Our community mourns the passing of Thomas Rajna

By Gwynne Robins

Cape Town has lost an internationally acknowledged musical genius. Our community mourns the passing of Thomas Rajna aged 92 on 16th July, of injuries suffered the previous day when he fell in the kitchen while preparing food. He came to Cape Town in 1970 from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he had been the Professor of Piano, to join UCT’s Faculty of Music where he was acknowledged to be a wonderful and inspiring teacher and an enthusiastic choir master for the Progressive Congregation.
He made many recordings and performed at the Baxter, the Artscape and the City Hall.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Rajna was a child prodigy who was playing and composing at a young age. During the Holocaust when Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star, his music teacher advised him to walk holding his music next to his chest to hide it. The family adopted a Catholic identity but it did not help. His brother was taken away for forced labour. Returning from class a few weeks before liberation, a non-Jewish neighbour stopped him and warned him not to go home. The Nazi- aligned Yellow Cross had taken away his doctor father and shot him. Today there is a Holocaust memorial ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ consisting of 60 pairs of metal shoes commemorating the 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, who were shot into the Danube – one of them was his father.

In 1947 when it was obvious that the Communists would be taking over, his far-sighted mother arranged a pretext to send him to an uncle in London where he enrolled at the Royal College of Music but was soon giving piano recitals including at the Royal Albert Hall and became a frequent broadcaster at the BBC.

In Cape Town compositions for the piano, harp, violin and orchestra emerged from his ever-creative mind, including complete operas and Jewish liturgical choir music – Hashkivenu, Adonai ma-adam and Laila mistereia, His sense of mischief surfaced in his “Video Games for Orchestra”. He received many awards for his compositions including a doctorate from UCT.

Although he only learnt English when he arrived in London he soon became fluent with an unbelievable vocabulary and love of English poetry and literature.

He was a brilliant pianist, a loving husband, father and grandfather and will be sorely missed by his wife Ann, his son Daniel, daughters Jessica and Trilby and grandchildren and by all classical music lovers. May his memory be for a blessing.

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website: www.capesajbd.org, Instagram, and Facebook page.

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