Four days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Saul Dreier, founder of the Holocaust Survivor Band on Tuesday made a special visit to Gainesville at the University of Florida’s Chabad and Jewish Student & Community Center.
Family members told Dreier, 97, that creating a band wouldn’t be the best of ideas and that he did not “need it” as he beat stomach cancer and was retired for almost 15 years at the time.
The resilient Dreier didn’t listen. Instead, he went to a music store and bought a set of drums.
“This event is not only important, it is historic,” said Rabbi Berl Goldman, director at the Chabad UF Jewish Student & Community Center. “You would think decades after the Holocaust, the message of ‘never again’ wouldn’t still need to be explained. It is just mind-boggling how much bigotry, hate and antisemitism still exists.”
Dreier was in the same transport to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp 79 years ago with Oskar Schindler, the man known for his heroics in saving 1,200 Jews.
Now, he is living a life he never thought would be possible by performing and speaking all over the world.
The Holocaust Survivor Band is known as a “Klezmer” style group.
Klezmer is an instrumental musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Through his music, he memorializes those who perished in the Holocaust.
“There are 350 million people in the United States,” Dreier said. “Nobody thought to do what I did by forming the Holocaust Survivor Band.”
At age 14, Dreier’s life in Poland flipped upside down. He ended up surviving three different concentration camps throughout World War II and was finally liberated at 19.
“People ask me how I fought through severe adversity and how I am alive here today. Maybe friends, maybe God, I do not know,” said Dreier. “My biggest goal is to beat antisemitism, and I am going to do that until I die.”
The University of Florida has the highest population of Jewish students among public universities in the United States.
Goldman has made it his goal to welcome every student, and make the Chabad a comfortable and safe place with plenty of entertaining events for Jewish students campus-wide.
“Not only as a Rabbi but as a Jew to see a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor who is emotional and happy that he is able to fulfill God’s commandments, truly empowers me. It further helps me focus on what our task at hand is for the next generation,” Goldman said.
A major goal of the Chabad is to enlighten through the practices of Judaism and to reach people on an emotional level. Not only did they achieve that goal with students, but they also achieved it by wrapping tefillin with the Holocaust survivor and Polish drummer.
Tefillin are a set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls from the torah. By wrapping the straps around your arm and forehead, it is an act of respect for God in the Jewish religion.
“I stood here in the lobby with Saul helping him lay tefillin,” Goldman said. “Saul started crying because he was so proud to be able to lay tefillin in good health.”
The Holocaust Survivor Band has performed worldwide in places such as Poland, Israel and Brazil.
“I heard about the band from a colleague in Germany and I knew at that moment we had to bring the talented Saul Dreier to Gainesville, so that is exactly what we did,” Goldman said. “His generation died because they were Jewish. Today’s generation’s challenge is to live.”
The Chabad provides shabbat dinners every Friday night and hosts special events throughout the year. The Holocaust Survivor Band could have taken home the first place trophy, according to the Chabad Programming Director, Amit Sapir.
“I got a first-hand opportunity to see what it is like to love instead of hate,” Sapir said. With the increasing rise of antisemitism, this performance filled my heart with joy.”
Goldman and the Chabad remind the Jewish community to follow the Torah. Sapir is a heavy believer in the Torah and now has another belief system due to Dreier.
“After watching a performance like this, I feel as if I should raise my future kids through Saul’s virtues,” Sapir said. “He had a smile on his face and drumsticks in hand at almost a century old. It was a night of inspiration to all.”
One attendee of the event studies archaeology, specifically Holocaust survivors.
“Seeing somebody of the “Holocaust” generation with my own eyes rather than reading about it in a textbook was unimaginable until tonight,” said Kyla Morales Hanks, a fourth-year UF student.
The night concluded with the yellow sunglasses-wearing Dreier answering questions from the crowd. People in the crowd began to cry at several of the stories Dreier told — all while he kept a smile that went ear to ear.
The night ended with one warm statement from Dreier.
“I am a Gators fan.”