Text from page1

The Violin

We stood in rows of 5 at the entrance to the baths in Birkenau. The welcome lecture delivered by an SSman, which contained, among other friendly words, the answer to the question as to what belongings we would be allowed to keep, was concluded with a forceful Germanic utterance of Nichts, brooking no misunderstanding…

Only a short while ago, it was still possible to observe people, with sufficient presence of mind, transfer things from bag to rucksack, from rucksack to pants pocket, and vice versa, depending on what we all assumed would or wouldn’t be taken from us. Nobody spared a thought to our luggage, which had been left on the train. So we set our things aside and began to undress. In a certain sense, the fateful nichts was a relief. Still, at one point, I hesitated, pulling out of my breast pocket a small drawing that I hoped would accompany me wherever I went…

That’s when I noticed that an old Lithuanian Jew was standing next to me. Only God knows why he wasn’t taken to heaven right at the train station during the sorting process, but instead was condemned to go through the most terrible hell first… He stood next to me, holding a violin in a canvas case under one arm and a small bag with prayer straps under the other. I watched him from the side as he bent down to his clothes, as if he didn’t know what to keep and what to leave. First the hand with the violin dropped down, then the hand with the straps. He finally made up his mind. He laid down the sack with the straps, covered it with his shirt, and stood upright with the violin under his arm. Noticing that I was observing him, he blushed and whispered, as if apologizing: I will pray over it, too, believe me, over it, too. The Lord God will forgive…

Most of us crammed into this room were determined to smuggle in this or that item. One a book, the other a picture of a loved one, and the old Lithuanian Jew a violin.

But when I saw the first person in line ask permission to keep a bible being slapped and seeing the bible fly out the window, when I saw the photograph of the loved one of the man behind him torn up by the laughing SSman, I took a good look at my picture, gazed at it in such a way that my eyes projected it onto the deepest part of my soul, and placed the paper among my other things, taking its likeness to a place beyond the reach of the SSman’s hand. Most of us did what I had just done. The line moved very slowly. When we were just in front of the SSman checking us, I discovered that the Lithuanian was still holding his violin in his trembling hands. They searched me rather quickly and when I looked back, I saw the old man whispering in broken German: Let me keep my violin, this old worthless violin, like me, an old and worthless man. Let me keep my violin. Everyone in the room stood frozen in horror. Would he be flogged like the one who had tried to smuggle in a ring, or would he be sent back to Dr. Mengele as proof of the mistake he had made during the sorting process?

The SSman was first dumbstruck at the unprecedented action and insolence of the old man, but then shouted at him: Hau ab! and pointed his finger, ordering him to go forward. The old man trembled all over and held his violin firmly in his hands.

Text from page2

We didn’t know whether the SSman had had a pang of conscience or was perhaps spurred on by more evil thoughts, but all of us knew that the story of the old man and the violin was far from over.

Should I even bother to tell you how much guile, cleverness, and courage it took to smuggle a violin into the camp? I’d love to convey it in writing, but I don’t have the words to do so. Every capo who lined us up wanted to grab them. The old man hid them from the barber and weaved through the rows of showers, always covering them with one part of his body so they wouldn’t get wet. He promised half of his meager dinner to the greedy Stubendienst in exchange for hiding them during the roll call. Then, finally, he laid down with his violin on the cot, hugging it to him as he would a lover…

It all unraveled in the evening. Most people were already sleeping when the SSman from the baths burst in and shouted something in his native language that cannot be translated into any other cultured language: Der Saujud mit der Geige, her. Aber flott, flott. The old man got up from his bed and slowly walked out.

I don’t know in detail what happened after that. You could hear screaming from the Blockältester’s room, then the sound of a violin being played, then screams again, then a 13-year-old Läufer, a seduced boy, ran naked out of the room and we could hear the drunk SSman singing. Then he shouted: SPIEL WENN'S JUDENBLUT VOM MESSER SPRITZT. When he got no response, he thundered: Play what I order you to play or you'll get what’s coming to you. We heard blows and screams… this went on for half an hour. Finally, the old Lithuanian Jew returned with a bump under his eye, scratches all over his face, and he walked slowly back to his cot, still holding the violin in his hands.

He sat down on the cot and whispered: God has punished me. I ignored the call of the prophet. They were sitting on the shores of Babylon and weeping, remembering Zion he wailed. I sang and played songs of joy in the land of strangers. The Lord God has punished me… He suddenly stood up and began to beat his violin against his cot with all his might. We wanted to stop him, but he wouldn’t let us. He kept on breaking and beating it like a madman, wood against wood, until only a stump remained in his hand. With every blow, he swore: I’ll never, ever play again. Then he sank down on his cot and silently wept…

I believe he was fated to uphold his oath. I last saw him in Dachau-Kaufering, lying in the typhus block. The attending doctor, a Czech, had this to say about him: A strange man. He fantasizes whole movements of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in his feverish state. Pointing to his head, he went on: you know, spotted typhus is an evil disease.

I never saw him again.

Vilém Zeev Scheck