Erna Salm in the 1940s at the piano at the family home in Flossmoor, near Chicago. (Photo/Courtesy Susan Salm)
Erna Salm in the 1940s at the piano at the family home in Flossmoor, near Chicago. (Photo/Courtesy Susan Salm)

Piano that survived Holocaust finds its forever home in the North Bay

From Nazi Germany to Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, with stops in Rotterdam and Chicago. That’s the itinerary of a Holocaust survivor, but in this case it’s not a human being who made that trip.

It’s a 1926 Steinway baby grand piano made in Hamburg and bought in the 1930s by Erna and Arthur Salm, and donated last year to Ner Shalom by their children. Along the way, it was in hiding in Rotterdam for years, and then for even longer in a home in Chicago, where Erna loved to play it.

Now, after two decades of sitting quietly at radio station KRCB in Sonoma County, the piano is getting plenty of attention at Ner Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation that has been called “the singing synagogue” because of its focus on music.

Susan Salm, a noted cellist and co-founding member of the Raphael Trio, will bring her New York-based chamber group to Cotati on March 24 for a performance of Beethoven and Dvorak that will officially inaugurate her mom’s piano at Ner Shalom.

For Susan, the Steinway and a Knabe baby grand piano — both of which made the journey from Germany to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood — were key elements in her childhood. The four Salm children slept in the one bedroom of their apartment, the parents crammed into a smaller room, and the living room was reserved for the pianos.

“My mother was playing on them, and she also taught lessons at home. We heard her play every day,” Susan remembers. “That was how she would finally get us to go to bed: She said she would play the Brahms ‘Lullaby.’ Sometimes she also played Schumann’s ‘The Happy Farmer,’ which I loved.”

Congregant John Maas leading fellow congregants on a piano with a remarkable history
Congregant John Maas leading fellow congregants on a piano with a remarkable history

Susan, whose trio has performed all over the world, says it’s emotional for her to be performing again with her mom’s piano.

“As a musician, and as a person, I’ve changed a lot, but it means a great deal [to me],” she said. “To say it’s going home does not really capture it. We know this is part of our history and our real connection to our parents’ history.”

David Salm, who is six years younger than Susan, remembers running his electric train set under the legs of the two pianos.

“Music was a constant in our home. It was as much a part of the house as some families remember the smell of cooking wafting through the home,” he says. “Music played a much bigger part in our lives than brisket.”

Their father, Arthur, owned a metal fabricating factory when he and Erna married in 1936 in Cologne, Germany. Two days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Arthur was arrested and sent to Dachau. Four weeks later, Erna convinced a German officer to buy the factory for one Reichsmark and to release Arthur so he could explain how to run the business.

Years later, Susan said, the family discovered that the German officer had in fact been a British spy.

Music played a much bigger part in our lives than brisket.

The Salms escaped in January 1939 to Amsterdam, where they lived in hiding with their newborn daughter Evelyn, on the same street on which Anne Frank also was in hiding with her family. The pianos and the family library were shipped to Rotterdam and remained there, David believes, until after the war.

The Salms eventually made it to Chicago in 1940 after stops in Brussels and London, and their small apartment became a musical hub. A frequent visitor was Max Janowski, a composer of Jewish liturgical music such as “Avinu Malkeinu” and “Sim Shalom.” Erna Salm and Janowski worked together at a synagogue in Hyde Park.

Each of the four children was assigned an instrument and, along with their mother, gave house concerts as the “Salm Ensemble.” They were featured on radio, television and in Chicago newspapers.

Evelyn played violin, Susan was on the cello, Monica played viola and then flute, and David was on the clarinet. None of them was allowed to play the pianos, and Erna didn’t give any of them piano lessons.

Susan went on to Juilliard, where in 1975 she co-founded the Raphael Trio with pianist Daniel Epstein, still a member of the group. Tokyo-born violinist Naoko Tanaka later joined. Susan also toured internationally as a duo with her mother.

Arthur and Erna eventually moved to the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor, where the Knabe was donated to a public library. After Arthur died and Erna moved to Southern California, the Steinway was sent in the early 1990s to KRCB, near David’s Santa Rosa home. Other than a live concert by the Raphael Trio at the radio station, it was not used much. Erna died in 2001.

Erna Salm in California in her later years, still playing. (Courtesy/Susan Salm)
Erna Salm in California in her later years, still playing. (Courtesy/Susan Salm)

A member of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, David had talked with Rabbi George Gittleman about the piano, but the synagogue had recently received a refurbished grand piano as a gift. When David heard Irwin Keller, Ner Shalom’s spiritual leader, speak at his temple about a year ago, he approached Keller to talk about the piano.

“David came up to me and said I have a piano that’s in need of a home where it will be used and loved,” Keller said. “We have a lot of musicians in the congregation and we have a band that plays for our services, so I instantly said yes. I knew it would be put to use. It wouldn’t be collecting dust.”

David said he’s pleased the Steinway is getting plenty of attention at its new home.

The piano is now a gathering place for congregants to mingle and sing after Friday night Shabbat services. Sometimes pianist John Maas plays it for youngsters with special needs in the synagogue’s Celebrations Program.

Keller grew up in Chicago and lived in Hyde Park during graduate school, and sang under Janowski’s baton. He was thrilled to later discover that connection, and some of Janowski’s works were performed on the Salm piano during the 2017 High Holy Days.

Keller, himself a musician (piano and clarinet), said Ner Shalom also is very proud of its historic Torah scroll, which was recovered from a Czech temple wiped out in the Holocaust. Just as with the scroll, Keller said the congregation celebrates the odyssey of the Salm piano.

“We at Ner Shalom are kind of practiced in being good stewards of memories,” he said. “Now when I sit down and play that piano, I try not to be intimidated and … to feel all of the love and pathos that has gone through those keys.”

The Raphael Trio will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 24 at Congregation Ner Shalom, 85 La Plaza, Cotati. $20 general, $35 VIP, $150 sponsor. nershalom.org or (707) 664-8622

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.