In 2000, we moved to Jerusalem. My wife, a rabbinical student, spent her days walking the curved uphill streets of the city to classes at various yeshivas, learning in Hebrew and in English, piecing together the knowledge she would need to return to America and become a rabbi. We were to be there for six months. We had lucked into a beautiful apartment in the east end of the city, in Abu Tor, what Israelis call a “mixed” neighborhood, where the graffiti on the stone walls switches from Hebrew to Arabic and back again.
The apartment belonged to a Hebrew University professor and his family. They were on sabbatical in the United States, and we had agreed to swap homes. We had many friends studying in Jerusalem at the time, and when they visited us in our scholar’s apartment, with a living room and a dining room and a spare bedroom and you haven’t even seen the upstairs yet, they looked at us as if we had won a housing lottery. They all lived in cramped student apartments with cold tile floors. They shared bathrooms with too many roommates and rushed to be first in the shower to get a blast of hot water before spending the day studying Talmud. But we were all young and living in Jerusalem; luxury was beside the point.
While my wife studied, I was working on my first book. It was a novel set in Denmark’s Jewish community. Since I did not want to say the word Holocaust, I would tell people, I’m writing a book about Denmark during the war years. No one in Israel ever needed to ask to which war I was referring.
Some mornings, I walked with a backpack full of books to Café Hillel, a pleasant little coffee shop in the German Colony, which, three years after we left, would be vaporized by a suicide bomb that shook buildings throughout West Jerusalem. Once a week, I played basketball in a low-ceiling gym on a residential street in Baka. But most mornings, I sat at a desk in the apartment’s study, with books in Hebrew, German, and Arabic on the nearby shelves and the army radio station set on low volume in the background. From the window, I could see the towering Dormition Abbey, just outside the walls of the Old City; Zion Gate, with its bullet-riddled archway; and in the distance, the rocky Palestinian village of Silwan, known for its tire burnings and angry demonstrations. Each morning, the Hebrew University professor’s cat would paw the computer keyboard, meowing for attention. Apparently, I was not the first person to write a book in that space.
I sat at my computer with the Old City of Jerusalem in the distance and tried to imagine Europe, sixty years earlier: the disappeared relatives and buried valuables, the helmeted soldiers on the street corners, the stripping away of citizenship and work and daily life in Denmark and Germany and Norway and everywhere else into only this: Jew. As it turned out, that world was already in the apartment, waiting for me.
Eighty-seven years earlier, in 1913, a boy was born in Salonika, Greece, one of the great outposts of Jewish exile—those venerated Jewish communities that clung to Europe for centuries and flourished in unlikely places like a craggy Greek city, or an Alpine mountainside, or along the banks of a Polish river.
I learned about this boy from a book I found on the shelf of the Jerusalem apartment—I was always browsing the shelves, a way of writing or getting close to writing without actually writing—and from the first pages, I was captured by his description of his capricious, slightly untethered life: Officially, I was born in Salonika on January 4, 1913. The exact date of my birth is, however, not correctly entered in the official records, as all the archives of the Jewish community were lost in a terrible fire in 1917 which destroyed part of the city. Despite this uncertain beginning, the boy grew up speaking fluent French and good German, and he excelled at math, though he also received the strong education in the arts expected of all people of his class and background. His name was Jacques Stroumsa, and as I held his book in my hand, it took a moment to realize that Stroumsa was also the name on the door of the apartment in which I was living.
In the book, Stroumsa tells us how, after a time, he became an engineer and married and had a Jewish son, who married and had Jewish children. His son raised those children—Jacques Stroumsa’s grandchildren—in the very apartment where I was standing. But the apartment and the children and the grandchildren and everything else in this story only exist because Jacques Stroumsa was also a violinist, and because, in 1943, he was conscripted to be the lead violinist in the orchestra of Auschwitz.
At the age of four, my son demanded to play the cello. We were living in a college town by then, far from Jerusalem, and it offered many possible role models and sources of inspiration: writers, artists, dancers, math majors who thought in surreal numbers, and biologists who spent their days cataloguing the genes of freshwater fish. But the person who captured his interest was a round female cellist, who would bring her instrument to his preschool and play for the few minutes that the children could quiet their bodies and listen. Afterward, she would let my son—the one who listened the longest—sit on her lap with the cello in front of him. She held his hand as he ran the long, heavy bow across the thick strings, and he felt the massive instrument sing its deep notes against his small chest.
My son asked three times before we agreed to acquire a cello. The first instrument was only a 1/10 cello—to me, it looked like a shoebox with a neck—but it had four good metal strings held in place by an intricately carved bridge, and the whole thing was made of a well-worn wood that had survived dozens of beginners.
In the beginning, he needed a lot of help. The cello is best played in a seated position, with your feet square on the floor, facing forward, and your knees gripping the heavy instrument in front of you so it doesn’t wobble or, worse, fall and become a heap of cracked wood and busted strings. But how strong is any four-year-old? Plus, he was too short for most chairs, his tiny feet hovering a few inches over the ground and the cello swaying like a flag in the wind.
For the first couple of years, I had to follow him wherever he went. I carried a small bench that we had found (in its former life, it was a low table that held a plant in our living room), and I would place it ceremoniously in front of his music stand, holding the cello as he sat down and adjusted his posture and his grip on the instrument, and helping to drive the end pin into whatever crack in the floor would keep it secure. Then he would shoo me away, a bother, since whatever my function, it was clear from the beginning that he knew music and I did not.
He played the entire Suzuki book. He played a collection of jigs and reels—a little Jewish boy who sounded as if he had wandered out of an Irish bar band. When he ran out of sheet music, he would sit in the corner of the room and listen to whatever notes drifted inside his head, and then he would play those, too.
The purpose of the Auschwitz orchestra was pacification. They played dance melodies and romantic songs as people stepped off the trains and onto the ramp at Birkenau. Along with the neatly tended gardens, the signs for the bathrooms, the wagons painted with the symbol of the Red Cross, they were part of the theater of deception that was enacted in different forms throughout the camps, designed to move the blinking, disoriented Jews in an orderly way toward labor, toward selektion, toward death.
The orchestra also played up-tempo German marches, reporting early to prepare and tune, as the prisoners who were held aside for labor walked out of the barracks each morning. (Marching in time to the orchestra made it easier for the guards to count them.) They played again in the evening as the prisoners limped back from work detail to be counted again. They played at the executions of prisoners who tried to escape, adding to the horrible ceremony as all the other prisoners watched. The camps were hard on the instruments, as on their owners. In the winter, the musicians played outside with brittle strings under brittle hands; in the summer, they played from 5 am, as the sun rose and beat down on them in the Appelplatzand people dropped from heatstroke and were counted no more. The trains did not stop running; the orchestra did not stop playing.
Actually, there was not one orchestra, but many. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its numerous satellite labor camps were huge and bulging with guards, local civilian workers, and, of course, thousands upon thousands of prisoners. Each sub-camp had its own orchestra. Groups were formed and re-formed as members died or as the camp system evolved.
Jacques Stroumsa arrived in May 1943, getting off a transport with nearly the entire Jewish population of Salonika. He, his brother, and his two younger sisters were pushed to the left. His father, his mother, and his wife, eight months pregnant, were sent to the right, in the direction of the smokestacks.
He was tattooed on his left arm with the number 121097, shaved and deloused, and given a striped uniform with a yellow star. At that moment, he writes, we were made into real Birkenau prisoners.
His talent was discovered almost by accident when a call went through the barracks for musicians. He hesitated—the camp was already a place of survival, not art. But other Greek prisoners convinced him his skill might be useful. He was handed a violin and a bow that had come off a recent transport. He played for twenty minutes from memory: Haydn, Bach, part of a sonata. He was named first violinist of the orchestra.
We stood in the cold at the morning roll -call for one or two hours or longer, our teeth chattering in the drizzle. At the whistle, we began to play as the slave laborers marched past. We played without interruption, for two hours or more.
The orchestras played the same tunes over and over again each day. They played popular European marches and parlor songs: “Old Comrades,” “The Florentiner March,” “Parade-March,” and “Darling, I Am Sad.” They played two tunes composed by the orchestra members themselves, in the few spare moments they had to write and score, early in the morning before reporting for duty. They titled these “Labor Camp March” and “Work Shall Set You Free.”
At the age of six, my son played his cello with a folk band in a college bar. Somehow, as the undergraduates drank their beer and racked their pool games and greeted their friends, they seemed not to notice a little cellist, bowing in sharp strokes as the band bundled through the loops of an old-time tune. (I stood in the back and listened. Even with the bar noise, the prancing fiddles, the clack-clack of the pool balls, I could hear him. I can always hear his cello.)
At seven, he jammed with a local musician who is famous for having played at Woodstock. At eight, he played the wedding music for the parents of two of his friends from school. After the rings were exchanged, he put down his cello and ran through the fields with the other second graders and then waited, impatiently, for the cake to be served.
For the first few years, his hands were too small to tune his cello, and mine were too clumsy. Twice, while turning a peg, I snapped his A string: a wicked, animal sound. Both times he cried as if a small portion of the world had ended. The second time, after regaining his composure, he sat down on his bench and began to play, drawing his bow over the three remaining strings, inventing a tune that required only the available notes. The look on his face said, A musician must make do with the conditions.
The murder of the Jews was accompanied by a massive criminal enterprise, including but not limited to money, jewelry, rare or notable books, and art holdings representing hundreds of years of collecting. There were at least four official Nazi looting organizations, each with its own hierarchies and geographic territories, or its own areas of expertise: stealing famous paintings, or confiscating insurance payments, or looting valuable books from institutional libraries.
Musical instruments were one such focus. Jewish musicians were used or discarded according to the whims of the moment, but their instruments were always valuable. The Nazis developed a task force known as the Sonderstab Musik, made up of German musicologists and classical music lovers who volunteered to identify precious instruments and track down their owners. By one method or another, they stole most of the significant violins in Europe, including a 1709 Stradivari, a 1719 Stradivari, a 1724 Stradivari, and a 1783 Guadagnini. They confiscated a Guarneri from 1742, a year in which Guarneri, one of the greatest violin makers in history, is known to have made only thirteen violins. None of these instruments were ever returned.
The instruments were stolen by force or taken from their owners’ houses after the residents had been deported to the ghettos. Sometimes musicians were forced at gunpoint to hand their instruments to Nazi authorities. Other times, they were told to bring their instruments into the cattle cars, to resupply the orchestras when their instruments broke from cold or overuse. In Prague, home to generations of klezmer musicians, instruments were collected as the ghetto there was liquidated—everything from clarinets to accordions to pianos, hand-me-down violins to brass marching instruments to concert-level strings. The Nazis kept precise records: 20,301 instruments from the Prague ghetto were passed to the Germans as the Jews boarded the trains.
There is a story for every instrument, every musician, if only we knew them. After he was fired from the Libau orchestra, the cellist Lev Aronson was told to surrender his Amati cello, one of only twenty in the world, to the non-Jewish musician who would take his place as first chair. When he asked for a receipt, he was pushed down the stairs. The principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Hans Bottermund, fled to Copenhagen to protect his Guarneri cello. He wrote a note and put it in his cello case. “I have never known a cello with such a D string,” it said. Then the Germans arrived in Denmark, too.
During his eighteen months in the camps, Jacques Stroumsa saw his younger sister, Julie, for only a half-hour. They stood next to each other but did not dare to speak lest they draw attention to themselves. Better, always, to go unnoticed. She was also a violinist; she had survived by playing in the women’s orchestra in Birkenau. She was small and thin, but her violin kept her from the gas. She died of typhus two weeks before the camps were liberated.
Sorrow has become a permanent state with me.
There are three kinds of memory connected to music, my son tells me. He is eleven years old and knows many things about music. The first kind of memory, he says, is visual; a musician with this ability sees the notes unscroll before his eyes—invisible notes on an invisible music stand—and follows their path to the end. The second is mechanical: through repetition, the hands learn the comforting sequence of playing the correct sounds, like a basketball player drifting to his sweet spot on the court or a dancer feeling the right balance of hard landing and soft turn.
The third is aural. This is the kind he has, he says. “I hear it before it happens,” the small boy tells me. “I already know in my head what the notes are supposed to be.” It’s true; you can see it when he practices, his ear cocked upward, like an open cup, waiting for the notes to arrive. His eyes are set to the middle distance, seeing and not seeing. The process should be slow, but it is not, not at all. It is unbelievably fast. The notes pour from the open cup of his right ear across the back of his neck and flow up his left arm like water so that, as he plays, his hand flies through the first six positions of the cello faster than you or I can swallow. He hears and sets his metronome faster, faster. The hand charges up and down the cello’s neck. For him, music is not history but the future, always waiting to meet him.
Among the most celebrated musicians known to have arrived in Auschwitz are the baritone Erhard Wechselmann, the contralto Magda Spiegel, and the cabaret singer Kurt Gerron; the composers Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann; and the pianist James Simon, who was last seen sitting on his suitcase before the transport, composing music. None of them survived. Most of the members of the orchestras remain unknown.
In the Jerusalem apartment, there is a photograph of Jacques Stroumsa instructing his granddaughter, Dafna, on the violin. Dafna, a pretty teenager, holds the violin while Jacques hovers over her, pointing out fingering and adjusting her bow hold. He seems to believe in the value of technical instruction. I don’t know if he thinks this violin may someday save her life. The photograph does not say.
I do not know if my son will become a great cellist. His bow hold is unreliable. He lacks patience. His left elbow drops when it should stay high, and his fingers squeeze the instrument’s neck rather than caress it. But he has a strong ear and a happy relationship to his instrument. When he finishes his daily practice, he lays down his cello and wanders through our house, humming Vivaldi, Dvořák, Bach. He does not have to play as if his life depends on it.