The following is excerpted from the liner notes to Iron & Coal.
Between late April and early July 1944, The Nazis deported approximately 426,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz.
My father, Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, was a ten year-old boy when the Nazis marched into his hometown of Munkacs, Hungary in May 1944 and forced him and countless others to board the now infamous cattle cars bound for Poland. Of the hundreds of thousands of Jews brought to Auschwitz during those few months, 320,000 were immediately directed to the gas chambers by the SS. All told, nearly one million Jews were killed in Auschwitz alone.
My father often described his miraculous survival as being given “bonus time.” In his memoir Absence of Closure (2008), Dad painstakingly outlined this incredible journey in vivid detail. As he worked, he and I often discussed the difficult process he faced in retracing his steps. On several occasions, he would even send me pages to look through for my notes. This was a big deal for me. For my father to value my opinion not just as a son, but also as a friend and fellow writer, was a huge honor. And it was through these discussions that I began to toss around my own ideas on adapting his story through music.
But it wasn’t until a fateful phone call from Dad months after the book was completed that I finally felt compelled to attack this subject matter. My father suffered from a rare form of leukemia called myelofibrosis. For several years, the disease was manageable, so it came as quite a shock when Dad called to tell me he was considering joining a clinical trial—a double-blind study for an experimental medication that had shown some success in fighting his symptoms. For my father, a brilliant scientist who administered these kinds of studies throughout his storied career, to choose risk and uncertainty over available, albeit marginally successful methods of treatment, was truly frightening. For the first time, I felt a clock begin to tick.
As I labored to create Iron & Coal, I was faced with a few difficult decisions of my own: What is the story I am trying to tell here? Is it mine? Is it his? What are the points I am trying to make? And how on Earth am I supposed to play a song about a son mourning the death of his father, for my very-much alive Dad?? For months I agonized over these decisions and the direction of my work. It was my friend Daisy Prince who finally stepped in and encouraged me to stop worrying so much about telling “the story” or any story for that matter. Just go and write.
The resulting album is a very raw and personal collection of songs illustrating the emotional landscapes I experienced and perceived growing up amongst Holocaust survivors. A true labor of love, Iron & Coal cuts as close to the bone as any album I have ever created. Sadly, the urgency to create this work finally reached its inevitable conclusion on May 21, 2011, the day my father finally lost his battle at the age of 77. The day Iron & Coal was mastered.
In tribute: I created this album as a tribute to my father, my grandparents, and to all of those who survived the Holocaust and their children who grew up living beneath the shadows of those horrific experiences.
Please watch this excerpt from the last interview Jeremy and Gus Schonfeld did together.