1910 in Moscow – January 28, 2005 in New York
Ludmilla began her piano studies at the age of four in Moscow where she was born in 1910, exactly one hundred years after the birth of her idol, Fryderyk Chopin.
By the time she was seven, Ludmilla was recognized as a great piano prodigy and successfully auditioned for the prestigious Kiev Conservatory, playing three piano pieces, one of which she actually recalled and played here eighty-six years later! At Kiev, Ludmilla was fortunate to study in the company of notable older schoolmates pianist Vladimir Horowitz and violinist Nathan Milstein. By the time Ludmilla was eight, she gave her first public concert in Kiev.
When the Bolshevik Revolution struck in Russia, wealthy families were considered suspect. Ludmilla's father, a successful recording engineer, feared reprisal. In 1919 he fled to Poland, and Ludmilla and her mother followed five years later. Musical gains made at the Kiev Conservatory are put aside until the impressionable young Ludmilla (now 14 years old) attends a moving performance at a piano recital which inspired her to make the most out of her talent. She then enters the Kraków Conservatory, graduating with the highest honors by her sixteenth birthday!
By this time Ludmilla had already played as piano soloist with nearly every major symphony orchestra in Poland and was accepted as the YOUNGEST contestant in the coveted First International Chopin Competition held in 1927. Competing against her is the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich . As a prize, Ludmilla was awarded a fully paid scholarship to the Warsaw Conservatory by the Competition Judge, Joseph Turcziński, who served as her Master Teacher, until her graduation, with the highest honors, before her eighteenth birthday.
1930's. Ludmilla's rise to fame was spectacular, and by the late 1930's she was considered one of the greatest Chopin artists of Poland. Ludmilla made a living performing concerts throughout Poland and teaching piano.
Her concertizing and teaching was abruptly put to an end by the arrival of German Occupation forces in 1939, who temporarily canceled all concerts and begin their program of destruction throughout Poland.
Ludmilla's family lived in fear. Her father's family was Jewish, and some members wore the armbands identifying them as Jews in the street. Ludmilla was not yet identified as Jewish. The stress of daily fear in Krakow leads to her father's death by a premature heart attack!
A local Jewish attorney kept a list of Jewish people on which several Berkwic family members (including her father and her aunt) appeared. A devoted fan of Ludmilla's playing, he was convinced by her to destroy the page of the list on which her father's name appeared while her aunt (father's sister) prefered to remain on this list! Unfortunately, her aunt was sent to a concentration camp where she perished in a gas chamber.
1940's Nazi Reich Minister Hans Frank becomes the Governor-General of Poland (this position was awarded to him by Adolph Hitler whom he represented as his personal attorney throughout the 20's and early 30's). Frank's reign of terror earned him the reputation as "Butcher of Poland."
By a strange twist of fate, Hans Frank was a music lover and gifted pianist. Frank collected works of art and promoted culture in Poland even as he decimates its population and struck terror into the hearts of its citizens. Frank "collected" memorabilia related to the life of Polish composer Fryderyck Chopin, and opened the "Great Chopin Museum" in Krakow. Hans Frank "asked" Ludmilla to be the SOLE pianist to play at the opening of this Museum on October 27, 1943. Frightened, Ludmilla agrees to play, although as she had feared, it led to her denunciation as a Jew by an envious pianist! She appeared on the Nazi newsreel footage of the Inauguration of the Museum playing a Chopin Scherzo on Chopin's own Pleyel Grand-stolen by the Nazis! (*see video at top of article.)
Other Jewish pianists who competed with Ludmilla in the First International Chopin Competition suffered a different fate. Leopold Meunzer and Rosa Etkin-Moskowska, a friend of Ludmilla's who won third prize at the competition, were both killed by the Nazis.
After the opening of the "Great Chopin Museum" and screenings of the Newsreel an envious pianist, Ludmilla believed, denounces Ludmilla Berkwic as Jewish. The Gestapo
demanded that she and her mother endure humiliating examinations by Nazi doctors who would somehow determine if they are jewish. Despite the so-called scientific nature of these medical examinations, the Nazis could not determine if they were Jewish. These terrifying examinations lead them to a drastic decision. They will escape Poland.
Ludmilla's fiancee was a German railroad engineer of Dutch origin who helped Ludmilla and her mother obtain train tickets and false ID's. They were able to take the last train out of Poland before the Russians arrived. He instructed them to go to his mother's home in Essen, Germany where they will be safe. Another railroad worker denounced him and he is never heard from again (presumably, killed by the Nazis). Ludmilla and her mother stayed with her finance's family and Ludmilla worked as a forced laborer in an underground munitions factory. She was unable to touch a piano for a year, until the Americans arrived in 1945.
Quick with foreign languages, Ludmilla learned some English and worked for the Americans as an interpreter. She taught the piano to the GI's and played piano at the Officer's Club. Ludmilla performed concerts and conducted her own weekly radio program on the Armed Forces Radio Network-heard throughout Europe.
An officer, Captain Murray, helped Ludmilla obtain a visa to get to America where she tried to restart her piano career.
When Ludmilla first arrived in America in 1947 she tried to restart her piano career by seeking a university teaching position. Her first position was that of piano teacher at Marymount College.
She then captured the attention of Dr. Clarence Adler, a founder of the Piano Department at Julliard. Dr. Adler arranged concerts for Ludmilla at the Harvard Club, Town Hall, the prestigious Lotos Club and the Brooklyn Museum Radio Series.
She also performed as soloist in the piano concertos of Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Chopin with Symphony Orchestras in the New York area. One of Ludmilla's specialties was her live concert performance of all twenty-four of Chopin's Etudes -- a remarkable feat!
The balance of Ludmilla's career and romance with Chopin's music was devoted to her special passion for teaching the playing of his music, an accomplishment evidenced by the many successful younger pianists whom she trained over the last half century!