At 99, this amazing Holocaust survivor and musician is still beating the drum for peace

Saul Dreier, fresh out of rehab after hip surgery, was ready for an interview, and the 99-year-old showed it by diving right into the story, one he's told many times.

It wasn't the story of his idyllic childhood in Krakow, Poland. Or how that was shattered when World War II broke out, or how he and his family were forced like hundreds of thousands of other Jews into ghettos as Nazis occupied the country.

It was not the story of watching German soldiers shoot his disabled mother, or losing his family, or his labor in a concentration camp at Mauthausen–Gusen.

Instead, Dreier, who's played all over the world with his Holocaust Survivors Band, launched energetically into the story of how he started his first band a decade ago, at the tender age of 89.

"I read an essay − you know what this is, an essay? − about a woman, she was 108 years old and she was a pianist. She was liberated from a German camp and she played for people there, to Jews living in Germany," he told USA TODAY from his home in Coconut Creek, Florida. "She passed away, and I wanted to do something for this woman."

He contemplated ways to continue her legacy: To educate people about the Holocaust, to fight antisemitism, to advocate for peace and tolerance. He decided his longtime love for music would be the way to win hearts.

Dreier has traveled the world since then, doing that and more − even playing drums with the U.S. Marine Band at a White House Hanukkah celebration.

Saul Dreier plays drums in the Holocaust Survivors Band, which he founded. A native of Krakow, Poland and now a Florida resident, he travels the world playing music and advocating for peace and tolerance.
Saul Dreier plays drums in the Holocaust Survivors Band, which he founded. A native of Krakow, Poland and now a Florida resident, he travels the world playing music and advocating for peace and tolerance.

A new calling − at 89 years old

Turns out, advocacy was the easy part. The hard part? Convincing loved ones, including his wife, he wasn't crazy.

Within days of reading the article that inspired him, Dreier walked into a local Sam Ash Music store and asked about drum sets. An incredulous, but ultimately helpful, sales person showed Dreier what he needed, accessories and all, then loaded Dreier's "very small Lexus" so he could bring his equipment home.

"It was everywhere," Dreier recalled. "On the back. In the front. On the top. With just enough room left for me to drive. I was a very happy musician."

Saul Dreier, center left, met with President Joe Biden along with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors in December. Dreier asked to play the drums with the U.S. Marine Band, a request the band accommodated.
Saul Dreier, center left, met with President Joe Biden along with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors in December. Dreier asked to play the drums with the U.S. Marine Band, a request the band accommodated.

When he got home, he announced to his wife that he had a surprise for her. "But you live with a woman many years, she knows all my tricks," he said. She wasn't impressed.

"She told me, 'The drums go or I go,'" he remembered. "But when you're married so long, you fight for five minutes and then you make up."

After performing his first show, an "international concert" that he arranged at a local synagogue with a small orchestra and a Brazilian singer, the skeptics were convinced.

'Never again,' as fewer Holocaust survivors remain

Dreier, who raised four children with his wife, is a grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of three. A former welder and retired businessman, he lives independently. His wife, Clara, died in 2016.

He's one of a shrinking number of survivors of the 20th century's worst genocide, one that claimed 6 million Jewish lives. There are about 245,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors still living, according to a study by the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Most, 49%, live in Israel, while about 18% live in North America; altogether, survivors are spread across 90 countries.

"These are Jews who were born into a world that wanted to see them murdered," Greg Schneider, the conference's executive director, wrote. "They endured the atrocities of the Holocaust in their youth and were forced to rebuild an entire life out of the ashes of the camps and ghettos that ended their families and communities. The data forces us to accept the reality that Holocaust survivors won’t be with us forever, indeed, we have already lost most survivors.”

Dreier's mission and mantra − "never again, never again, never again" − was the inspiration behind Saul's Generation Foundation, founded along with Justyna Kolaczek, who met Dreier through a mutual friend. The foundation helps connect people of Polish heritage with their homeland, connects young people with seniors, helps elderly people in need and educates young people about history.

"He talks to young people about their mental health," said Kolaczek, who divides her time between Poland and the U.S. "We see so many students and teens with mental health challenges, so we are going to schools to talk about Saul's past, about the war and what he went through."

But that's not all. "It's about dreams, too, and how it's never too late to follow them. He did this when he was 89 years old," she said.

Saul Dreier, pictured in Italy in the mid-1940s where he lived briefly after World War II, survived the Holocaust. He now travels the world as a drummer, playing in a band and helping other Holocaust survivors in need.
Saul Dreier, pictured in Italy in the mid-1940s where he lived briefly after World War II, survived the Holocaust. He now travels the world as a drummer, playing in a band and helping other Holocaust survivors in need.

Dreier's energy and passion are remarkable for anyone, let alone someone nearing a century of living. He's endured unimaginable losses, battled cancer, witnessed the worst of humanity − and still, somehow, come through all of it with love in his heart and music in his soul.

"He is a huge inspiration for young people," Kolaczek said. "Sometimes, he acts like a teenager."

"I am in love with my foundation," Dreier replied, sounding like a kid with a serious crush. "It's about how we all have one heart. No matter who we are, we all have to live with one heart."

That heart keeps beating, just like Dreier's drums.

Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at ptrethan@usatoday.com, on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra, or on Threads @by_phaedra.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Holocaust survivor Saul Dreier, 99, promotes peace through his band