While the Violins of Hope will be visiting New Orleans from Jan. 24 to 28, another violin from that era will be displayed as a new acquisition of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience — from a participant in the Kindertransport rescue of Jewish children, who wound up in Pensacola after the war and quickly racked up a list of impressive achievements.
What is being called the Swedish Violin was owned by Gunther Karger, who was born in Schmieheim, Germany, in 1933. In 1939, his parents put him on what turned out to be the last train in the Kindertransport, sending him to live in Sweden.
He was the only member of his family to survive the war.
For seven years, he lived with two foster families and in one orphanage. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society arranged for a group of Christian Pentecostals to take in the refugees, and he wound up on the farm of the Gustafson family in northwest Sweden. He knew no Swedish and the only person around who knew some German was the pastor.
Since Karger showed some musical ability, the pastor gave him a violin he had found in the basement of the church, and it became a prized possession for Karger, accompanying him on what would be an amazing life journey.
After five years, he was moved to an orphanage that had a Jewish orientation. When it closed a year later, he was placed with an observant family in Stockholm, a major change for him.
After a year there, he received a letter from a woman in Pensacola who said she was his father’s half-sister, and offered him a chance to come to America. At age 13, he set sail for New York, then took the train to Pensacola.
Since he knew no English, he became a bag boy at a grocery store and attended school, rapidly picking up the language. He was able to skip grades in school, but his time in Pensacola was not pleasant, with his foster family considering him to be worthless and, as he put it, treating him like an indentured servant.
After four years, he was basically kicked out, winding up with a half-uncle in New Jersey, telling him he has nowhere else to go, but would work his chicken houses while finishing high school. He finished his final year as valedictorian, passing his final exams two months early so he could enlist in the Air Force in 1951.
He started off studying electrical systems and working in the Airborne Radar Department, and was stationed at Keesler in Biloxi. At a mixer for Jewish servicemen there, he met Shirley Zoller Rosenzweig of New Orleans, and they married in 1954.
After finishing his Air Force commitment, he enrolled in Louisiana State University, in an electrical engineering program. He finished the five-year program in three years, then started working for Bell Labs after a brief, problem-filled stint at Boeing.
He soon started with ITT on early satellite development, rekindling a childhood obsession with space. He was selected to President John Kennedy’s National Security team, preparing scenarios where the Soviet Union launched a first nuclear strike. He developed a system that would help the U.S. recover and launch a retaliatory strike, earning him the designation of “Outstanding Young Man of America.”
Karger then went to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to work on the Apollo moon project, working with many of the German rocket engineers who developed the U.S. space program. Among those was Wehrner von Braun.
After the successful moon landing, Karger moved on, working for Eastern Airlines in Miami, where one of his tasks was creating a computer model to forecast revenue. In 1987, CEO Frank Borman told him he had to raise the revenue forecast by $600 million so banks would continue loans to the company. Figuring jail was not a good career path, he refused and was fired. Within the next year, Eastern was out of business.
The Kargers then founded an investment letter, and he wrote books about fraud on Wall Street, becoming an arbitrator in cases of investor complaints against brokerage firms. During the financial crisis in President Barack Obama’s first term, he became a special adviser to the Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud matters.
Mrs. Karger also became a leading doll collector, and an exhibit called Shirley’s Doll Cove was established at the Jack and Priscilla Andonie Museum at LSU.
“We are honored that Gunther and Shirley chose to donate this violin, along with many family photographs, documents, and other artifacts, to the museum,” said MSJE Marketing and Membership Coordinator Abra Kaplan. “Theirs is truly one of the most unique collections we hold.”