the best way for the new generations to learn
about the Holocaust is to relate it to events that are happening now. But he
says many survivors, including his sister, don’t want to discuss the
In fact, Sam was recently at a public affair where the topic of the
Holocaust came up. Somone asked, “Why are we still talking about the
Holocaust? It was such a long time ago. Why can’t you people stop talking
Sam’s response was simple: “If someone tried to put your
child in a burning oven, you might be willing to talk about it, and let the
world know your story so that other parents can know, and so other children
might not suffer the same fate.”
Finally, on a personal note, I am honored to have interviewed Sam
for this article. I myself am a Jewish American with family roots in Poland and
Romania. My first instrument, starting when I was 6, was the violin. If I had
been born only two generations earlier in my grandparents’ country, my fate
could have been Sam’s. I would like to think that I would have handled such
adversity with the same dignity and strength that Sam found in himself.
As I interviewed Sam, I reflected on the fact that it would have
been understandable if Sam had just given up on life after living through what
he did. But instead he chose to live with love, compassion, bravery and humor.
That’s what he still does today, and that’s what we can learn from Sam.
Michael Croiter, a member of Local 802 since 2001, is an active
freelance drummer and percussionist. He’s in the middle of his eighth season
subbing in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra and is a member of the Sesame
Street orchestra and other ensembles. He is the winner of three Emmy Awards for
his engineering work on Sesame Street.