A. J. Sherman


An die Musik



Some of us can recall being embarrassed by parents with foreign accents; I remember on the contrary feeling my parents failed to fit in because they spoke unremarkable native English, while all around me as I grew up in New York were the accents of Hamburg and Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw, and points east. The war in Europe had begun, and although we were not yet in it--Pearl Harbor was a year away--it felt very real to me as a child. We heard much of Blitzkrieg, the fall of France, ships torpedoed in the Atlantic, stoic Londoners enduring the Blitz. Whenever grownups gathered around the radio, their grim faces told us all we needed to know about Hitler's seemingly invincible advance, the deadly danger to Europeans, to Jews who, we were often told, were people just like us. For several years before the war, the tide of refugees had been washing up on our shores and seemed to be centered on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then an unsmart but perfectly respectable neighborhood, anchored in middle-class stability by Columbia University and its sister institutions of learning. German in particular seemed to be everywhere, spoken freely or whispered; and even when they weren't exchanging greetings with their fellow Herr Doktors, the recent arrivals were easily distinguished on Broadway, dressed in their carefully brushed and pressed European clothes, the women with a touch of fur or leather trim on their coats, and wearing feathered or veiled hats. All were somehow a bit too well tailored, formal, inappropriate for our New York streets in the Continental woollens that had an almost armored look of durability.

Our own family physician had come from Berlin, managing through a series of almost miraculous evasions to elude the Nazis after Kristallnacht and to bring his entire office with him. Opening his door, off the tiled lobby of a once grand building on 110th Street, one entered the office of a doctor whose patients had been the well-off German middle class. There was a complete suite of elegant Bauhaus furniture in the waiting room, redolent of good leather and wood polish, and in Dr. Mannheim's office, beyond the darkly glowing Oriental carpet, a massive desk on whose glass top were carefully ranged photographs, one framed in an Iron Cross. Dr. Mannheim would explain that the officer pictured there was his late brother, who had fallen in the First World War, fighting for the Kaiser. For me, the principal fascination was in the glass-fronted book cabinets, with their precisely aligned leather-bound volumes whose titles in Gothic script were mysterious and inviting. But there were also Käthe Kollwitz prints on the walls, glossy-leaved potted plants, engraved office stationery in German--Dr. Mannheim would carefully cross through the Berlin address when writing instructions with his large black fountain pen--and in the examining room, with its clean antiseptic smell, there was an x-ray machine that seemed to fill the whole space with its large frame, pulleys and wires across the ceiling, and plaques in red on white enamel proclaiming Achtung! on all its dangerous sharp edges. Dr. Mannheim had elegant Continental manners and a real understanding of the physician's duty first to reassure. When he would come on house calls, impeccably dressed no matter how urgent the occasion, he would first bow over my mother's hand, say "Courage, Madame!" and make us all laugh. Only then would he turn to his young patient.

Then there were the Fuller Brush Company salesmen who began to appear at our apartment door, some barely speaking English as they demonstrated the virtues of the many ingenious brushes they would take out of the large leather case they carried from house to house. We were instructed always to greet them with special politeness, and my mother would invariably buy something, anything, before sending them on their way. There would be a meaningful glance at us as the door closed: it unmistakably conveyed the recognition "there but for the grace of God . . ." I first heard the words "concentration camp" in connection with one of these men, a regular sad-eyed visitor in a too-heavy wool suit, which he wore winter and summer. We were told that he had been in a place called Dachau, a very terrible place that bore no relation to the summer camps we had begun to attend; and that in the concentration camp he had been "broken." What, I wondered with precocious morbid fascination, could break in a grown man? How had he been "broken"?

Every few weeks, it seemed, little refugee children would show up in school, be introduced to the class--"this is Doris, this is Norbert, make them welcome!"--and then seated in the back of the room for the several weeks it usually took before they learned enough English to join the rest. They eyed us warily; I stared back in absorbed curiosity, perennially attracted by exoticism, a hint of far-off places. When they were able to talk to us, the little refugees all had colorful tales of escaping the Third Reich through Lisbon, Havana, in one case Shanghai. One gave us a description of being strafed on the roads of France, another referred to being in a "sealed train" that had crossed over into Switzerland. How did they "seal" a train? I tried to imagine the possible answers. Were the windows painted over, were all the refugees locked up in the coaches? How did everybody eat meals or go to the toilet? What had it all felt like? I always wanted to know more, but early on was told that I mustn't pry, especially when interrogating grownups, most particularly those newly arrived from Europe. "They have all had hard times," we were informed, and we knew from the beginning that those hard times had come because the refugees were Jews. But I remained avid for details. What, after all, could I have known of "hard times" in the Third Reich? I yearned to find out more about this major adult secret, one of the many from which we were consciously shielded. That only made me more curious. "Why?" "How?" were questions forever seething within me, unasked.

Despite the discomforts and even terrors which my child informants recounted, some doubtless embellished for narrative effect, I hopelessly envied these newcomers their adventures. The very word "refugee" took on a glamour for me, and I secretly longed to be one of them, or at least to wear their predictable children's uniform: well-cut grey woollen shorts and thick knee socks. Of course their parents all spoke with ineradicable Mitteleuropa accents, making my own parents seem hopelessly banal, simply and irredeemably natives. Being foreign-born myself didn't count: my parents and therefore I and my siblings were all American citizens, and I had arrived in the United States too young to retain any foreign accent, or indeed any clear memories of my Jerusalem birthplace. Moreover, we had merely landed in New York harbor after an uneventful crossing on an Italian transatlantic liner. No hair's-breadth escapes, no frissons of danger. I had missed all the excitement: we came before the war, not even in a convoy or aboard one of those brilliantly illuminated neutral Swedish liners like the legendary Gripsholm that still plied the Atlantic despite the U-boats. With Mitteleuropa all around me in New York, aware of all that freight of tragedy, loss and, yes, drama, I felt my difference keenly.

Shortly after our seventh birthday, my twin brother and I were sent for our first music lessons to an establishment recommended by well-meaning family friends. As early as kindergarten, teachers had called attention to our ability to carry a tune, and urged that we and our older sister learn an instrument. Indeed, my sister had already begun with ease to improvise melodies on the upright piano that appeared one day in our apartment. Though my parents themselves had no musical training, they enjoyed music and shared the aspirations of their time and class: all children "took" piano as a matter of course, and many were expected to go beyond the fundamentals. On warm afternoons, walking up West End Avenue or Riverside Drive, one could often hear piano played well or badly from many an open window; and the famed Juilliard School, then still on Morningside Heights, contributed its share of sound to the neighborhood. From its windows, before the time of sealed interiors and air-conditioning, there was always a splendid cacophony of winds, strings, percussion, all seemingly played for passersby, in competitive fortissimo. Juilliard students, often easily spotted for their scuttling hurried gait and the instruments they always had with them, were also a source of revenue for many householders: they were favored tenants for the largely redundant maids' rooms that many West Side apartments had, remnants of more prosperous times. Music was always very much in the air.

The school recommended to my parents was pretentiously called the Institute for Twentieth-Century Piano Technique, and was housed in a shabby five-story once-elegant town house off Central Park West, on a block filled with other such houses, most broken up into studio apartments during the long Depression years. We would be taken there by the young woman who helped our family with household chores--nobody on New York's West Side had yet learned to call such helpers "nannies"--a half hour's trip by subway or the Broadway trolley, and deposited at the faded black-painted door. The blank darkness of the Institute's uncurtained windows, its chipped front steps, a stunted dead vine that straggled partway up the façade, all bespoke years of neglect, and plausibly nourished our early wild surmise that the place was haunted.

We were too young to understand fully, my brother and I, but we were very quick to recognize that our sister and everyone connected with the Institute seemed to be permanently terrified of the choleric Frau Benz who ran the school, a heavy middle-aged woman who wore her hair in a braided topknot, dyed a violent, improbable shade of copper. She had small eyes almost invisible behind wire-rimmed glasses, and strong grasping fingers. Do I recall as well a faint but unmistakable fuzz of mustache? Frau Benz seemed in any event always enraged, a figure straight out of our illustrated Grimms' Fairy Tales, her witch-like persona completed by a raw parade-ground voice and a subtly subterranean odor. Her fellow director, perhaps her spouse, was stout, hard-breathing Herr Klöpfer, whose bulging eyes and heavy tread seemed frightening even before he opened his mouth, revealing a tangle of supernumerary tobacco-stained teeth. To an imaginative seven-year-old, this pair seemed the very incarnation of "ogre," at once repellent and alluring, scary but mesmerizing in their physical ugliness and sheer air of menace. The school, in addition, had an unmistakable evil smell, instantly recognizable when we opened the door and stumbled into the vestibule, which was lit by one dim bulb high in the brown ceiling. The scent was a dense, mephitic blend of cooked cabbage, Herr Klöpfer's stale cigars, and behind those the smell of vomit; we eventually learned that several of the children would be sick on entering or at some point in their usually traumatic lessons. The thick smell clung to the dark walls and floors that apparently were seldom cleaned, certainly never aired.

Our own lessons would take place in narrow little practice rooms, each sparsely furnished with an old black upright piano, a bench, and a small straight chair for the teacher. Almost all these claustrophobic spaces had one picture on the wall, above the piano, most often a faded copy of the classic portrait of angry hirsute Beethoven glaring downward, it seemed, at the hapless pianist. In some cubicles there were black-framed images of Bach, or of Frederick the Great's flute performances to a bewigged audience frozen in attitudes of respect in some candlelit salon. From my own cubicle, even with the door closed, I could hear a pupil's tentatively played scales or a Bach or Mozart piece, interrupted often by a keyboard being banged by an adult fist, or a piano lid slammed down, followed by exasperated screams of "falsch, falsch!" and occasionally a child's high whimpered crying. As the very youngest students we were spared the more egregious bullying, shouts, and threats, and indeed after the first appalling days of evaluation had little to do with Frau Benz or Herr Klöpfer, though their sinister presence dominated the whole school, and they had a habit of suddenly materializing as soon as one stopped practicing for any reason. The bare wooden floors of the old house creaked under Herr Klöpfer's unmistakable tread, which always sounded the alarm long before his appearance; but Frau Benz would suddenly, horribly be in the room, after obvious clandestine listening in the corridor, and her advent was thus more frightening. Each, we knew from experience, could pounce at any moment. Herr Klöpfer tended to express displeasure by groaning loudly rather than shouting; and his stale tobacco smell dominated the small practice room, a punishment in itself. Frau Benz for her part not only screamed at the children, but used her powerful fingers to jerk a recalcitrant or merely maladroit hand or body into correct position. She too would slam down piano lids or use a ruler across the knuckles of particularly trying pupils. The entire punitive regime was geared to produce perfect little performers who would reflect credit on the Institute at the annual concerts that took place in one of the midtown recital halls. Fear was the chosen method of instruction. The place wasn't called the Institute for Twentieth-Century Piano Technique for nothing: it owed a good deal to sinister German educational models, even then being tried out overseas on a very large scale.

Either we were deemed hopelessly ungifted or too young, but my brother and I were never part of the forced-draft preparations for the annual Institute concert; indeed, after the first few months we were permitted on occasion to escape altogether and play outside in the lugubrious, dark concrete "garden" that we could see from our grimy practice room windows. In that confined space that yet seemed gloriously inviting, the only toys were an old rubber tire and the remains of a tricycle left by some long-gone inhabitant of the building. We would pretend to ride the little tricycle, push and pull at the tire, run from one end of the courtyard to another, giddy with freedom, though careful not to make noise that could abruptly end our little time away from the piano. I don't remember what, if anything, we learned of music that year, but I was absorbing all sorts of other information. I knew for a certainty that our own teacher, Miss Emmi Stein, a thin and worried-looking youngish woman refugee, invariably dressed in mousy, high-necked European gray dresses, was in some deep trouble. Sweet and gentle when she showed us how to hold our hands, never speaking above a whisper, she would occasionally forget what we were supposed to be playing at our lessons, and often seemed to us very far away. Though she was a grownup, we knew that she too was frightened, and not just of Frau Benz and Herr Klöpfer as we all were. We were later told that she was desperately trying, in the earliest days of the war, to get her stranded parents out of Germany. It was from eavesdropping on her clandestine conversations--she would sometimes slip out of the practice room and use a pay telephone in the hall--that I first heard those words "visa" and "affidavit" and "quota," that attracted me with their portentous adult mystery, and seemed part of the atmosphere of dread at the Institute. Fear was contagious; and what made it so undermining was that it came from the faculty as well as the older children. We simply knew that Frau Benz and Herr Klöpfer were bad people, that they somehow wielded power over the teaching staff, that everyone was always anxious. What seems in retrospect extraordinary is that apparently both teachers and pupils also tacitly agreed we mustn't talk about it, that nobody could in any case help any of us.

The Institute began to feel like those dark threatening forests where lost children wandered in fairy tales. All the young pupils developed incantatory rituals to help face each weekly lesson: I would count squares in the pavement, deliberately dawdling as we approached the building with its ominous number 123. The blank façade would loom up too soon: I had worked out an elaborate pattern for stepping over the chipped edge of each stair. It didn't seem to help. "It can't be that bad, cheer up!" whoever was taking us that day would urge, uncomprehending. My brother and I would look at each other with a rare perfect accord: no mere household help could possibly know what was happening at the Institute, and it was not for us to reveal anything. We somehow felt that disclosure might bring down terrible retribution, and we took some perverse pride in having our own big dark secret, just like the grownups. At the inevitable moment for parting we would whisper "wish me luck!", receive a gentle push on the back and reluctantly climb the stairs.

As the annual concert neared, our sister began to develop more and more obvious symptoms of anxiety: insomnia, nail-biting, and forms of "nervousness" that at last became conspicuous. Even our usually preoccupied parents finally took notice, and after much effort prised out of her the fact that the Institute for Twentieth-Century Piano Technique was a place of horror, with its echoes of the raw German voices that had terrorized her years before in another country. Frau Benz, a large big-bosomed woman who could deploy a sergeant's voice and manner, used to come up behind my sister and the other somewhat older pianists, and at the first or second mistake scream loudly into their ears, or perhaps when specially irritated slap their fingers with her ruler, usually provoking an outburst of weeping, abruptly cut off by a slammed door. Behind the savage teaching there were other more sinister echoes: we understood quite early that Frau Benz and Herr Klöpfer were German Germans, those frightening others, perhaps indeed Nazis or sympathizers, while their faculty and most of their students were Jews. The military atmosphere, the shouts and screams, the insistence on rote behaviors, were imported whole from a Germany that had already shown the world new dimensions in terror. For me as a child, it all came together: newsreel pictures of marching steel-helmeted soldiers, bombs cascading from the open bellies of Stuka dive bombers, the high hysterical cadences of Goebbels and Hitler speeches in a language I couldn't understand.

Why did it never occur to us for an entire school year to report our unhappiness to our parents? Did we simply assume we would not be listened to, or that somehow being shouted at and threatened seemed normal behavior? Perhaps most plausibly, we had already been successfully programmed to feel that being given music lessons was a high privilege, a gift for which to be grateful, certainly not to be complained of. We too wished to be good little soldiers, to "carry on," just like the stolid English children we had been taught to admire, and saw in the news photographs with their small gas masks slung over their shoulders, staring calmly into the camera. "Thou shalt not whine" was our eleventh commandment, largely obeyed: there was, after all, a war on, as we were often told. I can only recall that in fact we did not complain; and nor, apparently, did most of the Institute's wretched little pianists. We were of course pulled out of the school after my sister's revelations, but not until after the evening concert in Hunter College's auditorium, an event preceded by a formidable buildup of tension. Despite all the premonitory dread, my sister played flawlessly some of the Bach Two-Part Inventions, thus perhaps confirming the ultimate efficacy of the Institute's methods.

Many years later I learned through mutual pianist friends that Miss Stein continued all her life teaching piano in New York. She failed in her desperate efforts on behalf of her parents: they were deported in 1942 and perished in the camps. The Institute for Twentieth-Century Piano Technique was dissolved some time in the 1950s, leaving a cadre of traumatized alumni, but in the mysterious way of these places, perhaps even some who recall the school with affection or gratitude. It did in the end turn out quite plausibly competent young musicians. Hearing about Miss Stein, I remember wondering where Herr Klöpfer and Frau Benz ended, what their war had been like, and whether they were in fact the Nazis we so readily assumed they must have been.

I have ever since my time at the Institute felt an instant antipathy for large, purple-faced choleric people, the smells of stale cigars, overcooked cabbage, and sick children. The sound of shouted German also has its own special resonance. Strangely, though, we all continued to love music, despite its earliest cruel and unhappy associations. But after my time at the Institute I chose to switch instruments, and took up the violin.