Joseph Feingold, Holocaust Survivor and Documentary Star, Dies at 97

(Those We've Lost)

Joseph Feingold, Holocaust Survivor and Documentary Star, Dies at 97

Joseph Feingold, a Holocaust survivor who found unexpected fame late in life as the co-star of “Joe’s Violin,” an Oscar-nominated short documentary, died April 15 at Mt. Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan. He was 97.

His stepdaughter Ame Gilbert said the cause was complications of COVID-19.

In 2014, Feingold was listening to his favorite classical music station, WQXR, when he heard about a program that gives used instruments to New York City schoolchildren. He took the bus from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Lincoln Center and donated a cherished violin he no longer played because his fingers had grown stiff.

Mention of his donation was made over the radio. The violin — and Feingold — had quite a story, as Kahane Cooperman, a filmmaker who was listening, soon discovered.

Born March 23, 1923, in Warsaw, Poland, Joseph Feingold was 17 when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his father, Aron, a shoemaker, fled to the Russian-occupied east seeking safety. They were caught by the Russian army and sent to separate labor camps in Siberia. Six years of near-starvation and freezing cold followed.

Feingold’s mother, Ruchele, and a younger brother, Henry, had both stayed behind in Poland and perished in the concentration camps, he later learned. Another brother, Alex, miraculously survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

While he was at a displaced person’s camp near Frankfurt, Germany, Feingold spotted a violin at a flea market and traded cigarettes for it. Music reminded him of happier times before the war, he said in a self-published memoir. Feingold back then would accompany his mother on the violin as she sang for family and guests.

Feingold emigrated to New York City along with his father and brother and the flea-market violin.

The trauma of the Holocaust trailed him. He got a late start in life, graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture when he was 39 and marrying his wife, Regina, in his late 40s.

He became a successful architect known for his mastery of the city’s Byzantine building codes. He bought a brownstone on the Upper West Side and a ramshackle farmhouse in Ghent, New York, rebuilding the house and old barns and cutting paths through the woods, to make a beloved retreat.

Cooperman recounted Feingold’s saga in her 2017 documentary and also told the story of the violin’s recipient, Brianna Perez, a 12-year-old Dominican girl from the Bronx, and the friendship that formed between the two.

In addition to Gilbert, Feingold is survived by four step-grandchildren and a step-great-granddaughter.

He had difficulty in being open and warm with his family, relatives said. His relationship with his brother was complicated by the tragic history they shared.

After his brother died last month from pneumonia, Feingold started having nightmares about the Holocaust.

Apparently, such dreams had haunted him periodically for years, though Gilbert said she learned that only recently. She wished it were sooner. “It would have allowed me more compassion,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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