Jefferson Public Radio lost a longtime listener, supporter, underwriter and friend when Leon Berliner passed away December 15th. But if he were here today, he’d tell you he left this world exactly when he wanted to: just in time to wish Beethoven a happy birthday.
Leon Berliner had a very special personal mission in life: to share his love of classical music. About 30 years ago he opened up Berliner’s Cornucopia, a classical music record store (which later turned into a cd store) in Eureka, California. Classics & News listeners may recognize Berliner’s name, since he’s been a constant underwriter of Opera and daytime music programs on JPR since we began broadcasting Classics to Humboldt County. When I reported for duty at JPR’s Northern California studios in 2002, I inherited Leon as a client and a friend. He taught me many things, including the correct pronunciation of berceuse ("bear-shoes"), and he never failed to let Beethoven’s birthday go by without calling to remind me. To Leon, Beethoven’s birthday was a national holiday.
Leon’s lifelong love affair with classical music began when he was 10 years old, upon hearing Beethoven for the first time. He shared that love by teaching free classical music appreciation classes, providing a frame of reference that helped students understand the story behind the music. One of those students, Ken Norman, said, “Each week we would digest a slice of our musical heritage, with ample servings of insight into the music and its composers, and side dishes of anecdotes and jokes and tales from Leon's life.”
Lining the walls of Berliner’s Cornucopia was a timeline of classical music. Norman says the class would follow it, “encircling the room as the months went by, with its names and dates of the greatest of the great in classical music,” complete with portraits of some of the biggest luminaries, like Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. Leon always said he wanted Brahms' Requiem to be played at his funeral, but Beethoven received a special place in his life. Every year, Leon held a birthday party for Ludwig, handing out birthday cake, bubbly and Beethoven bucks in the store.
During the last fund drive, Leon renewed his membership to JPR, but let us know that since he’d been recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, he might not be around much longer. He invited his music students over to his place for an early Beethoven birthday celebration, where they listened to a new recording of Beethoven’s 9th the whole way through. On a walk with his grandson, Leon mentioned that he would really like to die in time to wish Beethoven a happy birthday. And that’s exactly what happened. Leon passed away on December 15th, 2013, one day before Beethoven turned 243. Leon, by the way, was almost 79.
Those who came across Berliner in association with his music store may have gotten the impression that passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm for classical music was his only passion, but he had another equally important mission in life. After hearing that students in the local high school were being told that many holocaust stories were exaggerated, Berliner began to lecture at schools annually about the real horrors he experienced as a Jew in Europe during World War II. His story is heart wrenching.
Leon was born in Belgium in 1935. At a time when most little boys would be heading off to kindergarten, Leon Berliner was put into an internment camp in southern France. When he was 8, he escaped. His mother (who stayed behind, and later died at Auschwitz) told him to just keep running. And he did, until two men driving a vegetable truck picked him up and threw him in the back underneath a pile of carrots. He was taken in by compassionate souls, later by orphanages, and eventually he came to the U.S. as a young teenager. His story was compelling enough to garner the interest of researchers from Steven Spielberg’s Institute for Visual History & Education, who filmed his recollections along with thousands of other holocaust survivors, inspired by Schindler's List.
I’ve been getting calls all week from Leon’s friends, customers, poker buddies and music students to make sure we knew that one of JPR’s biggest fans and allies had taken his last bow, and to let us know that although Leon Berliner is gone, his musical legacy, Berliner's Cornucopia, will continue on in Old Town Eureka. We applaud Leon Berliner for his devotion to classical music, and his dedication to JPR. We miss him already.