Archive for February 19, 2012

Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 19, 2012 6 comments

Part II of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, follows.  Wilkerson, who makes many appearances to speak about her book and its subject of the 20th century’s Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West, will present a free talk and signing April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in my hometown and place of residence, Omaha.  After reading her book and interviewing her there is no way I am going to miss her speak.  She has done a great service to the nation with her work connecting the dots of this epoch movement in history that so changed the face of America.  If you have not read her book, do so.  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, go.  Her insights into how the migration proceeded and the impact this experience made on the participants and on the cities they left and settled in are fascinating and revelatory.

Building Networks for Leading Change - Day 2 - Isabel Wilkerson Book Signing 2 | by W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Isabel Wilkerson at a book signing



Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Omaha Star

LAB: What interest in the Great Migration do you note in the wake of your book?

IW: “When I go out and talk about the book, wherever I go, there are people of all    backgrounds who show up. There was a woman who brought her father and they both came up and spoke with me and the daughter said, ‘Now that I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve got this book I’m taking him right now to a coffee shop and he’s going to tell me what happened.’ She was determined, and he agreed he would do so. So those are the kinds of things that are happening. Stories that had never been told or shared before people are feeling comfortable enough to talk about them.

“When I was in Columbus, Ohio a woman said after she read the book it made her think about how her family had gotten to Ohio and she immediately called her mother and said, ‘How did we get here?’ It turned out an uncle had been lynched and almost the entire family left as a result. Here she was in middle age and she had never known that, no one had ever sad anything. I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North. They had to get out immediately and they went to Cleveland or Detroit or New York or I’m assuming even to Omaha. The fact that people hadn’t talked about it meant there’s a whole world that has existed but no one knew about it and this book attempts to uncover that.

“This is a universal human story. I like to say black history is truly American history, For one thing much of black history involves white Americans. White abolitionists helped get black americans out of slavery. In the book there’s a case of white southerners who helped ferry a single black person out of Mississippi and it could not have been done without the involvement of white Mississippians and Alabamans who helped in this elaborate effort.”


Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney Ida Mae Gladney




LAB: Did you grow up knowing about your family’s migration?

“No one in my family talked about the Great Migration in those terms. I knew where my mother and father had come from and I didn’t know why they did what they did or what the circumstances of their lives had been where they were from. In hindsight I am aware their circle of friends were all people from the South. But no one talked about it. It’s only in the course of the research for the book that I came to know things about my own family I didn’t know before.

“My mother was the most difficult interview of all. She did not want to talk about it. Her attitude was, ‘This happened a long time ago, why do you want to dredge up the past? what has this got to do with what were doing now? I left that a long time ago.’ The only reason she began to talk about it was I was working on the book and I told her things I was hearing and I read to her parts of the book, and then it would trigger some memory in her and make mention of something I had never heard of before.”

LAB: I imagine this suppressed history exacerbated the great open wound of race?

IW: “I completely agree with you. I talk to people all the time who have read the book…On my Facebook page I get a chance to see how it’s affected people or how they’re moved by the stories or to maybe do more research in their own family life or they see their grandparents or great grandparents and come to a greater sense of gratitude over what their forbearers did. Regardless of their background, migration is a human universal experience. It’s just a matter of knowing who and how and why they did what they did. The book triggers lots of memories.”

The Star and The Reader ( are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South and ended up in Omaha or Greater Nebraska, then please email or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.


Walter Reed: Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

February 19, 2012 2 comments

About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie.  Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (  You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.


Walter Reed: From out of the past – Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.

Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”

By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.

“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”

It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.

Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.

More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.

On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.

“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”

As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”

Walter Reed as a child in Germany, circled at top left



It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.

“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”

Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”

Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.



The barn near Toulouse, France, where Walter Reed
stayed as part of a children’s rescue colony



In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.

“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”

When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”

A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.

“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”


Walter Reed, third from right in the front row, at the chateau in La Hille, France,
where a smaller group of children were transferred from the barn near



Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.

The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”

This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.

“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”

Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.

“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”


Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter


With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”

It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.

The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.

With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.

As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.

The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.

In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.


Walter Reed during one of his many public speaking apperances



It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.

For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.

On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.

“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”

Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”

Heart Strings: World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein refuses to let chronic illness slow her down and she encourages others to pursue their dreams, too

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Talent is an attractive thing.  I am drawn to it as readily as the next person.  In my work I get to speak with more than my share of gifted individuals, including performers of one kind or another.  Classical music has great appeal to me but I don’t take the opportunity as much I would like to attend concerts.  It just so happens that in the past couple yeara or so I have done a number of assignments that  involved classical music artists and so I have basked more frequently in the power and spelendor or that music than normal.  Of course, when it’s performed or interpreted by enormously gifted artists it’s even more special, and that was the case with this story from a couple years ago about international cellist star Alicia Weilerstein.  She was a delight to interview and she was an inspiration to see perform.  Her passion on stage is impressive.  Her playing, sublime.  It’s neat to be able to get to know the performer a bit and then see her  do her thing.  There’s something both ethereal and earthy about the way she performs that’s quite captivating. Her head and her heart both feed her work.


Heart Strings:
World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein refuses to let chronic illness slow her down and she encourages others to pursue their dreams, too

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine


Dynamic cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s breakthrough moment as a child both had nothing at all to do with her already planned music career and yet everything to do with it.

At age 9 she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, the kind of news no one wants to hear, least of all someone with a fragile dream of performing on stage with the world’s finest symphony orchestras.

But a setback doesn’t stop the doers in life from fulfilling their wishes. That’s why the 20-something Weilerstein comes to her May 29 and 30 Holland Performing Arts Center concerts with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra this weekend on the fast-track to classical music superstardom.

In Omaha she’ll perform Franz Joseph Haydn‘s “Concerto in C Major for Cello and Orchestra,” a-long-thought lost piece rediscovered in 1961. It received its first modern performance in 1962. The concerto’s three movements display the soloist-orchestra concertante “agreement” of Haydn’s time — an 18th century classical music call and response style. The serene centerpiece adagio is for strings only. It’s bracketed by spirited passages in which cello and orchestra go wild.

The American soloist, who began playing professionally at 14, has been called “a young old master.” Major symphony orchestras and music festivals in America and Europe clamor to engage her virtuoso talent. Icons like Yo-Yo Ma and Zubin Mehta sing her praises. Reviewers commend the bold passion she expresses in her intense, energetic performance on stage.

She does all this despite her diabetes. A daily regimen of insulin injections, blood sugar monitoring and strict dietary practices allows her to maintain a schedule of 100-plus concert/recital dates a year. Her exuberant life and work exemplify just how much one can accomplish when properly managing the condition.


Cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
Wherever she goes these days she delivers this empowering message of hope as a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, whose mission is outreach, education and finding a cure. In Omaha she’s invited area children with diabetes to attend an open rehearsal session and then meet her at a reception backstage, where she’ll do an informal Q & A. Her role is to encourage anyone coping with diabetes with her own inspiring personal story.

“The message I want to get across is, one doesn’t have to abandon any ambition because of it,” Weilerstein said by phone.

Omaha-Council Bluffs JDRF chapter executive director Shawn Reynolds said it’s a needed message: “Diabetes can be life-threatening and life-limiting, and ambassadors like Alisa inspire individuals with Type 1 diabetes to face their dreams for their lives without fear.”

Courage is a process. After the jolt of finding out she had diabetes Weilerstein gritted her teeth and did what she had to do to keep her dream on track.

“It was overwhelming and, actually, I think I was more in shock than anything,” she said. “I didn’t try and deny it. I thought, ‘Oh, this sucks, but this is what it is and I’m going to do the best I can to take care of it.’ I had great doctors who assured me I would live a very long, healthy, productive life with it and it was completely possible to do whatever I wanted to do with the monkey I now had in my life.”

Then came her next challenge — conquering the needle by teaching herself to self-inject. She was a determined little girl who wouldn’t let anything, much less an illness, stand in her way. She learned to do it.

“I’ve always been very self-motivated and focused. If I decided I really wanted to do something or fix something I’ve always put my whole energy behind that.”

As she’s discovered, managing her disease and mastering her art require similar qualities. “Discipline and focus, that’s what they both have in common,” she said.

“They both take constant vigilance. Well, in a way one’s work is never done with the art and one’s work is certainly never done with diabetes. There’s always stuff you can do to improve it. It’s kind of this huge sort of juggling act to take care of diabetes and for sure to carry a full concert schedule with all the repertoire.”

Her ability to handle it all with aplomb is why many in the music world were surprised when she revealed she’s been a Type 1 diabetic since childhood. Until last year only family and friends knew about Weilerstein’s diabetes. She didn’t go public before because of questions her affliction invariably elicits.

“The reason I was private about it is that there is a stigma attached to it still unfortunately — about the complications that are possible to get,” she said.

She abhors the suggestion her disease might slow her down or necessitate a scaled-back career or touring slate. She doesn’t like making excuses.

“I just didn’t want anyone to entertain that thought remotely, so I kept it to myself and wanted to prove that I could handle any schedule that was thrown at me. And now that I have proved that I feel completely comfortable talking about it. I feel like I’m at a point where I can help people, which is something I’ve wanted to do.

“I am luckily in a position to reach more people because I travel so much and it’s a nice way to take advantage of that.”


©Photo: Jamie Jung
Thus, she uses music as a medium for reaching out to others as a creative artist who just happens to be diabetic.

Music is a family legacy. Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, was a founder of the Cleveland Quartet. Her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, is equally accomplished. Her parents have their own separate touring careers and the family occasionally performs together as the Weilerstein Trio.

Alisa felt the call as a preschooler. “I knew exactly what I wanted from a very early age — I wanted to be a professional cellist,” she said. “There was no question in my mind. I can’t remember not wanting to play the cello.” Why the cello?  “I think it has the widest range of emotion of any instrument. It’s the closest to the human voice. We have the deepest bass, the highest soprano. I really think it’s capable of producing an indescribable amount of color, of emotions, of touching so many people.”

She begged her folks for a cello at age 4. They acquiesced. She began taking lessons. Her parents resisted pressure to tap her soon-evident prodigious gift.

“When I was very little there were people who were saying to my parents, ‘Alisa’s very talented and why aren’t you demanding more from her?’ My parents said, ‘Well, we want her to be a kid and to love the instrument and not think of it as just work.’ They were quite smart about it,” she said, admiringly.

At 9 her training turned more rigorous. “I went to teachers who had me work in a methodical way to really build a solid foundation and from then on I started practicing much harder. You know, hours of scales, arpeggios and etudes. I went through a ton of repertoire in a very, very careful manner and I really credit that for my technical development.” Despite pressure, her career progressed gradually.




©photo Erin Baiano for The New York Times



“My manager, I give her a lot of credit. She went very carefully with me,” said Weilerstein, who interrupted her touring to attend Columbia University. “I really feel like I had a full experience as a kid and as a young adult. That’s something I felt very, very strongly about. I wanted to meet different people from different backgrounds and to not constantly be surrounded by musicians and to also get a real education. My family was one hundred percent behind me.

“I never felt pushed into anything, and I just feel incredibly lucky things have worked the way they have, not just because they’re going so well but because things went very slowly.”

Since resuming music full-time, she said, “things have really jumped. The quality of work has gotten so much better and I’ve also been playing a lot more. I’m very grateful for that.” The whirlwind she’s on now can be “grueling and tiring,” she said, “but for me, at least at this point, it’s really worth it.” Besides, she’s paid to do what she loves. “I’m really enjoying it, I really am.”

Two more benefits of her life in music — working with great artists and meeting a diversity of people. She has friends now all over the globe. She expects to make some new friends in Omaha. “I’m looking forward to meeting some kids and families dealing with diabetes. It’s really nice to work with young people.”

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