Many Serkins see their photographer to rest

Many Serkins see their photographer to rest


norman lebrecht

October 12, 2018

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:

A handful of years ago, my best friend (since age 6), who had made a home for herself in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, told me of her new job. She was the personal assistant to an old photographer – did I know who he was? Then, into my email inbox, flowed snapshots of some of the most iconic images a classical musician would know. Zelda was, in fact, spending upwards of 10 hours per day with the legendary photographer Clemens Kalischer, of Marlboro and Tanglewood fame (and of course internationally recognized for his photos of immigrants landing in NY after WWII).

Daily, Zelda would stop at Clemens’ house, pick him up in her tiny car, and drive him to his gallery, where they would casually interact throughout the day – slowly perambulating with camera in hand, making Campbell’s soup on the individual burner plugged into the back room, chatting and going out for hot tea. She was a mix of a gofer, willing ear, and secretary of sorts – helping around the gallery. His family, he explained, didn’t like him being alone and wandering outside all day by himself – he needed a companion.

Zelda isn’t a musician, you see – she is one of those unique breeds which populate those undulating hills of Western Mass – licensed massage therapist, sculptor, member of the Wednesday night drumming circle. She goes to weeks-long silent retreats, political rallies, women’s seminars in the woods – she has the requisite minimum number of cats. But, because of our long relationship, she knows more about classical music than most chai-drinking, chunky-knitted-hat-wearing members of her circle. I always love her observations after concerts – she notices the most unexpected things – the way someone moves their leg while playing, the smell of the concert hall, somehow being able to perfectly read the emotional health and the relationships between the performers.

This past week, she attended the memorial service for Clemens – held in a rustic main hall of a mothballed summer boy’s camp – the only space large enough to hold the bulging crowd. Seated on long wooden benches, they spent an afternoon and evening listening to music and hearing stories about his time in the Camps in France, his family’s path to America in 1942 (miraculously father and son found each other again after Clemens had been through 8 different camps, and mother sister were found confined in a nearby farm, and together with two family friends, Anna Freud and Princess Marie Bonaparte, a great-grandniece of Napoleon, they escaped. Arriving in NYC, he was 21 years old, and weighed 88 pounds.

He stumbled upon a passion in photography – his natural ability to move as one with the newly arrived immigrants in the late 40’s – and an accidental assignment launched him into a career, one which was based on capturing the natural, non-sentimental nature of humans – honest and intimate. He later moved to the Berkshires, married a fellow Holocaust survivor, and began to photograph for Tanglewood and Marlboro.

Clemens had a deep relationship with the Serkins, with the whole of the musical community, so many of whom were Survivors and escapees, and who had found a new community together in the calm and safety of that part of America – Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine…..

Judith Serkin played cello for the ceremony – Bach and Handel – she is the sister of Peter and daughter of Irene and Rudi. As I sat in my office at home in Berlin, late in the evening, FaceTime chatting with Zelda, I could hear the wonder in her voice – the connection with humanity and the special, unexpected gift she had stumbled on, and shared with me.



photo (c) Clemens Kalischer


  • Marg says:

    So fascinating. Some people’s “normal” life is so rich. We all need to take opportunities that come our way – and learn from the older members of our society who have often lived amazing lives. Might have been the best job your friend ever decided to take up, being a companion to an elderly man! Yes, the new version is pretty sleek – it threw me when I opened the page this morning!