That 98-year-old man on drums at the White House Hanukkah party? A Holocaust survivor fulfilling a dream
President Joe Biden greets a group of Holocaust survivors — including Saul Dreier, wearing a bowtie
— before the Hanukkah reception on Dec. 11, 2023. (Photo: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden has a history of elevating Holocaust survivors

By Jacob Kornbluh
December 19, 2023

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Before the White House Hanukkah party, five Holocaust survivors met with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, one of whom, 98-year-old Saul Dreier, asked if he could bless him. Biden bowed his head and received Dreier’s blessing for a prosperous life.

Then the president asked Dreier if he had any other requests. Yes, Dreier, told him: He wanted to play the drums at the Hannukah party.

Biden then instructed the Secret Service to escort Dreier to the affair, where the Floridian joined the United States Marine Band and played a spirited rendition of “Hava Nagila” for more than 800 guests.

A video of Dreier playing the drums with what’s commonly called “The President’s Own Marine Band,” went viral on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter).

“He is flying high,” said Annie Pearl, a friend who assists Dreier who is also from Tamarac, Florida. 

Pearl helped Dreier get the invitation to the party, she said in an interview. A week after what’s widely considered the most exclusive annual Jewish celebration in the U.S., Dreier is still talking about his Oval Office meet-up and jam with the band.

Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish liaison who manages the guest list for the party, said Dreier’s meeting with Biden and performance hadn’t been planned, but reflects the respect the president holds for survivors. He’s “a lifelong believer in commemorating the Holocaust and also acting on the lessons of the Holocaust.” Greenspan said. “So just to see this come to fruition was really, really meaningful.”

Not a sure gig

Dreier, who was born in Poland and survived several concentration camps before arriving in the U.S. in 1949, first started drumming in 2014 after reading an article about a woman pianist who survived the Holocaust and passed away at age 108. To his wife’s initial shock, he went out, bought himself a drum set, and founded the Holocaust Survivor Band, which started with a free klezmer concert at a local synagogue and was soon performing around the country and the world, including in Israel, Germany, Brazil and Poland — both in Warsaw and at Auschwitz.

His dream, though, was to play for the president, Pearl said. So she reached out to several members of Congress. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a freshman Democrat from the Miami area, wrote a letter to the White House, signed by 18 other members — asking that it invite Dreier to the Hanukkah party list and allow him to play drums there.

Greenspan, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, said she put Dreier and four survivors who volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the guest list, but didn’t invite him to play because she didn’t have the authority. 

President Joe Biden with a group of Holocaust survivors on Dec. 11, 2023. (Photo: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

But she said she’s not surprised Biden made it happen, given his commitment to remembering the Holocaust. In remarks to Jewish audiences, the president often speaks about his visit to Auschwitz with his grandchildren in 2015. And 10 years ago, as vice president in the Obama administration, Biden launched the White House Holocaust Survivor Initiative, a program that has helped more than 40,000 Holocaust survivors access meals, healthcare and transportation. 

During his visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2022, Biden knelt to speak with two Holocaust survivors, holding their hands and kissing both on their cheeks.

And earlier that year, Biden held a 90-minute Oval Office meeting with Holocaust Survivor Bronia Brandman and invited her to light one of the candles of the White House menorah.

This year, Greenspan and four other White House staffers who descend from Holocaust survivors lit candles at the ceremony.

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, some 2,500 Holocaust survivors and their descendants sent a letter to Biden thanking him for his strong support of Israel.

Greenspan said that when she has briefed the president in the Oval Office, he often asked her personal questions about her grandparents who survived the Holocaust. “It really is something that he cares so deeply about,” she said. “This is a culmination of decades of him talking about these issues and being there for people who didn’t have a voice for a while.”

Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email kornbluh@forward.com.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

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