Two Jewish immigrants meet in DeKalb, fall in love
By Barry Schrader, Daily Chronicle columnist April 20, 2018
Madame Raya Garbousova and husband Dr. Kurt Biss (Photo provided by Paul Biss)
The headstone of Madame Garbousova at Oakwood Cemetery in DeKalb.
My interest was piqued when I read a Daily Chronicle article recently by Drew Zimmerman about Daniel Biss, who was running for governor, and his grandparents, Dr. Kurt Biss and Madame Raya Garbousova, who lived in DeKalb. I have been in their former home at 524 W. Lincoln Highway and admired the spacious rooms, tall windows that let in so much light, and even the underground garage that cars entered from the side yard.
Then last week, The Midweek had a historical tidbit about famed cellist Garbousova being a featured soloist with the Northern Symphony Orchestra 50 years ago.
Being an intrepid journalist, I found their younger son, Paul, in Boston, with the help of Zimmerman. Paul was most cooperative in telling their life stories, and what a tale.
Biss and his family, being Jews, had to flee from the Nazis in Vienna, Austria, in 1938, before he had completed his college education. They settled in Basel, Switzerland, for a while, and he completed his medical degree in 1939. With the help of a distant relative, he emigrated to America, landing in Chicago at Michael Reese Hospital. Then, wanting to open a private practice, he visited DeKalb, found it a desirable location, and eventually became one of the three physicians who founded the DeKalb Clinic.
His first wife had passed away in 1946, when Paul was only a year and a half old. A patron of the arts here, Biss attended a concert at NIU where the renowned Garbousova was the guest soloist, while touring the country to perform with symphony orchestras. It must have been love at first sight – Paul can’t remember since he was a toddler, but a year and a half later they married and she relocated to DeKalb. She became their second mother and devoted herself to raising the children, while still performing and teaching music at NIU.
She and her sister had left their native Russia because Jews also were being mistreated there. She had begun piano lessons at the age of 4, then became fond of the cello at age 6, launching a career that brought her worldwide acclaim. She played with some greats, including Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz, as well as sharing her talent with Albert Einstein, who played the violin with her privately and became a devoted fan of hers.
How serendipitous that she and Biss met here, just after the war ended, and married in 1949. Her first husband had died fighting with the French Resistance in 1943. She came to America and became a U.S. citizen in 1946. Both she and Biss contributed so much to the medical, cultural and social life of the community.
When she died in 1997, she was laid to rest in the far southwest corner of Oakwood Cemetery behind the Congregational Church. Local historian Steve Bigolin showed us her headstone during a cemetery walk several years ago. But I always wondered where her husband was buried when he died in 2003. His son, Paul, cleared that up, explaining that Biss wanted to be cremated and not interred.
By the way, both their sons are accomplished musicians. Paul graduated from Indiana University in music, then got his master’s at Juilliard in New York City. He taught for 25 years at Indiana, in addition to teaching at Tel Aviv University, MIT, and Stearns Institute as part of the Ravinia Festival. At one time he was concertmaster of the Akron (Ohio) Symphony. His wife also is an accomplished violinist.
His brother, Gregory, is a pianist and composer. His works have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Denver Symphony and NIU’s Vermeer Quartet. Gregory recently retired from a career as a commercial scuba diver and lives in Eastport, Maine.
Raya Garbousova Papers, 1894-1991
Kay Shelton tipped me off to this collection now at the Founders Memorial Library. She emailed me after this column appeared in the Chronicle: “FYI: Gregory Biss donated his mother’s collection of music to the NIU Libraries Special Collections. The materials include her personal notations and bowings. The bowings are of critical importance to cellists.”
Brief Description: Materials in this collection are primarily published musical scores for the cello previously accumulated and owned by Raya Garbousova. Some music manuscripts are in an unpublished form. They represent an extensive collection of music for cello performance along with some exercises for the cello. There is a particular emphasis on works for solo cello and cello with piano accompaniment. Many items have Ms. Garbousova’s annotations and cello bowings. There are a small number of ephemeral materials related to the Cello Congress.