MANITOWOC — When Stanislava Varshavski heard that Russia had begun invading her native Ukraine, she was in disbelief.
“I can’t explain how I felt. I can say it was the shock of my life. The first three weeks, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I thought it was a nightmare,” said Varshavski, director of music education for Holy Family Conservatory of Music in Manitowoc.
“I had relatives in Kharkov (her birth city), and it was one of the first cities that got bombed. My former apartment building was hit with rockets two times,” she said. As far as she knows, her friends and extended family are safe, but Varshavski remembers feeling helpless. “I didn’t know what I should do,” she said.
In March, the conservatory and the Manitowoc community worked together to gather medical supplies and donations for Ukraine. “I was so amazed by Americans, that so many people so many miles away cared. I was really touched,” Varshavski said.
Spurred by continuing news of the invasion, the conservatory decided to organize a benefit concert for Ukraine, set for 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 15. The concert will feature professional musicians and various genres of music.
“We are musicians here. I think the best way to help is to play music,” said Varshavski, concert organizer. “It’s about humanity. We need to fight evil and help people.”
All money raised will be designated for Ukrainian refugee supplies and housing with Catholic Relief Services. “This benefit concert is an expression of our nurturing reverence for all persons,” said Sr. Carol Ann Gambsky, administrator of Holy Family Conservatory of Music, in an email.
“We uphold the belief that all people possess dignity and are made in the image of God. Organizing the concert allows us to enter into communion and show the solidarity of the people of Wisconsin and Ukraine,” she said, referencing a portion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1941: “International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.”
Varshavski, 47, who is Jewish, left Ukraine when she was 19. She said she faced antisemitism.
“Being Jewish (then) was not a good thing there. … I was constantly reminded by other people that you are not the same as others,” she said.
Her love for classical music didn’t help. “When people heard me practice, they didn’t understand what was so good about classical music and why I wasn’t outside playing all the time,” Varshavski said. “Music was my escape from reality. I could express my feelings freely.”
A piano prodigy, she made her orchestral debut when she was 8 years old. After her initial training in Ukraine, she continued her music education at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy in Israel. There she met pianist Diana Shapiro and, in 1998, the two formed the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo.
They were soon successful, winning international competitions and performing across three continents. Their longing to reach a larger audience led them to move to the United States, said Varshavski, who earned her doctorate of musical arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and pursued performance as well as piano education.
She and Shapiro, both music professors at the former Holy Family College in Manitowoc, will be featured in the benefit concert. Shapiro currently is an assistant professor of piano at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Varshavski said she continues to be amazed at how much progress Ukraine had made since 1995. “When I left, I couldn’t imagine having a Jewish president (Volodymyr Zelenskyy). … A member of their government is a Muslim who speaks Ukrainian. They have one more member who is Georgian,” she said.
“Ukrainian people love their freedom,” she said. “That’s why they fight so hard. They don’t want to lose it.”
WHAT: Benefit Concert for Ukraine
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15
WHERE: Endries Performance Hall
Franciscan Music Center
6751 Calumet Ave.
COST: $15 for adults
$10 for youth
$7 for seniors
More information: fcmep.org