Izolda Lindberg Suslak, my friend

Izolda Lindberg Suslak

Izolda Lindberg Suslak (31 I 1942 – 12 IV 2019)

Izolda was born in Saratov in Soviet Russia. She grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and in Katowice, Poland, and in 1969 she moved to Malmö, Sweden, where she enriched our lives and our souls with her bright spirit and wonderful piano playing. On the 24th of April it was time for us, her family and friends, to bid farewell to her.

This is my tale of Izolda. Hopefully you will recognize your Izolda in it.


It is a brilliant spring day in Katowice. Two elegant gentlemen are strolling along a path in the city’s large park, accompanied by their wives dressed in their Sunday best. Behind them tumbles a plump nine-year-old boy, watching in amazement an apparition straight out of Lithuania: a tall, slender girl in a white-flowered dress, her braid reaching to her waist. She is taking in her new Polish homeland with the uncertainty and curiosity of a fifteen-year-old. This is my first encounter with Izolda.

Anselm Suslak and Salomon Hirschberg, raised on the same street in the Austrian and subsequently Polish city of Tarnopol, have not seen each other for many years. Their Polish home territories have been incorporated into the Soviet Union. My parents have survived the Soviet and German occupations and the Holocaust and moved west, to the new Poland. Izolda’s parents had fled from the advancing German armies to the Soviet Union where she was born during the raging war. Only in 1957 did they manage to return to Poland. They have now been in my hometown for a few days – the childhood friends want to live close to each other.

Izolda’s Polish piano debut. She plays Chopin at the school closing concert. Resounding applause, of course. I get shoved onto the stage of the concert hall by my parents in order to hand her a huge bouquet of flowers, but at this very moment Izolda disappears back stage. I climb down and my mother sends me back. There I am, standing alone and embarrassed, helplessly holding the bouquet and wishing to disappear through the floorboards while the audience is laughing and continuing to applaud.

The year is 1969 and anti-Semitism is raging again in Poland. Our fathers are resting a stone’s throw from each other in the old Jewish cemetery and thus do not have to depart yet again. I call Izolda: “You cannot stay here. I am taking the train to Warsaw tomorrow morning to start arranging our departure. I hope that you will come with me.” It seems uncertain, but next morning Izolda is standing on the platform when I arrive.

Izolda and her mother settle in Malmö, while I end up in Gothenburg together with my mother and younger brother. If you have become friends with Izolda and do not make a fool of yourself, you will have a friend for life. I manage not to make a fool of myself. The rest you have seen up close: Izolda is working, making music. She marries. She becomes a mother. She becomes a grandmother. One thing in her life is more important than anything else: those closest to her. There were her parents Anselm and Sara. Now there is her husband Roger Lindberg, the fine trombonist, their daughter Katarina along with her husband Scott Pointon, the grandchildren Charlie and Sara-Pearl. They are her life and she is theirs.

Izolda has a gift: an unlimited capacity for friendship. It has something to do with her ability to radiate warmth, show emotions, use words like “sweetheart”, “fantastic” and “ah”. She makes friends, gives them all her love and loyalty and gets it back sevenfold. Whenever I phoned her or came by during the last period of her life, there was at least one friend sitting at her bedside. One of them told me, “We are arguing with each other about who may sit by Izolda next.” It was heart-warming to see, even for her.

I cannot imagine Izolda without her music. I have never met anyone who embodied music in such fullness: it seemed to flow out of her, it was enough for her to hold her hands over the keyboard for the music to start dripping from her fingertips – apart from her I have only ever witnessed this phenomenon with Oscar Peterson. Music was not a subject that you could have lukewarm opinions about – it was either or. It was not appropriate to underestimate Chopin or Tchaikovsky. And it was not necessary to overestimate some others, notably Wagner and Bruckner. Music without feelings and convictions was nothing for Izolda.

There were other things that were important to her. Her Jewish background implied an obligation to remember. Taking a stand against evil, being a mensh was important. Consider this: if it were not for all those inhuman isms to which her parents and she had been subjected – for Nazism which had almost wiped out her family, Stalinism which had held her father in prison for eight long years, anti-Semitism which had chased her and her mother out of Poland – she would have met at least some of her grandparents and had her relatives as well as her schoolmates and fellow students at her side. Now she has had to make do with us and I do not think that she had any complaints – but she was very much aware of where she came from.

She had picked up several languages along the way, but deep down she had a special place for Russian. I think this was mostly due to Russian being more melodious than most other languages. And if you dream and count in Russian, which perhaps she did, then it is necessary to feed one’s emotional soul with poetry. I used to send her poems to read, then we talked about them. There is a poem which I know that she has read. It feels strangely appropriate to quote the closing passage.1

I’m consoling you, of course. Consoling myself also.
Not very much consoled. Trees-candelabra
Carry their green candles. And magnolias bloom.
This too is real. The din ceases.
Memory closes down its dark waters.

“We’ve been close to you, we can never lose you,” said Roger, Katarina and Scott. We are sad, but the joy of having been close to you is greater. In the dark waters of memory there is a streak of intense light. It is an infinitely long, sunlit path in the park, lined with chestnut trees and magnolia bushes. There is Izolda, slender, tall and radiantly beautiful, walking with her parents by her side. She is watching us with curiosity and love. She will always be doing it. She is doing it right now. I know that for sure. Beneath the eyelids there are small memory grains and when you close your eyes hard, they start gleaming like diamonds. Inside them are our memories of Izolda. This too is real.

We see you, Izoldechka.

Jurek Hirschberg

  1. ”Lecture VI”, from Six Lectures in Verse by Czesław Miłosz, translated from the Polish by the Author and Leonard Nathan


Listen to the Fantasia in F minor D940 Op. 103 by Franz Schubert, played by Izolda Lindberg Suslak and Robert Bennesh in Husie Church in Malmö on 16 July 2013.