By Steve Ranson
Special to the Tribune
The heart-piercing tone rippled throughout the room, reflective of a man who spent his youth in Nazi concentration camps and as a household slave on a German’s officer’s farm.
From despair to his desire to be free, the composition “My Name is Mitka” reveals the hardship of survival in 1940s Germany.
“I find it more poignant than sad,” said Reno violinist Van Vinikow, who performed the song along with composer Jordan Roper before an audience numbering in the hundreds at the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno. “There’s definitely sadness in the Jewish history, yet there is also hope, which I think Jordan reflected in the piece he wrote.”
The two musicians, along with Mitka Kalinski and University of Nevada, Reno history professor Dr. Dennis Dworkin, recently revealed through music and words the hardships a young orphaned Jewish boy faced more than 70 years ago and the anti-Semitism and prejudice Jews have faced and are continuing to face.
“He (Roper) told the story of Mitka, which was really one of despair and sadness, but there is that bright part in D major,” Vinikow pointed out.
Vinikow said the piece shows a hopeful side and then reverts to a reflective or forgiving side.
“There’s so much in that piece Jordan captured that very well,” Vinikow added.
The despair shrouding Mitka’s life began when he was a young 7-year-old Ukrainian, and Nazis had invaded his homeland in the early 1940s. In one roundup that included Mitka, the Nazis killed hundreds of Ukrainians in a ravine, but Mitka, though, survived by hiding under the bodies and later crawling out. The Germans later picked up Mitka when they saw him walking along a road and put him on a cattle car destined for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Mitka, who has lived in Sparks since 1959, moved frequently from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and then Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, in southern Bavaria near Munich. His final camp was Pfaffenwald before a German officer, Gustav Dörr, and his sister Anna, took him to their farm at Rotenburg an der Fulda in 1942 and forced the youngster to be a household slave until American soldiers freed him seven years later.
“Anna horsewhipped me, and she never like me from day one,” Mitka recalled.
The Dörrs made Mitka sleep on straw in the barn during all seasons. Mitka said he will never forget the hunger and cold and the overall cruelty of the couple. He told of one story that silenced his audience, some shaking their heads in disbelief. Mitka said the Dörrs had two guard dogs, and one of the dogs, Molly, befriended him. Gustav Dörr became angry and frustrated because one of his dogs liked a Jew better than her master.
“He sent me to the field and then told me to come back,” Mitka recounted. “He then showed me Molly, who had been skinned.”
Mitka felt both the mental anguish and physical pain of living like an animal. The temperatures during the winter grew so cold that he would purposely step in cow manure to keep warm. His hunger gnawed at him, and when he milked a cow, he would pick up the container and drink some of the milk. When Anna discovered what he had done, she horsewhipped him.
“The news came back to the Nazi family. The milk was watered down,” Mitka said.
In the late 1940s, Mitka said American soldiers discovered him on the farm and freed him, yet he never knew what happened to the Dörrs. In fact, he never knew the war’s outcome until the Americans told him.
“The most difficult part of life was being free,” Mitka said. “I didn’t know how to handle people. I was with the animals on a Nazi farm, and I didn’t know who to believe. I was free, but I didn’t know how to play with the other kids.”
The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration became responsible for his welfare, and he was sent to a synagogue community in the United States in 1951. According to his biography, “Mitka did not know English, could not read or write, and had little idea of how to navigate his new world. He learned rudimentary English and how to make his way in America by watching movies.
“A move to North Tonawanda (New York state) followed, which began the courtship of Adrienne. Life was good. The post-war years proceeded with the common struggles and joys of an all-American blue-collar family.”
Their journey eventually brought them to Nevada where he found year-round work in construction.
The years during and after the war affected Mitka immensely. He bottled his fears and horrific childhood memories, something he never revealed to his wife or children until the early 1980s. In 1984 while searching for records, he contacted a man who said he was Gustav Dörr, and he had records in his basement.
Mitka and Adrienne traveled to Germany to look at the records and undertake more research, but Gustav Dörr had died three months before they arrived. Anne was still alive, but she didn’t offer any assistance.
“If you search the way I did, you don’t give up,” Mitka interjected.
During his research, Mitka also discovered additional information on his mother and father, who are both buried in London. His father, a Polish officer, died in 1952.
“It’s universal,” Vinikow said of the music piece about Mitka. “There are so many situations in life — Jewish and non-Jewish. There’s sadness, yet there’s hope and happiness.”
Roper, who lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said Mitka’s story of survival is one of inspiration.
“When I heard the story, there was something about the Jewish culture,” Roper explained. “The music represents the Jewish ghetto sound he was going through but still retains that hope, the light at the end of the tunnel. The main melody — an 8-bar melody —just alone took one month to get it just where I wanted it.
“I needed to develop the melody … it is very simple, but it had to serve such a specific purpose to represent Mitka as a boy and go throughout for his homecoming to America.”
For Mitka, Roper said he feels the piece ends on a sad note because Mitka must deal with all his memories.
“He lives back in some of those cells, that barn, so it was a challenge,” Roper said of the composition.
Judith Schumer, chairperson of the Nevada Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust, said the Jewish people continue to grapple why the Holocaust happened and how it happened. She said the number of Holocaust survivors grows smaller with each passing day and why an annual Day of Remembrance becomes one of reflection.
Dworkin said anti-Semitism rears an ugly head in society, even affecting a local institution like the University of Nevada, Reno.
“We’ve had multiple incidences of anti-Semitism of swastikas in buildings including my own, Lincoln Hall,” he said. “But what shook the campus was a UNR student at Charlottesville who rocked our worlds and tore the campus apart. How could this have happened at a little campus?”
Dworkin referred to the “Unite the Right” protests where a large group of white nationalists marched at the University of Virginia the night before a big rally in August 2017, many of them carrying torches. One of the men photographed was Peter Cvjetanovic, a UNR student studying history and political science.
According to a news article, Cvjetanovic told a Reno television station, “As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”
Dworkin then discussed the rise of extremism and provided a history.
“Where does anti-Semitism come from?” Dworkin asked.
One person in the audience, though, shouted the dislike for the Jews was nothing more than “convenient hatred.”
Dworkin, who grew up in Detroit, said the negative views of the Jewish race are rooted in early Christianity and have extended throughout the centuries. He said Jews are etched into American history, which extends hundreds of years ago. Dworkin referred to anti-Semitic feelings during the early 20th century and how it extended to the 1930s and 1940s when the Jews were displaced in Nazi Germany.
The UNR history professor then advanced the talk to last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a gunman killed 11 worshippers.
“Robert Powers killed 11 people simply because they were Jews,” Dworkin said. “He blamed the Jews for the caravans that were coming to the United States as a way of creating chaos in America.”
Most recently, a gunman killed a woman at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, on the last day of the Jewish Passover holiday.
“Anti-Semitism is certainly a Jewish problem, but it’s also a problem for all of us,” Dworken said.
Roper said there’s one race — the human race, and people have hearts, lungs and eyes. “The plight of anti-Semitism is a plight against all humanity.”