history, photography

(9) Creating Historical Fiction: Herbert Zipper

Barbara and Zorka Kiss are lost in more ways than one. Struggling to survive in Manila during the Japanese occupation in 1942-45, I came to a spot in the narrative where I needed to blend the Nazi and Japanese atrocities together for sharing the characterizations of two unique Jewish sisters. Zorka is the classical musician who is accomplished with the viola. She is at a crippling part of the story and needs to move forward and not let tragedy keep her captive. At twenty, she must learn that her childhood avocation has a more meaningful purpose to her identity.

“But we all learned the motto of Dachau to heed

And became as hardened as stone

Stay humane, Dachau mate,

Be a man, Dachau Mate,

And work as hard as you can, Dachau mate,

For work leads to freedom alone!” – “Dachau Lied”

Enter the real man, Maestro Herbert Zipper. I had never heard of him. I stumbled upon his unique story and was thrilled, for I found my bridge and motivation for Zorka. It’s one of those human stories that can’t possibly be made up. Reality is stranger than fiction. Herbert is that and more!

Herbert Zipper (1904-1997) was a refined and educated Vienese Jew. By the time of the Anschluss in 1938, his father went to Paris to secure emigration papers for his family. Herbert had fallen in love with his soul mate,Trudl Dubsky, who was an accomplished ballerina. Herbert and his brother were arrested, transported by cattle cars and deposited to Munich’s concentration camp, Dachau. The infamous greeting, “Arbeit Macht Frei” greeted the Jews. While he was in the camp, he survived by focusing his energies on composing and creating an “outhouse” orchestra. For fifteen minutes a week, music was played and their humanity stayed intact. Through music, Herbert survived and gave inspiration to those around him.

Februrary 20, 1939, his father had secured the necessary papers and his sons were released from Dachau. Once in Paris, Herbert made his plans. Trudl was in a ballet in Manila having secured a spot with another Vienese conductor the pair knew. When he suddenly died of a heart attack, Trudl advocated for Herbert to replace him as Conductor of the Manila Symphony.

Zorka will befriend the Zippers and it’s Herbert’s wisdom which will lift and transform Zorka. The plot becomes richer because of Herbert and Trudl’s love, courage, and underground activities. It will be a pleasure to showcase the real couple in the novel. The tie in with fact and fiction is perfect.

I found Paul Cummins biography of Herbert Zipper fascinating. Try Dachau Song: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper. His famous song, “Dachau Lied” was composed and sung by the inmates of Dachau. Here it is if you’d like to listen to it:

https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/music/detail.php?content=dachau

Rough Draft:

During a sticky-hot monsoon in August, Zorka scanned the papers and discovered an article featuring the conductor of the Manila Theater of Arts, Dr. Herbert Zipper, a Vienese Jew who escaped Dachau and Buchenwald and came to Manila to accept the post of head conductor. A particular quote resonated with Zorka. “Music,” he quoted, “is God’s powerful gift that fills the heart and replenishes the soul when all seems lost.” Zorka felt a glimmer of inspiration. She desperately wanted to meet and talk to him. If he can survive the camps with music as his beacon of light, then so too, can I.

She stared at her viola case set in a corner of the living room. She pulled out the instrument, and her bow announced clear notes. The music seemed to seep into her blood. She played for hours a day, remembering her first recital at eight and her performances as a teenager for the Minneapolis Youth Symphony. She replayed pieces from solo concerts during Purim. She remembered the requests by the family in the parlor during Yom Kippur. As a transfusion, music flushed the sadness out of her heart.

Thanks for reading!

19 thoughts on “(9) Creating Historical Fiction: Herbert Zipper”

  1. It’s always serendipitous when this happens – the link to get you from part of a story to another. That old adage, truth being stranger than fiction, really bears up here – what an inspiring set of circumstances to bring into your own work!

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    1. Thank you, Sarah! I appreciate your kind words. A stroke of luck. An added dimension. It alleviated stress for me. I can get bogged down with finding a solution to the narrative puzzle.

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          1. Oh thank you! After a house move and the upheaval with that it’s made writing a little tricky. However, this morning I took a deep breath and went back to editing one of my drafts. I’ve been reading a bit recently which has served as useful inspiration….as you probably well know! I need to reignite that creativity! I certainly look forward to hearing how you get on with your research – I’m always quite interested to read about different approaches to writing!

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  2. This is just great to read. Thanks for sharing some of your process with us. I’m excited for you and the new novel!

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    1. This was early. Before the war began. Herbert was extremely lucky his father was in Paris and procured the papers. A year, two years later his story would have been tragic.

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  3. What an incredible true story, I love how music could help inspire people to survive even the most horrific ordeal. Beautiful writing, Cindy, researching the book must be fun given such rich WW2 history!

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