With over 100 million records sold, Billy Joel is one of America’s most popular music icons, but few of his fans know about his family’s escape from Nazi Germany.
To help bridge the gap, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, in partnership with the Atlanta-Nuremberg Sister Cities Committee and the Goethe-Zentrum German Cultural Center Atlanta, held an evening of entertainment and dialogue April 6 to highlight the Joel family’s tumultuous past.
The tribute act Billy and the Joels livened the night, with pianist Werner Kandzora and singer Stefan Angele performing classics such as “Piano Man” and “Just the Way You Are.” Nuremberg journalist and author Steffen Radmaier read excerpts from his book about the family history.
Karl Armson, Joel’s grandfather, opened a garment store in Nuremberg, which brought him affluence, Radmaier said. Armson developed a passion for music, which he believed reflected culture and led him to buy his son, Helmut, a piano.
By 1933, however, anti-Semitic propaganda had spread throughout the country, targeting numerous Jewish businesses.
Armson realized it was becoming increasingly dangerous to live in Nuremberg and relocated to Berlin in 1934. Although Germany received recognition during the 1936 Olympics, Armson felt the political climate turn more severely against Jews by 1938. He sent his wife and son to Switzerland while he sought to sell the family business at any price.
“It makes us see how cruel the system was to rip people out from the middle of society,” Radmaier said.
Armson sold the business at a cheap price to Josef Neckermann, who later became a catalog mogul in Germany. Arriving in Switzerland, Armson discovered that Neckermann had placed the family’s money in a separate bank account and cut off access.
With limited resources, Armson was again forced to transplant his family and purchased three tickets from England to Cuba.
The Armsons felt like strangers in Cuba, Radmaier said. They could not do much, and they sold jewelry to sustain a living. Although Armson was persistent in teaching his son music, the family could not afford a piano.
Armson tried to bring his brother, Leonel, and his wife and children to Cuba, but they were on the St. Louis, doomed to be turned away from Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe.
After living in Cuba for four years, the Armsons moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn.
Son Helmut Armson enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to Europe to locate any remaining family members. But Radmaier said he instead discovered a notice indicating that relatives were sent to Auschwitz.
Back from the war, Helmut studied and received an opportunity at General Electric. He then married Rosalind Nyman, and they had their first child, Billy, in 1949.
According to Radmaier, Joel’s music career began as a child when his father left and he was forced to support the family. He became a professional musician at age 14 while living in Long Island and made his first record in 1971.
“Despite his family’s arduous past and volatile music career, Billy continues to perform at sold-out shows in Europe and across America and has also received the Kennedy Honor,” Radmaier said.
Joel is scheduled to perform at SunTrust Park at 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, with tickets starting at $54 (m.mlb.com/braves/tickets/concerts/billy-joel).