Every day we were worked nearly to death.
We would return to the barracks with leaden arms and beaten bodies. Our muscles were through with aching, they were stretched and mangled. Our bodies were done with exhaustion, it was as if we were already dead. Disease lay in our bones, a terrible hopelessness settled deep in our chests.
We cherished two things. The piano and the master of the piano.
It was a scuffed and battered, with yellowed ivory keys, a great grand instrument. Raphael had smuggled it into the basement. It was our greatest hope, through the punctual gunshots that left another friend or fellow dead, through the sickness and the brutal abuse. It was in the basement that we lived, under the vaults of heaven, Raphael was as good as God, a conductor, a pianist, a teacher, a friend. His spirit refused to be crushed. He gathered us, he sat with us, sang with us. He would take us one by one aside and help us memorize the music.
He would sneak through the gate that separated us from the woman. He recruited anyone he could for his choir. It was our way of rebelling. He saved us with his music in a place we were told would be a safe haven, a place that Hitler put us before we could be killed. At first it was secret. We would congregate in the vaulted brick basement, he would teach us what he remembered of an opera or a song. He would improvise. His hands danced over the piano keys, he loved it as one would love a child. It saved his life as he had saved ours.
They found out, of course, deported most of us to the camps. But with some persuading, they agreed to let us play. We became propaganda. Proof that us Jews were happy in safe in quaint little towns. We played for our children, not for the Nazis, we played for the larger act of rebellion and resistance. There were movements where our voices swelled into a mesh of loss and hope, the voices that had learned how to sing, learned how to hope, knew loss better than our own limbs.
Soon we were stepping over skeletons as we filed out of the basement, and Raphael was intent on one goal. The Verdi Requiem. Though labor and pain, it was our lifeline. When we were sure we would be deported to a slaughterhouse or shot in the head, it was our light in the gray, suffocating smoke. We had one treasured copy of the score. Sometimes, when we were all in bed, exhausted, we would hear him playing, long, slow chords below. He worked it to perfection as our ranks dwindled. He was adamant of it’s message, the end of the word, the punishment of evildoers. We learned the words by heart.
The last night in the basement, with our numbers down to sixty, he sat at the piano, determined. We sang like we had always, conscious of spaces in the music, just as there were gaps in the music. We sang all our bitterness, our anger and our pain. When we had finished, the last notes hanging in the air like mist after a rain, there was such an awful silence, as if we all knew it was the end.
We performed the next day. The day after that we were carted out of the ghetto. It was the inevitable. Raphael, the rock of a man, who had music in his blood and hope in his bones, fell as we all did, lined up like livestock in a place far from his piano. We looked up to the dusty sky and tried to sing our chorus, but the words stuck in our throats. After all, we are human, and we fear death. But death came easy, hard bullets between the ribs, an epiphany of unsaid things. It was life that had been painful, the heavy emotions and the pain of suffering. But we were glad, too, that we had lived in a time with Raphael and his piano.
This is of course a true story (with some added embellishments), set at the time of the Nazi Regime. A wonderful story, and yet a truly horrendous time. Ghettos were not as bad as concentration camps, however, they were still awful. They were overcrowded and filled with sickness and disease. This particular one was occasionally prettied up and used as propaganda for outside countries, one time Raphael and his choir performed for the Red Cross as well as some Nazi officers. The Jews held there were at first told that it was a save place for them to stay. Lat us say that all hope of that was almost immediately banished.