Josif, whom everyone called Josl, impressed people and also irritated them. He broke off a choir rehearsal because he noticed something: “Masha, your glasses don’t suit you. Swap them with Elkes… No, they don’t suit you either. Alright, let’s keep singing! Same verse!” Concentrated, he picked up the accordion again and continued playing, the choir joined in with a smile. About 30 amateur singers gathered around him in the klezmer center of the Fanny Hensel music school and in the “Singing Lomir ale” course at the Jewish adult education center.
The professional musician from the Ukraine was called the “Klezmer King of Berlin”; he called himself “Balebos” – Yiddish householder. He was that to the end, they all belonged to the mishpokhe, to the family: his bands “Klezmer chidesh” (the miracle of klezmer) and “Klezbanda”, the choir, and for the duration of the performance also the audience. People shouldn’t just sit and listen, they should laugh, cry, dance. He touched her and cared for her when it was necessary. He kept his groups together. Sometimes he ruled over them. But who could ever be angry with him? Without envy, he also let his colleagues take the stage and paid little attention to external appearances.
Josif Gofenberg was born as the only child of Shoah survivors in Chernivtsi on the Ukrainian-Romanian border. In the area people spoke four or more languages. He spoke German with his father, who came from a Jewish family in Vienna, and Yiddish with his mother, who came from a Moldavian shtetl. He learned Ukrainian at school and on the street, Russian only at school. Once when he was sick in bed, his father brought him a children’s accordion for a change. A piano was out of the question, the family was too poor for that. Josl fell in love with his gift and was allowed to take lessons at the music school. The mother closely monitored his progress. Sometimes that was too much for him.
When his parents separated, he stayed with his father. He must have been an energetic boy, cuddly, maybe a bit rebellious, surrounded by friends and admirers. Later also by women. And well informed about life. “You can’t just have plan A, you also need B and C.” A bit like Alexis Sorbas. He married early, as was customary, right at age 21 after serving in the Soviet Army. There he had played tuba in a military band and formed a band. In 1971 daughter Stella was born. He spent a lot of time with her. But he didn’t just love her, he loved all the children, and the children loved him. He liked to tease her, didn’t complain, teased her with jokes.
As an electrician, he didn’t last long in the factory and got a job as a musician in what was then the best restaurant in Chernivtsi, the “Dnestr”. There he stayed for more than 20 years, collaborating with colleagues from all over the Soviet Union. They played light music, including Yiddish, although officially it was not liked. Around 15,000 Jews lived in Chernivtsi until Ukraine gained independence in 1989; before the war there were three times as many. The city was and is strongly influenced by it.
Josl completed a correspondence course to become a choir director. When his beloved father died, it was the time when the wall fell in Germany, he emigrated. A new life should begin, the daughter should be better. Shpil mir dos lidl fun golden land. Israel was out of the question for his wife, and America wasn’t a place of longing either. Josl could still speak some German, so he packed his car and trailer and drove to reunified Berlin with his wife, daughter and her husband.
There they ended up with other Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union in the interim camp in Hessenwinkel. They contacted the Jewish community and attended a German course. Josl never lost his Austrian-Yiddish accent. After just a few days he got his first engagement at the Channuka festival. He was lucky, was booked again, made a name for himself as a klezmer and entertainment musician, mainly with the help of Irene Runge from the Jewish Cultural Association. As a lecturer at the Jewish adult education center he met Galina, a Jewish German teacher from Moscow, and separated from his wife after 27 years of marriage. He didn’t get divorced, he continued to take care of her.
He moved to Tiergarten with Galina and took care of their little son Michail. They traveled a lot together, often visiting Josl’s mother, who had emigrated to Israel. He always went to Sylt with the choir in April for the rehearsal week. He avoided his old home, Czernowitz. He preferred to look ahead, rediscovered his “Jiddishness” in a different and new way, and helped a number of Germans to get closer to Jewish culture. For this he received the Federal Cross of Merit in 2020.
Every Friday on Shabbat he sent greetings to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Not this Good Friday. He was in intensive care then. He had been complaining of shortness of breath and weakness since the end of January. Now the doctors discovered that his heart valves were infected with bacteria. They operated on Saturday, he got blood poisoning. On Easter Monday, in the middle of Passover, he died. He had planned a seventh CD, there are six CDs of his with Jewish songs. One says: Oy Yosl! Mayn khayes geyt mir azhe oys nokh dir – The heart wants to break with longing for you.