Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Famed musician injured in hit-skip

Condition upgraded to serious

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

He survived a Nazi death camp and the loss of his entire family to become a violin virtuoso and teacher of musicians who wanted to play like him.

Henry Meyer in a 1196 photo illustration. In the background: a 1937 photo of Meyer and his younger brother Fritz, who died at Auschwitz.
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Henry Meyer must have visited Music Hall downtown thousands of times in his 50 years in Cincinnati, both to play and hear the most important thing in his life: classical music. He often left at intermission; he liked to go to bed early.

Meyer left at intermission Saturday night, mentioning that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's featured pianist, 20-year-old Lang Lang, was a little too showy for his taste.

He said goodbye to friends in the lobby about 9:30 p.m. and headed to his car with companion Virginia Donaldson. They walked across the cobblestones of Elm Street to the parking lot Meyer always used.

Nobody clearly saw the car that hit him. The sedan turned off its lights and sped away.

Meyer, a retired University of Cincinnati music professor who lived in East Walnut Hills, was critically injured, taken by ambulance to University Hospital. Monday, his condition was upgraded to serious. He suffered broken bones, but doctors were most concerned about bleeding on his brain.

Friends are hanging on to their belief that the same personality traits that make Meyer disarmingly honest and a demanding music coach will pull him through this recovery.

"God help the nurses that are taking care of him," said Douglas Lowry, dean of the College-Conservatory of Music, where Meyer still appeared often in classes and missed few student recitals or faculty concerts. "Once he gets his wits about him, they'll want him out of there."

  The vehicle that hit Henry Meyer was described as a light green or gray Ford Focus or Toyota Camry. If you have any information about the car or its driver, call Crime Stoppers at 352-3040.
Irmela Pogue visited Meyer on Monday morning. He opened his eyes for a few seconds to see her.

"He pressed my hand very hard and he wouldn't let me go,'' she said. "It was very difficult to see him like that."

Pogue last saw him Saturday night, just before he left Music Hall. Knowing his old-school attitudes about performance and his lack of compunction about critiquing others' work, she approached him at intermission.

"I said, if you criticize this concert, I never will talk to you again," Pogue said, laughing. "And he said, Well you're never going to talk to me again, then.' And he left."

Meyer was born in 1923 in Dresden, Germany, and was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Among his jobs there was polishing the boots of Josef Mengele.

His younger brother, Fritz, a pianist, died in Auschwitz. Meyer was scheduled to die there, too, but was saved by a Jewish doctor who'd heard him play the violin.

Meyer also played cymbals in the Auschwitz band, a job he convinced the director he deserved even though he'd never played the instrument. That lucky break sealed his survival.

He didn't like to dwell on his past as a Holocaust survivor, but he decided about 20 years ago to talk more about it after meeting someone who didn't believe the Holocaust really happened, said Gail Mermelstein of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She's the project director of Mapping Our Tears, a permanent exhibit set to open late spring about area Holocaust survivors, former refugees and liberators. Meyer's story will be part of it.

"He likes people to be knowledgeable," Mermelstein said. "He wants people to educate themselves and take some responsibility."

Meyer emigrated to the United States in 1948 to attend the Julliard School of Music on a scholarship. It was there that he joined the world-renowned LaSalle Quartet, in which he played for four decades. He became a U.S. citizen in 1954.

He arrived at UC in 1953, and went on to teach thousands of violin students. He retired in 1993, but Lowry said Meyer continued to be around the school so much he didn't seem retired.

"I loved studying with him," said Christina Colletta, a freelance cellist who was Meyer's student in the early 1990s. "He's from that older generation, so there's this purist approach to it."

But he also had a sense of humor when he was critical, Colletta said, which made the medicine easier to take. He once told a friend of hers, after the friend's quartet played for him, that their pianist - she'd missed a few notes - should have taken her mittens off first.

Meyer continued his friendship with violin legends Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern until their deaths, and continued to travel internationally until he cut back his travel schedule a few months ago.

"It's music and people that drive Henry forward," Lowry said. "I have no doubt he'll be back from this."

E-mail jprendergast@enquirer.com

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