Last week Erich Priebke (left) was buried. He died on October 11 at the grand old age of 100. His name may not mean much for some people but to those who suffered because of him, it is one that will be forever seared in their hearts.
Priebke was a captain in the Gestapo, the SS police. On March 23, 1944, he had 335 people executed at Fosse Ardeatine, in Italy, in retaliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers killed in an ambush.
Ten Italians were to die for every one German. In the end it turned out that 335 were executed under orders issued by Priebke. They died in groups of five, their hands tied behind their back before receiving a bullet to the neck. Many of them had to kneel on the bodies of dead victims before being shot.
Priebke never denied his part in the act, nor the fact that he personally executed two men with a machine pistol. He claimed to have been obeying orders at the time and that he would have been killed himself had be refused.
It was an argument he would use through several courts of appeal down through the years, right up until his death on October 11.
George Horner (right) is 90 years old. As a doctor, he dedicated much of his life to caring for people. George now spends his days at Dunwoody Village, a retirement community in Newton Square, Pennsylvania. It’s a nice place with plenty to do, though George likes nothing better than to care for the piano they have there, playing a few tunes on it for the other residents.
It’s a pleasant environment to end his days, and it is in complete contrast to the environment George was in during his youth. George, you see, was a prisoner in Terezin concentration camp, in Czechoslovakia. He was also in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
The names alone send a shiver down one’s spine. George was 19 years old when he and his family were sent to Terezin in 1942.
The camp was used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis, to show the Red Cross and the world that Jews were being treated well there. It depicted a model community where people could live comfortably and in a creative and friendly atmosphere.
But it was a cruel hoax. The reality was that Terezin was a holding camp, whose inmates would later be shipped on to the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Among its prisoners were a large number of intellectuals and artists, who, despite living in the shadow of death, continued to create and compose. George Horner found himself amongst these people. He began playing piano and accordion in the Terezin cabarets, to keep his spirits up. The tunes he played included those written by fellow inmate Karel Svenk, who would not survive the Holocaust.
After two years, it was George and his family’s turn to be transferred to Auschwitz, in Poland. There, his father was killed and George was sentenced to hard labour. He suffered beatings and starvation before being forced on a ‘death march’ to Buchenwald in Germany. George was 21 when the camp was liberated by the allies in 1945 – but the liberation came too late for his parents and sister.
That he survived at all is a miracle, but that he used his experiences to then train in medicine and eventually become an eminent cardiologist in order to help his fellow citizens is testament to his strength of character.
On October 22 – just 11 days after the death of SS murderer Erich Priebke – that character was highlighted once again when George did something quite remarkable. To honour those who died in the Holocaust, he performed Svenk’s music – the very music George himself had played in Terezin 70 years before – at Boston Symphony Hall in a piano recital alongside renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Ma summed up the occasion perfectly: “To me, George Horner is a huge hero, and is a huge inspiration. He is a witness to a window, and to a slice of history, that we never want to see again, and yet we keep seeing versions of that all over the world. I hope we are inspired by that and we keep that memory forever.”
Erich Priebke lived to a great age. George Horner isn’t far behind him. I would like to think, though, that Priebke’s years were filled with angst over whether he would have to serve time for his sins. George Horner went on to help people who needed his medical expertise and he has retained his love of music in spite of all the terrible things he could associate it with.
George Horner is living a worthwhile life. He has made a real contribution, and by the looks of things he isn’t finished yet.
Keep playing that piano, George.