Friday, October 21, 2016

Last Rites

My mother had, apparently, lived a Zen existence: her house was small, pared down, a treehouse meant for viewing her forest. It was not, we thought, meant to hold anything much more than my mother, her animals, the most basic of utensils (of which a computer was one), and the receding but luminescent love of her dead husband.

How wrong we were….

The day after she died, we went into a kind of frenzy: John, my lawyer brother, was diligently doing the legal work and making the arrangements for the disposal of the body. (Yes, mothers at some point become bodies, and though the funeral home had collected her / it the day before, John still had to go to the home, talk to the coroner, and arrange for the cremation.)

Right—so John knew what to do, but what about Eric and me? We looked around and decided that the best course of action was to rake the leaves away from the foundation of the house.

At some point, it became clear.

“Listen,” I told Eric, “you’ve just retired, and I’m not that far behind you. And don’t you think that what we’re doing, any high school kid could do better and faster?”

Well, we both stopped working and began panting, which allowed John to say…

“I think Marc’s right. We need to start going through the photos and the papers—all of the things that only the family can do….”

It sounded like a good plan, but how was it that Eric got stuck with the photos, and I got stuck with the papers? Eric is, after, a writer, and has a Pulitzer to prove it. But my mother had been a poet, and had often sent me her work. And since she had spent a decade writing, there was a lot of it.

That wasn’t the worst. My mother had had two terrible tendencies, from my point of view. First of all, more than any other writer I know, she had relentlessly revised, rewritten, rethought, and finally scribbled revisions on printed pages. And then, what had she done? She had printed multiple copies, since she was taking classes and sharing her work. All of that would have been bad enough, but she had also printed those copies  without putting dates on her versions. So it was entirely possible to have 16 printed copies of “Will ‘O the Wisp,” in four different versions. The sixteen versions would be scattered into different drawers, piles next to the computer, baskets, and book bags. Thus, among the masses of paper, I was constantly coming across a poem I was sure I had seen before. It was madness, and I spent the next five days after her death weeping, taking walks, drying my tears, and returning to the task of sorting it all out. And it was then that we discovered: she had been a hoarder after all, since she had, for example, kept all of the postcards she had written to my grandmother in 1964, on her first trip to Norway.

So the year was 2010, and I was holding some two-dozen postcards nearly half a century before. Was I bound to read them? Was the world pining to know that she had eaten a rum-flavored Napoleon in a bakeri in Trondheim? Was it worth saving them?

I suffer from the opposite impulse. The grand piano in my living room? If I haven’t played it in a week, it goes into the trash….  

There were not just postcards to worry about: what about all the sea charts that my father had bought, at quite a lovely penny, from somewhere or another in Norway? My parents had had a boat, built in Norway, and quite lovely it was, too. But like everything else in their marriage, it had been a compromise. My mother wanted a sailboat, and dreamt of falling asleep gazing up at the star-bejewelled sky—those skies that would never rain. My father had wanted a decommissioned Navy destroyer: windowless, but with iceberg-breaking technology. A wooden boat was the answer.

So my father had spent his winters memorizing all of the rocks, markers, channel passages, lighthouses, red versus yellow versus green stakes, and other points of interest and peril in whatever fjord they were exploring the next summer. These charts he had marked precisely in his terrible scrawl, and so this comprised a vital testament to the working mind of….

…nah, I tossed them.

It was not, I felt, an expedition that required a trowel and brush, but rather the backhoe. At last, at last—I assembled just one box, which would surely be a snap to get through, back in San Juan. Because at the time of departure I was still cramming papers into the box, there was no time to get to the post office. Not a problem, though: Eric was driving back home with boxes of pictures, he could take my box of documents and send it later.

I prayed that “later” would never come….

Is that unfilial? Actually, it was exactly how my mother felt: she had seen with less than mixed feelings the widow of a great pianist expending her weakening energy in trying to keep her late husband’s legacy alive. The widow would spend hours writing letters, urging memorial concerts, contacting illustrious people from the past. Why, my mother would ask? When you’re dead, you’re dead: let history take care of itself.

It was a point of view, of course, but then I had Emily Dickinson pop into my head. There she had been, scribbling away all those years, and had she ever published? Well, the answer was either “no” or “not much,” so someone, somewhere must have put dotty old Aunt Emily’s poems into a box, and consigned it to the attic. And now, of course, wasn’t I in the same hot seat? Imagine what we don’t have: the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach represent only half of what we believe he wrote. So how many cantatas, masses, passions were sacrificed to kindle fires or curl hair?

And so, for a year or two, I lived without the box, and then my brother, cruelly, sent it to me. The postman, you’ll be happy to know, suffered only two or three herniated discs, and is now entirely pain-free, except on rainy days. And so I wrestled the box up to my apartment, but then what to do with it? My solution was not to put it in the attic that, anyway, I don’t have. No, I would put it right next to my favorite chair, which would ensure that I would get right to dealing with it….

Well, it was a reminder, all right, for a month or two, and then it became a whispered, then spoken, and last shouted reproach, since I saw it every day for four or five years. And a health hazard too, due to the termites which had consumed most of the furniture / books in the apartment, and the cockroaches which roamed freely, since they were tearing up the street outside. So there was the real fear: if indeed I ever did open the box, what would I find? And in what condition?

At last, I can tell you:

1.     yellowing copies of the Wisconsin State Journal from the 1940’s, when my father and mother were building with their own hands my childhood home
2.     a beautiful linen, hand-embroidered handkerchief, probably from the late 19th century
3.     several letters from an ancestor on my maternal grandmother’s side from the 1880’s concerning the vital matter of a Sunday social at the church in Wichita, Kansas
4.     two magazines with articles of my mother’s mother, one of which concerned a witch-burning judge, an alleged ancestor, in Salem, Massachusetts
5.     articles about my father’s retirement, as well as my grandmother’s last sale of a story to Chicago Magazine, in the 1970’s
6.     a stack three feet high of the dreaded poems
OK—I’ve gotten rid of items 1, 3, 4, 5, leaving only a beautifully embroidered handkerchief from the 19th century. And the work of the last two weeks has been item 6.

I responded to the crisis in time-honored fashion: I wrote an email.

I sent it to ten people—friends and relatives. I received two responses. A friend wrote with good advice: put the poems in some sort of order, and then save them in several different forms, preferably print. And then give them to my niece, who has a PhD in English: she would know, over the course of time, what to do with them.

Sage advice—but wasn’t it a bit of the old dead hand? Was it fair to shove off my responsibility onto the next generation?

The second response was from one of my brothers: he suggested that if, after six years, nobody had done anything with my mother’s poetry, well, wasn’t that an indication that nothing need be done?

There was some truth to this, as well, though how long had Aunt Emily’s poems sat up in the attic of her house in Amherst, Mass? (Answer, courtesy of Google—apparently not long, since sister Lavinia instantly realized their worth, and published them all four years after Emily’s death. This of course puts me even further to shame, though why my mother didn’t name me “Lavina…”)

So was it a box? Of course.

Or was it a decade-worth of creative effort? Of course.

And thus it became a kind of Venn diagram, and who knew exactly where the shaded or thatched area might be? I did what I could: I assembled piles of poems, then I separated them into thematic piles (nature / grieving / pantoums and villanelles / and miscellaneous, which of course was the most towering of all). I threw away the superfluous copies, and decided on which one of the multiple versions I would keep, based on my own impeccable taste. And then, one by one, I began to compile them into a Google doc, which I could share with my siblings, and their siblings.

As I wrote, or rather transcribed, my mood darkened. Was it that I was passing judgment on my mother? I held some paper in my hand, and it was my job, seemingly, to say yes, it would survive. It was worthy. A grad student, scrounging for a dissertation topic a century hence, would settle on “The Popular Rise of Poetry in Regional Wisconsin in the Late 20th Century.” And then, wow—my mother’s words on the shadbush blooming next to her house! Whitman had his lilac; my mother her shadbush!

There were two problems, as I waded through my mother’s poems, so often containing scribbled revisions (her handwriting deteriorated through the years, as he eyes failed and her hands grew weaker….) First of all, I became convinced: her poetry may have been of variable quality, but very little of it was actually bad. She had read, after all, a lot. One of her poems, which I had never seen before, had been titled “…the letting go.” I immediately wondered: why the quotes? And why the points of ellipsis and the lower-cased letters?

The poem contained the clues: an aging professor is trying to remember a quotation by Emily Dickinson, and the quotation, of course, was “first chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

So there was every reason for her to have been a good poet. And as her star rose in my horizon, my own star crashed through the thin outer atmosphere, met the oxygen, and vaporized. I could no longer write, and had to admit the truth: I was a writer of little skill and with nothing to say. I had resurrected one writer and killed another.

It was, after all, the last thing I would do for my mother. I had taken her out of a box in a room in an apartment on a street in Puerto Rico, and I had put her into cyberspace.

She is free, and now is gone.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Indefensible, if not Insupportable

OK—I finally took the advice of my psychiatrist, and decided that I would not, absolutely not listen to the three-minute tape of Trump grabbing….

…oh, need I say it?

I don’t seriously mean it, but at times I wish that we could all just go back to the fifties. Granted, sleazebags would still be sleazebags—arguably worse than they are now, if that’s possible—but The New York Times would not use the word “pussy.” And so repressed were we all then, that a public figure would not have bragged about sexual assault to a reporter, even if he believed that the conversation was off-record.

So I didn’t listen to the Republican candidate for President, which is how I am now describing the D. And that’s with heavy emphasis on “Republican,” since really, the point has to be made. Henry Reid came out and said it best: Trump is the Republicans’ Frankenstein. But the message, apparently, was lost on Paul Ryan, from my state of Wisconsin. Ryan came out and “disinvited” or “uninvited”—both words have been used in the press—the Republican to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, last weekend. Instead, he allowed Pence to come, but Pence declined.

So the Republican had to stay home, while everybody had a wonderful time in Wisconsin, but that was probably for the best, since it gave him more time to polish up his debate, right? Oh, sorry—I forgot that the Republican doesn’t prepare for debates.

Of course not, since really all he needed was an extra shot of testosterone, because the order of the day was attack. So we got The New York Times analysis of the debate in its headline: Tawdry Charges and Character Attacks Fill Second Debate. And guess what?

That’s all I know about it, since I neither watched the debate or had the stomach to read about.

So today, since it is Día de la Raza, or Columbus Day, I decided that I could goof off. Therefore, I went to the beach, and used the occasion to walk down the Paseo that the governor opened yesterday. It cost 37 million dollars (or some such thing) and two years of work, during which the beach was inaccessible, except by a scorching, broken sidewalk. Now, we have a scorching, beautifully paved sidewalk. And it’s very true, as the advocates for the governor stated, that for every tree they removed to make the paseo, they planted three! Wonderful! The only problem being that the trees were looking a bit doleful, since even by 9 AM, the tropical sun was getting to them. In fact, it was getting to me, too, since I was similarly un-watered, and there was no water fountain in sight. So a very thirsty Marc walked past many very thirsty trees, but I had the fortune of at last getting to the beach. There, I was able to drink from the showers they had installed there.

So it was pleasant, that twenty minutes at the beach, during which I could look at blue sky and green palms, and not have to deal with the orange of the Republican. In fact, it was more than pleasant, since my shrink had also told me to go to the beach often: he honored this treatment with the moniker of “hydrotherapy.” So then I walked back home, and finished listening to Biber, the Missa Salisburgensis, which put me very well on the way to permanent bliss. In fact, so exalted was my mood, that discovering the twin facts that the power was off and that a cat had peed on a check for 2000$--well, that hardly seemed to matter!

So I went off to the café, and then sat down to face what had to be faced, which was the Republican threat to democracy—oh, sorry, the Republican candidate for president. Was I going to read about the debate? Of course not—why waste a three-mile walk and 90 minutes of Biber? But I did hear enough about it from Facebook to get a sense of it all. And then it turned out that speaker Paul Ryan, from my father’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, had really unleashed the big guns!

Ryan, you see, is not going to defend the Republican.

That, of course, was news I had to read. And did it mean that Ryan was withdrawing his support for the Republican? Actually coming out and saying that the man whom the rank and file Republicans chose as the Republican—well, that guy was a charlatan at best, and a sexual predator at worst? As well as knowing nothing about anything but self-aggrandizement? Wow—Paul Ryan was coming out swinging!

Oh, wait—Paul Ryan is not withdrawing his support, but he will no longer defend the Republican.

OK—so I had to think about that for a moment, since it’s very clear: I don’t have the moral subtlety that Paul Ryan has. Which means that I had to wonder: if Ryan can’t defend the Republican, how can he support him? This is the most tepid of rejections, but apparently it is sufficient outrageous for The Times to write a new headline, half an hour after they had announced the ringing non-defense by Ryan of the Republican. Now, we are, told, there is “G.O.P Furor After Ryan Says He Won’t Defend Trump.”

Well, the mind was reeling, a bit, since I also had to ponder the senator from somewhere or another, who came out and said—brilliantly—that the Republican was a Democrat, eleven years ago, when he made the famous tape about grabbing…that. Did I dream that, or did she really say it? Or does it matter, since we are so far into the world of lunacy that it doesn’t much matter? Anyway, I think that’s what he or she said….

So now there are hard-core Republicans who are in a “furor” that Ryan has chosen not to defend the Republican. Right—so that’s interesting, since I wonder, what would the defense of the Republican sound like? Hmm—could these be it:

Republicans Agree: Groping Pussy Absolutely the Prerogative of Wealthy White Males!

            Republicans Rise to Defense: All Women Secretly Want to….

No, sorry, I can’t even write it….

Anyway, Paul is now in hot water, and it certainly proves that by being completely namby-pamby, he has satisfied nobody. But at least now we know: there are, apparently, a number of people out there who are completely on board with the Republican, and his meandering-though-criminal hand. So are these people going to get together, and fight for the revision of the laws about rape / sexual assault? Because obviously that would be the next thing, right? I mean, God forbid that some errant woman, or perhaps one unaware of or unimpressed by the Republican’s star status, should get it into her uppity little head….

Thus are upright family men destroyed….

One does have to wonder, of course, how much of a star, or how much of a millionaire, one has to be, before getting the privilege of touching or indeed grabbing, well, down there. As the author of an insanely good, if completely unread, memoir—well, do I qualify? And what about Barack Obama, who has—and come on, we can all get on board with this, can’t we?—been a completely decent family man? And how much it must have cost him, coming home to the same wife, when he could have been out there, grabbing….

Oh, wait—I come home….

Anyway, surely now that Obama has behaved honorably for eight years, he absolutely gets the chance, now…


What did you say?



Friday, October 7, 2016

Haiti: Ora Pro Nobis

I tell myself that it’s bogus, ridiculous, even…the fact that I have been able to do nothing, all week, except watch Hurricane Matthew make its way (as a storm) past my sister in Tobago, past us some hundreds of miles south of us (though we still felt it), and then…

…well, you know the rest of the story.

Oh, wait, you don’t.

Nobody does—not even the officials in Haiti who even today, three days after the storm passed, cannot survey the damage.

The first clue, perhaps, was that the Dominican Republic reported four deaths, but that there was no news from Haiti. Given that the center of the storm went though Haiti, but not through the Dominican Republic, this argued that no new was not good news.

It’s only gotten grimmer since then. As of 32 minutes ago, the BBC was reporting that the death toll in Haiti is over 400. But news reports are also saying that areas in Haiti are still unreachable: so who knows what the final toll will be?

In fact, we’ll never know, which is a commentary on the nature of the situation in Haiti. Because the hurricane is now “battering” Florida: I tell you this because I saw helicopter footage, and there is a five-foot section of a big K-Mart façade that has been slashed. Oh, and a meteorologist in Daytona Beach was standing next to a pillar outside her hotel—to avoid being hit buy debris, she told us solemnly—and directing the crew to film the only debris visible on an otherwise unaffected street. So there I was, in Puerto Rico, in an air-conditioned café, peering at a three-foot chunk of aluminum on a Florida Street.  

Then there is this:

Right—you can understand that if you had to wade through miles and miles of this, you might never know exactly how many people died in the storm. That is, of course, if you could even get to scenes like this, since many of the bridges are out.

But that’s not the real reason we’ll ever know.

One of the worst things about the current Saffir Simpson categories is that it focuses exclusively on wind. Right—moving air can be scary. I’ve been through a category three hurricane (Georges, in 1998), and the howling of the winds, the blasts of generators exploding, the thunder, and the sound of debris crashing against my house…yes, that was scary. But I was also in the second floor: the walls of my building were three-feet thick: there was no way the water could get to me. And it is exactly the water that does the damage.

Remember Katrina?

I had followed that storm too, and the night before it hit, I knew: New Orleans was finished. And so it came in, and then the news came in, and guess what! New Orleans had been spared! The damage was nowhere near what had been feared! Sighs of relief!

Of course, there was that little report of the levees being breached…..

So Hurricane was a category 3 when it hit New Orleans. So? OK—the wind created a storm surge, which was responsible for some of the levee failure. And there were questions about the construction of the levees, as well. So yes, the wind was a factor: it was the flooding, however, that did the damage.

As it is the flooding that will do the damage in Haiti. Because the ground was already saturated before the hurricane hit: and the terrain of Haiti? Well, Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, cites the Haitian proverb: Beyond mountains, more mountains.

It’s true geographically, but it’s real meaning is metaphorical: the hurricane came, and now is gone, but is the damage over? Of course not, since there is now a critical shortage of food, of water, and of resources. Oh, and the country doesn’t even have a president, since the elections were to have been this Sunday. So all of that argues that starvation, dehydration, and most critically, disease will kill many more in the months to come.

And the disease most to be feared? Cholera, which in one of the most ghastly sagas in recent medical history, was actually introduced into Haiti by UN workers who came in to do humanitarian work after the 2010 earthquake. Now, in fact, it is the worst cholera epidemic in recent history, according to Wikipedia, and who ever argues with them?

And so the hurricane was the first mountain: there are many more. And however bad cholera may be, my suspicion is that a very much more prosaic condition will kill many more, especially children.

Diarrhea, leading to dehydration, leading to death.

Dehydration is a mountain, apparently, that we can’t move.

Consider, for example, that a Google search turned up, on the second page, a New York Times article entitled, Diarrhea Persists as Scourge of the Third World. Then consider that the article was published in 1983. Right, 33 years ago….

There’s been lots of progress in the last 33 years, which is why I can now sit at a computer and watch a piece of debris on a Daytona Beach street. Or see a segment of a K-Mart façade that has been damaged. Actually, the “computer” in the last sentence dates me, since I could have seen all of this on my cell phone. So the stock market has risen and fallen scores of times, we have learned to treat the “deadliest” disease of our age—AIDS—and…oh, wait.

Does dehydration kill more than AIDS?

Who knows? My point is that the treatment for dehydration is hardly on the order of the treatment for AIDS. But that would mean going into the Third World, establishing supplies of clean water, establishing a supply chain, and making the treatment available. Of course, somebody has done that: a British couple who created ColaLife, about which they say (and drawn from their website):

The ColaLife movement is based on three observations:

1  You can buy a Coca-Cola almost anywhere you go in the world, even in the most remote parts of developing countries
2  In these same places 1 in 9 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable causes. Most die from dehydration from diarrhoea.
3      The child mortality figures have not changed significantly for at least 3 decades which would indicate that current initiatives are not working

The founder of ColaLife hit upon the idea of making a wedge-shaped diarrhea kit that would fit in the spaces between the necks of bottles of Coca-Cola. Here it is!

The idea is insanely simple. The devil, as it always is, is in the details. For more information, click here.

And so it’s been a confusing week. Or rather, a confusing two or three weeks, since two weeks ago, a supposed bolt of lightening threw the entire island of Puerto Rico into a blackout. Yes, we were all stumbling around in the dark, swatting a Zika-bearing mosquitoes, and gazing up at the stars, which for the first time in decades had decided to shine. And then this week, I was looking at my cousin Brian, who works for Minnesota Public Radio and is a big choral music fan. So he was interviewing the members of two preeminent groups, Cantus and Chanticleer. They had met, these two groups, as so many of us do, in a bar. But when they decided to sing the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl, well…it was one of those moments that got captured onto a cell phone, and then it went viral.

So the hurricane was beating down on the next island over, or perhaps it was due for the next moment. Anyway, Haiti was…well, can I say it now? Haiti was fucked, and twenty men plus my cousin were preparing for a concert three thousand miles away from the Caribbean, and I was in a café. And I was wondering: how far was I really from either Minneapolis or from Haiti? By the slightest twist of meteorology, I allowed myself to think that Minnesota was just up the road, while Haiti was another world away. But that—we all know—is delusion.

So today I woke up and prepared to watch the five-foot gash in the K-Mart façade, as well as contemplate the single piece of metal that has managed to fly onto a road in Daytona Beach. I could do that because my husband’s aunt, and my good friend Rose, and texted me that she had weathered the storm. She’s in a town just outside Orlando, and even though I thought privately that she was only halfway through the storm, I was glad to hear from her. So I went off to the café, and discovered that for a week only, the two choral groups rendition of the Biebl would be available on YouTube and Classical MPR. So I listened to that—tears in the eyes—and then heard my cousin, telling me that the leaves are turning up there in Minnesota.

And what is turning, down here in the Caribbean?

So now it’s several hours since I started this post, and guess what? The BBC now tells me…wait, I’ll just give you the headline: Hurricane Matthew, Haiti Dead Reach 800 as South Awaits Aid. And to save you going back up to the beginning of this post, I will tell you that the first BBC article said that 400 people were dead. Now it’s twice that.

Great music gets attached to great moments: after the September 11 attacks, it was Barber’s Adagio for String, in the choral version, which went viral. And so I sit in a café one island over from where the death toll is doubling in hours, and I think: why shouldn’t the Biebl go viral? Why shouldn’t those bright guys up in NPR twist the choral arms of Chanticleer and of Cantus, and get them to OK the use of the track as background for a fundraising video for Hurricane Matthew Haiti relief? And why not ask NPR supporters to donate a ColaLife kit for every hundred or thousand hits on YouTube?

It’s only three PM on a Friday after, as the leaves turn in Minnesota and the bodies mount up in Haiti. And I haven’t been drinking…

…but just imagine what I could have dreamt up if I had?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Chapter 11

“Do you ever wonder,” I asked Lady, “why there are so many great female pianists? I know that sounds dismissive, but consider: from way before Clara Schumann and right up to the present day, women have been at the top of the piano world. But violin? Yes, today there are some great women violinists, as there always have been, but nothing like the pianists. Anyway, so it seems to me….”

“Well, perhaps it’s because the piano tended to be the instrument that every comfortable home in the 19th and early 20th centuries had to have. And since every woman was expected to play, there naturally were more women pianists than, say, women oboists.”

“Hmm,” I told her, “a very good point. I think you’re onto something there….”

We had just listened to Natalia Karp playing Chopin, and there was melancholy in the air.

“So who was she,” asked Lady, “and what’s her story? Wonderful, by the way, to see that posture at the keyboard….”

“She’s a true pianist,” I told her. “The problem with Chopin is that you can’t be in the least mawkish: there’s so much expression and feeling in the music that anything you add just pushes it over the top. On the other hand, you can’t play it utterly straight—I mean, it’s not a Sousa march. So getting that balance is really tricky. But she does, every time....”

“Maybe that’s it,” said Lady. “She plays with restraint, and leaves you satisfied, but still wanting more….”

“A German woman once told her after a recital that she had given as a young woman something like: My dear, you’re a wonderful pianist now, and after you have lived, you’ll be a wonderful musician.”


“You know, it’s a very romantic notion, but I wonder if for all of that it isn’t true. Because I have to watch all of these clips on YouTube of six-year olds playing Liszt on the piano, and yes…it’s wonderful. It would also be wonderful if we could devise a computer program that would play music perfectly from a score. Or perhaps we have. Anyway, the point is that I can’t think of a child prodigy that moved me, emotionally. And maybe that’s why so few child prodigies turn out to be great musicians in adult life….”

“Well, she certainly seems to have lived, and probably to have suffered.”

“When it came to suffering, they had to get the back hoe out to shovel it into her life. She was born wealthy, which is always a tricky thing….”


“Of course: let’s imagine she had been a Rothschild. Would she ever have had the drive to succeed? Would she have been encouraged to? I wonder, sometimes, whether great wealth hasn’t robbed us of great talent or genius than poverty has….”

“Marc, honey, would you like me to take your fever?”

“OK—but you know what I mean. Anyway, Karp was a student of Schnabel, and for pianists, there’s no higher accolade. So she made a career for herself, or was beginning to, and then a series of misfortunes befell. Her mother died, and then Natalia married, and her husband disapproved of her playing professionally. More proof, by the way, that wealth….”

“He was wealthy?”

“Apparently, and certainly his family was. And so then her husband died in a bomb raid. Then she got sent off to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, along with her sister. So someone tipped off the commandant that there was a concert pianist in the camp, and then, half-starved, Natalia had to go to the party. Yes, there the commandant was, and all the women beautifully dressed, and everybody on their best behavior, drinking and smoking. And Natalia, who sat at the piano—for the first time in several years….”


“You know, it’s such a good example of the—to us—almost unfathomable mindset of the Germans,” I said. “The amazing ability of people to hold two completely different ideas in their mind at the same time. Yes, because the commandant was quite aware that he was killing Jews, whom he saw as little more than animals. And at the same time, he was craving beauty and music, and petitioning a Jew to provide it.”

“And did she?”

“Yes, and very slyly, she chose to play the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, opus posthumous.”

“Why so sly?”

“Well, she sad that she played it because it’s so sad, and she felt sad. But I think there was another reason, of course. Remember, she hadn’t played in a couple of years at least. And however good you are, you get rusty if you don’t play every day. So she chose a piece that made—at least for the first couple minutes—relatively few demands, technically. Smart move, really….”

“Did it work?”

“Absolutely, since the commandant of the camp, Amon Göth, was so moved that he told her, ‘you shall live.’”

“And her response?”

“She said, ‘and my sister, too.’ And so Göth agreed.”

“Hmm—the champagne must have been flowing….”

“You know, it’s great news for Karp and her sister, but what about all the other people in the concentration camp? All of those mother and fathers and children—humans, people with families, with dreams, with hope. Should being able to play a Chopin nocturne really be your ticket out of the camps?”

“Of course not. It’s hideously unfair. But there it is….”

“So then what happened to her?”

“Well, she married, had two children, and resumed her career. And while she may never have gotten to the very top of the pianistic heap, she didn’t do badly, by any means. And she must have been a strong character: she always wore short sleeves, and refused to hide the tattoo that the Nazis had put on her. And she bought, soon after her release from the camps, a pink handkerchief; it was a symbol, for her, of her femininity, which despite the camps had survived. So she carried the handkerchief out and placed it on the piano at every performance.”

“Wow—what a story!”

“It is, actually. Well, she died at age 96, which must have been a great satisfaction. I mean, you really don’t want to survive the camps, just to be hit by a bus the day after your release….”

“Absolutely! Do you ever wonder, Marc: could you have survived the camps?”

“I have no idea. From her daughter’s book, you get the sense that most of the people in the camps were simply existing. They were so beaten down, so hungry, so tire, and often so sick that—well, they were just putting one foot in front of the other. And as horrible as that is, maybe—just maybe—there’s also a compensation.”

“What? How could there be?”

“You know, when I broke my back, there was absolutely nothing but physical pain: the worst I’ve ever had. But also, my world telescoped down: all I had to do was breathe, survive, and live for another day. I did, and now I worry about money, hurricanes in Haiti, Facebook posts from my son—all kinds of stupid stuff. So I wonder if being in the camps wasn’t a bit like that. And whether the real challenge wasn’t faced by people like Adam Czerniakow….”


“I know: tomorrow’s story….”