An interview with Libeskind is more like a conversation, and his good humor and mischievous smile are so infectious that you cannot help liking him and wanting to be liked by him. His words come in torrents, his eager look matched by a youthful enthusiasm. Talking about his multilingual children, 25-year-old Lev Jacob, 22-year-old Noam and 13-yearold Rachel, Libeskind said, in his usual tumble of words, “They speak with us all the time in English. When the brothers speak to each other about life and girls, they speak Italian. And when they want to scold their sister—German.” He asked about my work and my background, and when he discovered that my father, like his, was born in eastern Poland, he got excited. “Is that true?” he asked. “Amazing!”
Daniel Libeskind was born in Lodz, Poland, on May 12, 1946. His parents, both Jews from Poland, had met and married in 1943 in Soviet Asia. Both had been arrested by Soviet officials when the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939 and had spent part of the war in Soviet prison camps. After the war, they moved to Lodz, his father’s hometown. There they learned that 85 members of their families, including most of their sisters and brothers, had died at the hands of the Nazis. Libeskind and his family, which included his older sister, Annette, immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1957 and then to New York City in 1959.
Had his childhood gone a little differently, Libeskind might well have become a pianist instead of an architect. “My parents,” he says, “were afraid to bring a piano through the courtyard of our apartment building in Lodz.” Poland was still gripped by an ugly anti-Jewish feeling after World War II, and his parents did not want to call attention to themselves. “Anti-Semitism is the only memory I still have of Poland,” he says. “In school. On the streets. It wasn’t what most people think happened after the war was over. It was horrible.” So instead of a piano, his father brought home an accordion to the 7-year-old Daniel.
Libeskind became so adept at the instrument that after the family moved to Israel, he won the coveted America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship at age 12. It is the same prize that helped launch the careers of violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. But even as Libeskind won on the accordion, American violinist Isaac Stern, who was one of the judges, urged him to switch to the piano. “By the time I switched,” says Libeskind, “it was too late.” Virtuosos must begin their training earlier. His chance to become a great pianist had died in the anti-Semitism of Poland. After a few years of concert performances in New York (including at Town Hall), his enthusiasm for musical performance waned. He gradually turned instead to the world of art and architecture.
In 1965, Libeskind began to study architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. The summer after his freshman year, he met his future wife, Nina Lewis, at a camp for Yiddish-speaking young people near Woodstock, New York. Her father, David Lewis, a Russian-born immigrant, had founded the New Democratic Party in Canada—a party with labor union support and social democratic ideals. Her brother, Stephen, was Canadian ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988 and is now a U.N. special envoy to Africa working on the AIDS issue. She and Libeskind were married in 1969, just before he entered his senior year at Cooper Union.