- Sonia Beker is the daughter of Max Beker and Fania Durmashkin-Beker. Both of her parents grew up in musical families in Vilna. Fania was the daughter of Akiva and Sonia Durmashkin. Akiva was a cantor, teacher and composer. Fania had two siblings, Henia and Wolf. All three children received both Jewish and musical educations. Fania studied piano, and her sister Henia studied voice at the Vilna conservatory. Their brother Wolf was a child prodigy who began performing piano at young age. He studied composition, performance and conducting at both the Vilna and Warsaw Conservatories, and while still a young man, he became the conductor of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. In September 1941 all the Jews in Vilna were forced to move to a ghetto. However, in response to a petition from the Vilna Orchestra, Wolf was allowed to leave the ghetto to continue as their conductor. One day the head of the ghetto, Jacob Gens summoned Wolf Durmashkin and asked him to create a ghetto orchestra to improve morale. Wolf also organized a 100 voice choir for which he wrote Hebrew songs. His conducted the first concert in the ghetto on March 15, 1942 in which his sister Fania performed the Chopin piano concerto. The orchestra's final concert was held on August 29, 1943, three and a half weeks before the ghetto was liquidated. In September, Germans held a selection choosing those capable for forced labor. All others, including Fania's parents, were taken to the Ponary forest and killed. Akiva was 56 years old, and Sheine only 53. Wolf was sent to Klooga, a work camp in Estonia. Shortly before the camp's liberation on September 19, 1944, German guards bound all the prisoners, shot them and burned their bodies. Wolf was 31 years-old. Fania and Henia were shipped to Kaiserwald, a camp on the outskirts of Riga Latvia, where they worked building cement canals. From there they were sent to Dinawerke, Stutthof, Dachau and Landsberg concentration camps. Fania was fortunate to obtain a job cleaning the home of Nazi doctor who treated her kindly. Shortly before the end of the war, guards marched all the prisoners out of the camp on a death march. One day, the guards ran away and the prisoners were liberated.
Max Beker was the son of Berel and Pessiah Beker. His father Berel played oboe in the Vilna Symphony Orchestra, and his uncle Max was a composer. Berel and Pessiah had seven children: Leib, Max, Sonia, Yisroel, Rochele, Perele and Noachel. Like the Durmashkins, the Beker children attended Jewish schools and also studied music. Max studied violin at the New Jewish Institute and before the start of World War II performed in coffee houses and music halls. After the start of the war, he was drafted into the Polish army and soon taken prisoner. He was sent to a number of different prisoner-of-war camps and eventually came to Stalag VIIIA near Gorlitz. Jews and non-Jews were treated separately; the former used to break stones for concrete, work on farms and build roads. Max discovered however that the camp had a small orchestra composed of non-Jewish musicians. The camp commandant encouraged the music since it provided good public relations, to show to the Red Cross. When Max told the conductor that he was a professional violinist, he received permission to join the orchestra as well. The ensemble rehearsed three times a week and performed twice a week. After joining the orchestra, Max's quality of life noticeably improved. He was exempt from heavy labor and allowed to sleep in real barracks. He performed with the orchestra for two and a half years. He even received care packages from the family of a young Belgian violinist with whom he was friendly. In 1944 French and Belgian prisoners began to leave the camp and return home, and the orchestra disbanded. Max was sent to a new camp nearby but without the privileged status of a musician. He however was permitted to write a letter once a month as a prisoner-of-war. In response to a letter home, he discovered that the Germans murdered his entire immediate family in the forests of Ponary. In April, the POW camp was liquidated and the prisoners were sent on a death march. Max was liberated on April 15, 1945 by American forces. By coincidence, his liberator not only was a Jewish captain, but also lived on the same street in Brooklyn as Max's aunt. He sent a letter to her from Max, and the aunt began the process of sponsoring his immigration to the States. After his liberation Max first traveled to both France and then Poland but eventually decided to return to Germany to meet up with other Jewish survivors. He soon heard rumors that a group of Jewish musicians, primarily from Lithuania, had established an orchestra in the St. Ottilien monastery near the village of Schwabenhausen. Originally a Nazi hospital, Dr. Zalman Grinberg from Kovno with help Rabbi Klausner set up a convalescence home for some 420 Jewish prisoners, including Fania and Henia Durmashkin. Max joined the orchestra as a violinist and assistant manager and fell in love with Fania. After a year the orchestra moved to Fuerstenfeldbruck, and in 1948 they performed under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. The following year, Fania and Henia made plans to immigrate to Israel, but Max persuaded them to join him in America. Max and Fania married, and Henia met married Simon Gurko who she met on the boat. Once in the United States, Max was unable to find work as a violinist and instead went to work in the garment industry.
[Source: Beker, Sonia Pauline, "Symphony on Fire"; New Milford: The Wordsmithy, 2007.]