Monday, January 26, 2004

Dorian, Rose and Tau Moe sang and told stories about their travels when they entertained. Tau Moe and his family traveled the world with his family, playing Hawaiian music for more than 50 years while helping at least 150 of his Jewish musician friends escape Germany and Austria just before the height of Adolf Hitler's reign.

Isle musician Tau Moe
saved lives in Holocaust

His place in music is matched solely
by his importance for saving Jews

He'd have them impersonate groupies or say they were his stage hands or relatives. Once, he even snuck a few over the border tucked in his trunk and hidden among the colorful folds of his stage costumes.

In all, McKinley High School graduate and Laie resident Tau Moe, who traveled the world playing Hawaiian music with his family for more than 50 years, estimates he helped at least 150 of his Jewish musician friends escape Germany and Austria just before the height of Adolf Hitler's reign.

"It's a Polynesian 'Schindler's List,'" said Hawaiian music historian Ishmael Stagner. "He's done all this stuff. He thinks nothing of it."

Stagner has pledged to write a book about Moe and his troupe after a number of failed attempts at interesting others, mostly ghostwriters, in the family's story -- a saga that encompasses dozens of countries and a slew of big names.

At 95, Moe is the world's oldest living steel guitar player. His mentor, Joseph Kekuku, invented the instrument.

Moe's contributions to Hawaiian music have been recognized, mostly through Stagner's urging, by Mayor Jeremy Harris, Gov. Linda Lingle, the state House and Senate and the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association.

Most recently, Moe was named a "Living Treasure" in a program sponsored by the Honpa Hongwangji Mission of Hawaii. Stagner submitted Moe's biography for that award committee's consideration as well, hoping that the title would generate some long-overdue exposure for the musician's career.

Despite touring for decades and performing for Hitler, Aristotle Onassis, Mahatma Gandhi and Egypt's King Farouk, to name a few, Stagner says word of Moe's popularity abroad has never become common knowledge in his home state.

Many Hawaiian musicians began to hear of Moe only after he had retired to Laie in 1982.

Moe's efforts for his Jewish friends in Nazi Germany and Austria are even less heard of, receiving only brief mentions in a few biographical write-ups.

On top of that, Moe does not think his actions for his Jewish colleagues, which continued until weeks before America's involvement in World War II, were all that big a deal.

"I wasn't scared with anything," Moe said recently, with a hearty laugh. "Hitler didn't know."

But Stagner says he cannot help but be fascinated by Moe's life -- the story of a boy born in a small Samoan village and raised in Laie who traveled the world seven times and learned 10 languages while doing what he loved best: playing the Hawaiian tunes he had learned as a child.

The Moe family was a sell-out act during their heyday. They toured Singapore, the Middle East, Germany, Italy and India. They found fans of Hawaiian music in Egypt, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Denmark, England, Sweden and Finland.

Moe was in charge of the steel guitar and tap dancing for the group. Moe's wife, Rose, took care of the singing while also sprinkling in some dancing and playing of her own.

The Moe children -- son Lani, who was born in Japan, and daughter Dorian, born in India -- played instruments, danced, sang and were featured in a number of European films.

Lani, who died in 2002 at age 73, was something of a child star and became so popular in Germany that when he raised thousands of dollars for an orphanage charity through his performances, he was selected to ride in Hitler's car during a parade.

"It's all documented," Stagner says excitedly. "The whole thing is right out of 'The Sound of Music,'" complete with a number of close calls with Nazi authorities.

One came just as the family was opening a show.

Friends warned them that the Gestapo had heard of Moe's efforts for his Jewish friends and had come to arrest him. That night, the family finished their act, took their encore, snuck out the theater's back door and fled to the train station, with the police only minutes behind.

Moe and his wife were almost caught a few years earlier while trying to smuggle their Austrian agent's possessions out of the country.

Their friend had had to leave with nothing.

So the couple hid some of her jewelry and other belongings in their car. And Moe's wife wore three fur coats -- all of which belonged to their agent -- to get the goods out and to their original owner.

Moe's daughter said that when guards at the border asked Rose Moe why she was wearing more than one coat, she replied, "We come from Hawaii and it's really cold here."

Dorian Moe said her father "tried to help them (his friends) as much as he could."

"Sometimes you don't think and your life is in danger, but you do it," she said.

Dorian Moe, who has worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center for the past 21 years, was born after the family's stint in Hitler's Germany.

But she grew up hearing about it.

One story she remembers occurred when the Moe family was living in an apartment above a Jewish bookstore.

The Gestapo showed up at the home late one night, built a bonfire with the store's books and, when the blaze had reached its height, threw the store's Jewish owners atop the flames. The Moes watched, horrified and unable to help, as the entire scene unfolded.

"Sometimes you don't realize what's happening until it actually happens," Dorian Moe said. "Their lives in those days, my brother used to say, were scary."

But Tau Moe, whose wife died five years ago at age 90, says he was never very worried for his family's safety during their stay in Nazi Germany.

Sometime in the early 1960s, when the Moe family was walking through a marketplace in Israel, Tau ran into one of the musicians he had helped escape Nazi Germany. Dorian Moe said of all the events of that day, she remembers most vividly her father's former colleague thanking him for passage out of the country more than two decades earlier.

"I don't care about anything else, but at least they remember," she said. "Sometimes a lot of people forget."


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