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Helga on the Bluthner piano with her then fiance Franz at their Berlin home in the 1930s

The Blüthner Grand Piano
(photo: Sophie Baker)

A return concert at The Jewish Museum, Berlin
(photo: Andreas Franke)

Tessa Uys with a portrait of her mother Helga

When pianist Tessa Uys sold her father’s house in South Africa she stumbled upon a family secret – her mother was a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, writes Dan Carrier

THE story of virtuoso musician Tessa Uys’s piano spans three countries, 68 years and two of the worst regimes the modern world has known.
The tale starts in Nazi Germany, grows in aparthied South Africa and ended in Highgate on Easter Sunday, when a piano that spent a lifetime in a Cape Town family’s parlour returned to the famous Bluthner piano works in Liepzig for restoration.
Ms Uys, 56, who lives in Brookfield Mansions, Highgate West Hill, is from Cape Town. The daughter of an organist in the Dutch Reform Church, she was brought up in the midst of white Afrikaans society. And it was because of the fear of repression that the fact her mother was Jewish and had fled Germany in 1936 was never openly discussed.
It was this discovery last autumn that prompted the return of her mother’s piano back to where it was built nearly 100 years ago.
Tessa moved to London in 1967 to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and eventually made Highgate her home. She established herself as a world-renowned pianist, becoming a fellow of the Royal Academy in 1994.
After her father’s death in 1990, she decided to sell her family house in South Africa.
“I was looking through some of my mothers papers in her music room,” Tessa says.
“I found a receipt for the piano and some old identity cards. There was also a letter of expulsion. Dated 1935, it was from the Reich Kultur Kammer – the Reich’s Music Chamber, an important professional association which musicians joined – with my mothers name on it.”
Why had she been expelled, she wondered? There was no explanation and Tessa was intrigued.
She discovered the truth when she visited Berlin to give a concert.
She took her mother’s documents to the Jewish museum to see if they could help and the Third Reich’s relentless record keeping meant staff found references to Helga Bassel, her mother’s maiden name.
The letter of dismissal from the Reich’s Music Chamber had come, according to her file, because she was ‘voll Juden’, or ‘fully Jewish’.
“It was quite a shock. She never told us and I feel she did it to protect us in another, similar regime,” says Tessa.
Aubrey Pomerance, senior archivist in Berlin, began to piece together her mother’s background and it was while she visited the museum the story of the piano came up.
“They had a mock-up of a typical Jewish home in the 1930s. My mother had managed to get some of the family furniture to Africa and it struck me how much it was like my own in Cape Town,” says Tessa.
She discovered her mother, born in 1908, was the daughter of a Viennese synagogue Cantor. She had become a well-known pianist in her own right, but had fled Germany after Kristallnacht in 1936, when the anti-Jewish laws and pogroms made Berlin life too dangerous.
“I knew my mother was German,” says Tessa, “but I was bought up in an Afrikaans society and her roots were never discussed. With my father being an organist, Calvinist religion played an important role in our lives. We simply were not told that my mother was Jewish. Having fled Hitler, she found herself living in a racist South Africa run by the National Party, whose leaders had sympathised with the Nazi’s. Perhaps this made her hide her background.”
It certainly was not a topic her mother was keen to discuss before she committed suicide in 1969. But as Tessa delved more, the story of the piano she had practised on to become one of London’s best known concert pianists unravelled.
She discovered her mother’s escape had been orchestrated by Franz Michels, a professor of geology and a composer.
“He played the piano well and he was gorgeous,” says Tessa. “They fell in love.”
But the heady days of Berlin in the late 1920s soon turned sour for the couple. When Hitler gained power in 1933, their relationship was frowned upon.
“Franz was told to break off the engagement,” she said. He was working at Frankfurt University and was in a position that made him vulnerable to Nazi bullying.
Tessa’s mother was told she was no longer allowed to perform, and they were tipped off by a member of the SS who was a school friend of Franz that they were both in serious danger. Franz tried to escape abroad, but their search for a haven came to nothing.
“Franz found no country was prepared to take an Aryan German as a refugee,” says Tessa.
So Franz, broken hearted, helped Helga leave – and arranged for her piano to make the long journey to Cape Town.
In 1941 Helga gave a concert for troops where she met Tessa’s father Hannes, who was also performing.
“He asked her if she would turn his pages,” says Tessa. They were married in 1943 and Helga’s Jewish past was not mentioned again.
But now the piano is back at the factory where it was built.
“Once it’s been restored, I will be giving a concert at the museum,” says Tessa.
And she’ll mark its return by finishing with a song of freedom.
“I’ll play Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika – the South African hymn favoured by anti-apartheid campaigners – to mark the rebirth of a united, democratic Germany, and a united, democratic South Africa,” she says.
And, she hopes, lay to rest the secret history of her mother’s life-long suffering at the hands of two of the 20th-century’s racist and repressive regimes.

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