Alice Bacharach Sherr was a young girl in Egelsbach, Germany, when Nazi sympathizers broke the windows of her family home and wrote on the fence outside: Hier wohnt ein Jude (A Jew Lives Here). Alice was sent to Switzerland as part of a kindertransport program and came to the U.S. after the war. But her family fled to France, where they were captured. Her father died after being detained, and her mother and sister, Edith, died in Auschwitz in 1943.
More than seventy years after the Bacharachs fled Egelsbach, Alice’s son Laurence Sherr ’78 walked the streets of the town, stood at the site of his ancestral home, and met with the descendants of the townspeople who had abetted one of history’s darkest chapters. Sherr’s journey to Egelsbach came about through the healing power of music. In his career as a musician and as composer-inresidence and associate professor of music at Kennesaw State University, he had written dozens of compositions. In 1993, he was commissioned to write an original work for the opening of an art exhibition about mental illness at Atlanta’s Carter Presidential Center. Sherr’s younger brother, Edwin Neal Sherr, died from adverse reactions to drugs he was taking for schizophrenia.
“My brother was named for my aunt Edith, so I wanted to write something that would commemorate him, but also serve as a lamentation about the past, while providing a vision of healing for the future,” says Sherr. “When I wrote the piece, I was drawing intuitively from my own experience, using things such as cantorial singing, and my connection to my heritage.”
The resulting piece, “Elegy and Vision” for solo cello, marked a turning point in his evolution as a composer. Although he had not set out to create music that “sounded Jewish,” he says, he was soon fielding requests from organizers of Holocaust memorial concerts around the country who wanted to include “Elegy and Vision” in the programming. “It became apparent to me that if people were using this as a Holocaust memorial, I should write work intended specifically for that purpose.”
When Sherr was growing up, his mother rarely mentioned the painful details of her childhood. But when he began writing pieces about the devastation of the Holocaust and the resilience of its survivors, she started to share her recollections. In 2009, Sherr was invited by a group of Egelsbach citizens who were organizing the laying of stolpersteine in front of Alice Sherr’s family home. Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” are brass-covered pavers placed in front of the homes of people who were deported, persecuted, or killed by Nazis. The project was conceived by German artist Gunter Demnig, and though there are
thousands of stolpersteine throughout Europe, the twelve installed in front of Alice Sherr’s house were the first in Egelsbach.
Sherr traveled to Egelsbach and to Seligenstadt, the birthplace of his maternal grandfather, for concerts and presentations on his family history, his memorial music, and the Holocaust.
Sherr’s parents and those of the Egelsbach and Seligenstadt citizens who organized the concerts and stolpersteine installation were on opposite sides of the conflict. Even so, he says, “we shared a common goal: to foster reconciliation and to create an awareness that people from different religions and cultures could work together to promote tolerance and harmony.”