Josef Hassid (Józef Chasyd)
(1923-50)

Violinist and latterly a long-term inmate of Long Grove Hospital, Epsom.

Josef Hassid.
Josef Hassid, as pictured in 'The Bystander' of 15 May 1940.
Image © Illustrated London News Group.
Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Introduction

The very short life of Josef Hassid was destroyed by serious mental illness and to an extent he has become defined by that. Everything you read about him will tell you about his hugely promising career as a violinist and then the story is consumed by the issues surrounding mental illness, the now questionable treatments that were employed at the time and, ultimately, that most controversial of surgical procedures, the leucotomy or lobotomy.

Early life

Josef was born in Suwałki*, Poland on 28 December 1923. Suwałki is a big town in Northern Poland, close to the border with Lithuania, and it had a troubled history during the 20th century, having been under German occupation during and just after the First World War, followed by a Lithuanian occupation. The Poles took it back, but then, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Suwałki came under the control of the Russians and was next handed over to the Germans. Ultimately the Russians took the town again and finally it ended up in Polish hands. In the midst of all that there was a sadly typical European tragedy - almost all of the Jews in Suwałki were sent to the concentration camps.


Postcard view of Suwałki
Image Source : Getty Images

The Hassids were Jewish and Owsiej Hassid was left to bring up the family when his wife died of typhus in about 1933/4. Josef was around ten years old at the time. After lessons in his home town he was sent to the Chopin School of Music (now the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music) in Warsaw. He competed in the first Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, held in 1935 and only revived after the war, but, significantly, had a memory lapse during his performance - was this just nerves or a manifestation of his subsequent illness? He was not placed, but did receive an honorary diploma.

Major Performances in England

Whilst 'The Times' of 4 April 1940 gave a very favourable review to Josef's recital at the Wigmore Hall in London, which consisted mainly of pieces for solo violin and for violin with piano, the newspaper was less than complimentary about an appearance the following year with the Sidney Beer Orchestra. Josef attempted the Brahms Violin Concerto, which is a far different proposition from the shorter and possibly lighter pieces he had played at the Wigmore Hall. Many musicians rate the Brahms as one of the hardest concertos to play and the composer wrote it for an experienced virtuoso violinist, Joseph Joachim, in the first place, so it may not have been a great choice for young Josef, especially with the orchestra concerned. Sidney Beer was a wealthy amateur who liked racehorses just as much as music and his ensemble consisted of ad hoc players from various other orchestras. 'The Times' felt that Josef did not do a great job and sometimes forgot his notes or was at odds with the orchestra, but I think the clue to the latter's proficiency may appear later in the article ('The Times' of 4 March 1941, referring to a London concert on the afternoon of Saturday 1 March), where the critic says of the orchestra's performance of pieces by Falla, Ravel and Debussy that
'Mr Beer is much more at home in conducting music of this lighter kind, in which a dance rhythm declares itself immediately for what it is …'.
Let's put it kindly - Mr Beer was never a conducting legend. And yet, on Sunday 2 March, when Josef performed at the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, under a different conductor, there was a very much better review in 'The Liverpool Echo', which said,
' A self-possessed young man of similar build to Menuhin and, I should say, with equal technical gifts as a violinist, stepped on to the platform yesterday, loudly tuned his fiddle, and then proceeded to give a magnificently assured performance of the Brahms Concerto …'

Hospital Admission

There are a few mentions in reviews about memory lapses during performance, but Josef was very young and nerves were to be expected. However, following a diagnosis of schizophrenia, in June 1941 he was admitted to St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton, which was a mental facility and had once been known as the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He was subjected to insulin coma therapy and electroconvulsive shock therapy (see the 'Treatments' section of our article on the Epsom Hospital Cluster for more details of what these procedures entailed and how they were supposed to work).

How good was he?

It surely cannot be a coincidence that many of the greatest violinists of the 20th Century, such as Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, were/are of Jewish heritage and there are many theories about why this was the case, but all of it is just speculation. So was Josef exceptionally gifted and could he have been mentioned in the same sentence as those above had he not become ill? It seems that the answer may be yes on both counts.

Kreisler apparently rated Josef very highly and lent him a Vuillaume violin. The Israeli music critic Noam Ben-Zeev described the violinist Ivry Gitlis, as 'a violinist from the era of the "golden generation" during the first half of the 20th century; a violinist who, the moment he draws the bow across the strings of his instrument, makes it seem as if the likes of Austrian composer-violinist Fritz Kreisler or Polish violinist Josef Hassid has been resurrected before us. He is the stuff of these legendary players, who saw music and sound and technique in a completely different way than musicians do today.' (Source: haaretz.com, 5 October 2012). Gitlis, born in 1922, said that he had been a close friend of Josef's when they were young.

'The Strad' of 7 April 2015 re-printed comments that the Lebanese violinist Yfrah Neaman OBE had made about his own studies with Carl Flesch, Josef's eventual teacher, and this passage is particularly telling. Neaman said, 'The lessons were open to anyone who wanted to sit in, and Flesch's pupils quickly found out who was being taught when, so that they could hear the most interesting students. The number of listeners present was a measure of a student's "success". You were immediately part of a hierarchy. You knew, or found out very quickly, that if you were the 10 o'clock pupil you were the lowest of the low, and you had to work your way up to the 10.45 slot; 12.15 was at the level of Josef Hassid or Ida Haendel.'

Flesch ran summer courses in Spa and Knokke, Belgium and it was during one of these, when Josef would have been only in his early to mid-teens, that he allegedly fell in love with a British non-Jewish girl, whose parents did not approve of the relationship. It's not clear in various accounts how far this relationship went, but it seems that his feelings were not entirely reciprocated and it ended. Apparently the break-up affected him deeply and was a major factor in his subsequent mental illness. None of this really seems credible, unless you accept that he was already a deeply disturbed individual during his childhood and early adolescence, which he probably was.

Ida Haendel CBE is originally from Chelm, Eastern Poland, near to the Ukrainian border and the town had a similar history to Josef's birthplace of Suwałki, especially during the Second World War. Another near contemporary of Ida and Josef was the French prodigy Ginette Neveu, who also studied with Carl Flesch: she was so good that she beat David Oistrakh into second place in the 1935 Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition (Ida came 7th that year). Sadly, Ginette was killed in an air crash in 1949.

Ida Haendel.
Ida Haendel, as pictured in 'The Staffordshire Sentinel' of 6 January 1939.
Image © Trinity Mirror.
Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Ginette Neveu, January 1949.
Ginette Neveu, January 1949.
Image source http://ums.aadl.org/ums_photos_00726
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: University Musical Society

Carl Flesch taught Josef, Ida and Ginette. Born in Hungary, he was an accomplished violinist, but his particular gift was teaching. He saw violin-playing as an artistic matter - in other words, you obviously had to play the tune skilfully and get the notes etc right, but he wanted the passion too.

Carl Flesch.
Carl Flesch.
Image source Library of Congress.

Long Grove

After the treatment in Northampton Josef's mental health seemed to improve temporarily, but then, late in 1942, he was certified insane and admitted to a private asylum. A few months later he was transferred to Long Grove Hospital in Epsom, where he remained for the rest of his life, housed in the Polish wing. Accounts vary as to how Josef's condition manifested itself, but most seem to agree that he had sudden mood swings, periods of complete silent withdrawal, lost interest in his music and turned against his father. On 20 October 1950, by which time Owsiej was dead, he was subjected to a lobotomy, contracted meningitis and died on 7 November.


Josef Hassid - violinist, Achron - Hebrew Melody for violin and piano
A YouTube video clip

*Suwałki was also the birthplace (in 1926) of the legendary film director Andrzej Wajda, whose early masterpiece was the trilogy of films comprising 'A Generation', 'Kanal' and 'Ashes and Diamonds': these broadly cover the period of the occupation of Warsaw by the Nazis and the uprising in the Jewish ghetto. (All three films are available as a DVD set.)

For more information about surgical procedures which have been performed on people with mental illness, please see our article on Psychosurgery.

Linda Jackson © May, 2017



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