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The piano has seen better days. With a cracked soundboard, buzzy strings, and weathered finish, the baby grand lying on its side in a Bok building studio is in need of some serious love.
It has seen worse. Crafted by Germany’s Ibach Piano Company some hundred years ago, the instrument is taking a breath in South Philly after nearly getting destroyed during the Holocaust.
In 1936, the piano traveled 4,000 miles, escaping the grasp of the Third Reich to land near Philadelphia. Many human members of the family didn’t survive to make the same pilgrimage. Almost all other furniture and heirlooms were forever lost.
But the 88 keys made it here. Their journey from Germany to Delaware County was facilitated by renowned anti-Nazi lawyer Hans J. Frank, whose sister owned the piano. Without Frank’s help, she might not have made it out before the war — and the Ibach would likely have been demolished by Hitler’s regime, like so many others.
“You don’t see pianos like this,” said Tom Rudnitsky of Philatuner, who is tasked with fixing it up. “Not with this sort of monumental, world-shaking trauma embedded.”
With a worn, matte black exterior, the instrument shows its history, but is still visually stunning. Its cast iron plate is hand carved with intricate golden flowers. Each string is hand-coiled, ready to produce an impressively dense wall of sound.
In the hands of third-generation owners, the piano sat in Bucks County for the past several decades, virtually unplayable. Raising a family of four, Eric and Tami Brauer couldn’t undertake a full restoration.
“When you’re raising a family, there’s always something else to spend $10,000 or $20,000 on,” said Tami.
When the couple split up recently, the piano became a priority. As she was downsizing to an apartment four months ago, Tami called Rudnitsky to ask if he could make it playable again. When the work is complete, it’ll make another pilgrimage — this time to the suburbs of D.C., where the Brauers’ son will take ownership and teach his daughter to play.
“For 30 years, it kind of sat there,” Tami said. “Now it’s getting a new life.”
Trading millinery for beauty salons, with music keeping the beat
The original owner of the enduring instrument was classically trained pianist Heidi Frank. She married into the Brauer family, who owned a hat company in Germany.
Her brother Frank, the lawyer, fled Germany in 1933, then made a name for himself helping Jewish people get their property back after World War II.
To help his relatives escape, Frank facilitated a trade between the Brauers’ hat company and a German family that owned a few beauty salons in Upper Darby. The business owners switched places — with the Brauers moving to Delco to run the salons, and the other family moving back to Germany and taking over hat manufacturing for a few years.
A pregnant Heidi, along with her husband and their son, managed to arrive in the United States unscathed.
Sidney Brauer was the baby on the way. Now 84 years old, he lives in Warwick, Pa., with fond memories of the piano. It was essential to his musically inclined mother — so much so that she chose it among the few items she could take with her to her new home.
“They were very lucky that it didn’t get scratched,” Sidney said, his voice tinged with reverence. “It never did.”
Heidi began managing the beauty parlors, along with a dress shop and a West Philly apartment building. She made friends with a neighborhood violinist, and they’d get together to play for the family. They even stamped some of their tunes into vinyl records.
“The piano was really a very big deal,” said Eric Brauer, Sidney’s son, who vividly recalls his grandmother’s talents. “It was the centerpiece of their home. To sit there and watch her play was pretty impressive.”
After Sidney’s parents died, the piano stayed in his Northeast Philly home for a few decades. It spent some time with other family members in South Carolina and Florida before returning north to Eric’s Bucks County home.
“But it just didn’t sound great,” explained Tami, Eric’s ex-wife. “It became an artifact.”
With triple-wound coils, on the ‘cutting edge’ of sound
Tom Rudnitsky can tell how serious someone is about restoring a piano when he hits them with the price. When potential clients hear it could take around $7k for a reconditioning or $35k for a full restoration, their passion often wanes.
Not this time.
“You could just tell that this had been on their chest for years,” he said of the Brauers. “And there’s all this family history contained in it.”
The baby grand also has some unique features that made it a marvel of its time.
Rudnitsky called it a “roadster” — shorter than a normal piano because builders had recently learned to add a third layer of strings stacked atop two layers of treble and bass strings. That meant you could fit longer strings in a smaller piano, creating a more powerful sound. “Sort of like the equivalent of a foldable screen on a phone,” he explained.
“Pianos in the 1920s sort of occupy the same cultural and social space that, like, a Tesla does today,” Rudnitsky said. “This would have been at the cutting edge of technology.”
It’s a rarity for an Ibach brand to be in America in the first place, because so many didn’t make it out of Nazi Germany. One of the Ibach factories was burned to the ground during the war — and the company shut down in 1980.
The restoration will be a lengthy project. The triple-coiled, hand-woven strings will have to be remade from scratch.
“I’m kind of sighing as I look at this, because this is gonna be like, two, three days of work just making loops,” Rudnitsky said. “That’s all I’m going to do for three days.” As he works, the instrument reminds him of his own family’s struggle: his grandmother grew up in Ukraine and barely made it out of the Soviet regime in time.
For Eric Brauer, it’s a reminder of the hard choices forced in the face of tyranny — and how sometimes, art and music are an important part of surviving hate.
“When you see people storm the Capitol, you see how fragile democracy can be,” Eric said. “The piano is a bit of a metaphor for what can be.”