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REQUIEM IN C-SHARP MINOR
By Rochelle Wisoff-Fields
“Tonight, we play Hungarian Dance Number 5.” Shifra Mendleson poised her bow over her violin and winked at her great grandson. “You’re ready to join me?”
Twelve-year-old Aaron wrinkled his nose and tucked his violin under his chin. “I don’t know it very well.”
“Then you must practice.”
“I don’t want to be a concert violinist like you, Savta. I’d rather play soccer.”
Shifra shrugged. “Eh. Soccer. Shmoccer. Your violin could save your life, you know.”
He stared at his grandmother. Had she lost her mind? She was, after all, past ninety. Her faded brown eyes twinkled.
She set her instrument on her lap and stroked its pockmarked neck. “My dear old friend. You are mature enough, Aaron I think, for me to tell you my story.”
“I already know about the camps and the Nazis, Savta. It’s Israel. We learned about the Holocaust in school.”
“Your great-grandparents lived it. So, I’m gonna tell you what the history book don’t tell you. What your parents and teachers don’t tell you.”
Glad for a reprieve from painful practice, Aaron laid his violin in his lap.
Savta’s gaze went past him, to some far-off place as it often did.
“I ran all the way home from school. I couldn’t wait to tell Mama Karl Schmidt, the banker’s son, had invited me to his twelfth birthday party. Karl came from one of the wealthiest families in Heidelberg. They lived in a fine mansion not too far from our modest bungalow.
“Mama met me at the door with a hug and a kiss. ‘Go change into your play clothes, Shifra.’
“I stamped my foot. ‘Are you listening, Mama?’
“‘Yes. Yes. You’re invited to the Schmidt house. Hang up your dress. I don’t want to find it on the floor like yesterday.’
“‘All right, Mama.’ I chattered excitedly. ‘There will be pastries and chocolates.’ I hugged my books. ‘Karl says I’m the prettiest girl in class, even if I am a Jew.’
“Mama frowned. ‘How bighearted of him.’
“‘Are you angry with me, Mama?’
“She caressed my cheek. ‘No, of course not.’
“I breathed in the scents of fresh-baked bread and chicken soup emanating from her clothes. My mouth watered in anticipation of our evening meal. Mama made the best soup in Heidelberg. Probably in the whole world. ‘What time will Papa be home?’ I asked.
“‘Not until 6:30, he has a tutoring job.’
“Oy. My disappointed stomach growled and I whined. ‘That’s two whole hours.’
“‘Good, you can tell time. Nu? Ample time for you to practice.’
“See?” Aaron chuckled. “You didn’t like to practice either.”
Tilting her head, Savta sighed. “It’s part of being a child, I suppose. Anyway, I drug my heels to my room. I hated it when Papa was late. He taught music at University. He’d taken on extra students to help pay my brother’s medical bills.”
“Was he sick?”
“Born healthy and strong, my big brother Aaron was at the top of his medical class. One day, on his way home from school, a gang of vigilantes attacked him screaming, ‘Jüden! Dirty Jüden’ He spent weeks in hospital but never recovered.”
Shifra’s grandson shifted positions in his chair. “I’m named after Uncle Aaron, right Savta?”
“A good Yiddisher kopf on your shoulders.” She poked his forehead with a gentle finger. “It used to make me angry when he teased me and called me das brag. The brat. Now I would give anything to hear him say it again.”
“Did you practice then?’”
“Of course. Make no mistake. I was a good girl. Of course, I kvetched and complained. ‘What if I’m not good enough to be a concert violinist?’ I asked.
“Mama gave me a potch en tukhus. ‘You have a gift,’ she said. ‘Mark my words. Some day people will come from miles around to hear you play.’
“Rolling my eyes, I went to my room. After I changed out of my school uniform, I took my violin from its case. This very violin you see before you today. It was in better condition then.
“‘Hello, Aaron. It’s me.’ I said and plucked the strings. ‘Das Brag. What would you like to hear?’”
“What did he say?”
“Say?” Savta shut her eyes. “He just sat in his wheelchair and stared out the window like I wasn’t even there. His gnarled hands lay in his lap like herrings on a plate. I kissed his cheek and whispered. ‘That’s my favorite one, too.’”
“But he didn’t say anything.”
“Who’s telling this story, you or me?”
“Was it really Uncle Aaron’s favorite music?”
“Like I should lie? I always hoped if I played it well enough, it would bring him out of his fog. Alas it never did.
“Now, where was I? Oh yes. I am playing Hungarian Dance Number Five. For all my protesting, I loved to play it. Once I started, the music would transport me to distant lands. So caught up on the wings of the notes I never heard my Papa—your great-great-grandfather—come in.
“He applauded and cried, ‘Brava!’
“I jumped this high into the air.” Savta held her hand over her head. “Then I leaped into my father’s arms. ‘You’re home early.’
“He laughed and the sound of it was like a—a cleansing rain in the springtime. ‘My darling virtuoso,’ he said. ‘It’s almost 7:30.’
Burying my face in his shoulder I clung to his neck. ‘What did you bring me?’ Such a spoiled brat I was.
“‘I brought you me.’ He set me on my feet. ‘Let’s see what Mama’s made to delight us for supper.’
“That night as he spread schmaltz on his bread, Papa looked from Mama to me, to Aaron’s empty eyes. ‘The university fired me today.’”
“Mama clapped her hand over her heart. ‘Why?’
“‘Why do you think? I fear it won’t be long before—’ He raised his face to the ceiling.
“Never had I seen such fear in my father’s eyes. ‘Before what, Papa?’
“The telephone rang before he could answer me. I leaped up and rushed to answer it.
“‘Hallo. Shifra?’ My heart thumped. It was Karl. He said, ‘I’m so sorry. Mother says you cannot come to my party.’
“Soon after that, I said goodbye to my classmates I’d known since we were babies. The authorities said I was no longer welcome in their school. Things got worse and worse for us Jews.
“Three years later, the unthinkable happened.
“Someone banged on our door. ‘Jüden! Open! Schnell!’
“Papa’s hands shook as he turned the knob. How frail he’d grown. He opened the door. There stood Karl, decked out in a Wehrmacht uniform.
“Putting his finger to his lips, he looked over his left and then his right shoulder. ‘Gather what belongings you can and come with me. Please there’s no time to explain. I beg you to trust me.’
“Trust him? The boy who shunned me and broke my heart? He stands before me in the devil’s raiment and has the audacity to ask us to trust him?
“Papa squeezed my arm. ‘What choice do we have? Come, Shifra. Time to meet our fate.’
“Clutching my violin in its case, I steeled myself as my parents and I marched ahead of my ex-boyfriend turned Nazi. He held us at gunpoint and barked orders. My pulse thudded against my temples in dread as we made our way through the crowded street.
Those who refused to comply were gunned down on the spot. I saw it with my own eyes. A soldier shot a baby in his mother’s arms, then shot her for crying. They plucked out the beards of old men. A man in a wheelchair plummeted to his death from a two-story window. A part of me rejoiced that Aaron had passed away peacefully in his sleep the night before.
“To our shock, Karl guided our path away from the trains to his father’s mansion. Herr Schmidt met us at the door. ‘Wilkommen.’ He embraced Papa. ‘Oscar, forgive me. I never dreamt it would come to this.’
“He led us to a hidden apartment at the back of his house. ‘It’s cramped but safe.’
“For a time, life was good in our three-room hideaway. Mama insisted I practice my violin for an hour every day. Papa would join me with his clarinet. Karl came to visit when he could.
“‘You shouldn’t be so chummy with that boy,’ Mama would say. ‘He’s a Nazi and you are…’ She pointed to the yellow star on my sweater.
“Two years passed. We celebrated New Year’s Eve 1942 with the Schmidts in our quarters. Papa and I played ‘Auld Lange Syne’ and ‘Havah Nagila.’ We laughed and danced. Herr Schmidt assured us, there was so much celebration in the town no one would hear us.
“After everyone had gone to bed, Karl woke me. Sitting on my bed, he bent to kiss me. He slipped a ring on my finger. ‘My dearest. I’ve gotten orders to go to the Russian front. Promise you will wait for me.’ How could I refuse?”
Aaron pointed to the oval-shaped diamond on her hand. “Is that the ring, Savta?”
“Yes.” She flourished her hand so the gem sparkled in the lamplight. “He had a good eye for jewelry, didn’t he?”
“Did you get married?”
Savta wagged her head. “A month later, Frau Schmidt barged into our living room, a telegram clutched in her fist. She waved it under my nose. ‘My son is dead! You’ll pay for this, you Jüden whore.’”
“How was it your fault, Savta?”
“Grief makes people say horrible things. Do horrible things. Anyway, I had little time to mourn my beloved Karl. The next few days are a blur in my addled memory, yet so clear it’s like it happened yesterday. Herr Schmidt committed suicide. Blew his brains out in his office right before the SS stormed our safe haven.
“Papa, whose health had declined, couldn’t fight them off although he tried and was rewarded for his efforts with, not one, but three bullets. So much blood. The soldiers herded Mama and me to the trains.
“Amid stench and tears, Mama and I were greeted at Auschwitz by more uniforms. Our clothes ripped from us, our heads shaved and our arms tattooed. You can imagine my surprise when I was allowed to keep my violin.”
“Because, of all things, those sadistic animals loved music.” Savta tucked her violin under her chin and played a lullaby. “Can you imagine? They gathered all the musicians in the camp and forced us to form an orchestra.”
Aaron recognized the song, for his grandmother had played it for him many times. A sweet smile spread her lips and tears oozed from under her closed eyelids. Her white hair glowed under the lamp.
“I met your great-grandfather in that vermin-infested place. He played the cello, you know.”
“I don’t remember Saba Yosef.”
“Of course not. He died before you were born. Your brother Yosi is named for him. We survived hell together. We married a few months after the liberation—with Karl’s ring.”
“Didn’t it bother Saba that another man gave it to you? How come the guards didn’t confiscate it?”
“Oy, so many questions. We had no money for jewelry. Saba said the ring was a survivor like us. A gift from God by way of Karl.” Savta stopped playing and pointed to the violin’s f-holes. “No one ever thought to search inside.” She lifted the battered instrument and played a few more notes.
“So, you see, Aaron, my humble fiddle saved my life and Mama’s prophecy came true. People came from miles around to hear my music. It was the last thing they heard on their way to the gas chambers.”
Please visit Rochelle on her blog: https://rochellewisoff.com/