By Pete Philipps
Anneliese Brandt hadn’t crossed my mind in some time—until that day I was in Washington on some now-forgotten business and later stopped at the Holocaust Museum before flying home. Afterward, as I was leaving the building and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light, I thought of another spectacular spring afternoon, the day my father and I went to the season’s first outdoor chamber music concert at the Brandts’ stately villa in Berlin.
I remembered taking the streetcar, the Number 76, because my father was too tired for our customary walk, and that we got to the Brandts three-quarters of an hour too early. Although my father was to play the viola in Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, my mother stayed home, drained after another week of standing in line for our visas.
We entered the garden just as a photographer was directing the Brandts to take their places for a family portrait. They were all so intent on following the woman’s orders that no one saw us. Frau Brandt later told us the portrait was a going-away present for Rolf, the oldest of her four children, who was leaving for the army.
Against a backdrop of blossoming apple trees the family seemed the epitome of Gemütlichkeit: Herr Doktor and Frau Brandt (he in Lederhosen), Rolf, Hans, Eva, and Anneliese. Anyone coming upon the cloudless scene might have concluded that all was right with the world.
But not our world, as one look at my father attested. Pale and gaunt, his fingers drumming on the viola case resting between his knees, he looked as if he were waiting for a funeral procession. Little wonder. Days earlier the double bassist had hanged himself when the University of Berlin notified him and all other Jews on the faculty that their services were no longer needed. Sickened by the death of his friend, my father lost all hope that a catastrophe could still be avoided; the whole thing wasn’t a bad dream after all. Yet, as soon as he began to tune his instrument he seemed transported to another world, shut off from the awful reality closing in around us. Ever since, the scene of the Brandts languidly posing in their garden is etched in my mind’s eye—an image that may be all that remains of them.
The Brandts were genial hosts and they insisted on keeping the concerts informal. The musicians, all accomplished amateurs, played strictly for their own enjoyment, their families, and a few friends. Dr. Brandt was a prominent surgeon; playing the clarinet was his hobby. My father, who was equally at home on the violin and viola, had known him since they attended medical school together in Heidelberg. The programs depended on which of the dozen or so instrumentalists showed up at any one time and so tended to be impromptu. Only the venue remained constant, because the Brandts, in addition to their spacious and elegant home, had a Bechstein concert grand.
I had recently turned 14 and was still years from becoming a music lover. Even so, my parents never had to drag me to the Brandts. It wasn’t the music that drew me, but Anneliese. I could barely wait for Sunday to come around. A year younger than I, she was the girl I’d made up my mind I was going to marry. Never mind that she was Catholic. We were, in all other respects as well, still so innocent. My favorite game (how silly it sounds today) was to pretend to be absorbed in the music, then suddenly glance up in hopes of catching Anneliese looking at me.
It was unseasonably warm that afternoon and the Bechstein was rolled out to the terrace. The small audience sat on the lawn in folding, wood-and-canvas deck chairs. The other kids and I lolled in the grass and did our best to be artig, well behaved. Frau Brandt, who was known for her pastries, had as usual done all the baking. Rumor had it that she was a gifted pianist in her own right, but she never took part in the music making.
I can only guess why the Brandts’ children hung around all those afternoons. Did Dr. Brandt insist in the name of Kultur? Eva and Hans may have needed little parental prodding because both of them were taking music lessons. Anneliese had briefly tried the cello before giving up, so I convinced myself that she was sweet on me. As for Rolf, he looked positively indifferent—almost remote. I still see him: hands buried in the pockets of his knickerbockers, a grin on his pale face that was nearly a smirk, he gave the impression of someone who wanted nothing so much as to be elsewhere.
The first half of the concert consisted of the Haydn and Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G Major. During intermission, while Frau Brandt was busy serving refreshments, Anneliese and I stole away to the swing that hung from a large oak in back of the garden. Sometimes I can still hear the hilarity of her shrieks when I pushed her as high as the swing would go. Somehow, though, I never summoned the courage to kiss her.
The second half of the afternoon was given over to Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Dr. Brandt had recruited a patient, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic, to sit in for the occasion. After only a few bars I became aware of something gone wrong. My father repeatedly lost his place and threw the others off. It was unlike him to be so inattentive; I only hoped Anneliese didn’t notice.
“Papa, are you not feeling well?” I asked him afterward. He was putting away his viola without first wiping the instrument with the special cloth he carried for that purpose. I suggested calling a taxi, but he said he preferred to walk. As soon as we passed through the gate he stopped and leaned against a lamp-post. I was afraid he would faint.
“We Jews are finished,” he said—not to me, but to the nearly empty street. “Why, Papa?” He didn’t say anything and started to walk again, his steps so small that I had no trouble keeping up. Just when I thought we would continue all the way home in silence, he stopped short and looked me straight in the eye. “We will never set foot in that house again—never!” Too stunned to say a word, I waited for him to go on. After what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been more than a second or two, he said, “The Brandts are Nazis.” My thoughts vaulted to Anneliese. She was one of them? I was about to object but stopped myself when I saw the look on my father’s face. At least I didn’t give way to tears.
Late that night I overheard my parents in the next room and found out why my father had been so angry. During the intermission, he told my mother, he’d walked through the library on the way to the bathroom and come upon a silver-framed photograph of Hitler on Dr. Brandt’s writing table. “When a distinguished surgeon, a man as intelligent and cultured as Walter Brandt, becomes an apostle of that guttersnipe, it’s all over for us,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible,” said my mother. I could picture her shaking her head. “Imagine my shock. I’m still in shock.” “Did you say anything to Walter?” “What could I say? I couldn’t wait to get out of that house.” “I only hope we get our papers before it’s too late,” said my mother between sobs. “It hardly matters anymore where we end up.”
My father kept his word; not only did we never go back to the Brandts, but two of his fellow musicians followed his example. One, Fritz Landauer, was a prominent attorney who played the cello. The other, Ernst Weinberg, was a radiologist and pianist of such caliber that my father thought he could have been another Serkin. One night over dinner at our house they agreed to form their own ensemble. But first they had to find a piano to replace the one Dr. Weinberg’s wife, an Aryan, had recently taken when she left him. They also needed a new venue.
My mother hit upon an ingenious solution, solving both problems at once. She announced that she would have a little chat with the elderly widow in the apartment below us, a former voice teacher who still gave occasional lessons. My mother rarely went to the store without stopping at Frau Wanzel’s to ask if she needed anything. “You will see, Albert,” my mother said. “As soon as he can make music again, Papa will cheer up.” But I preferred sudden death to sitting through another chamber music concert without Anneliese. I hoped Frau Wanzel would say no.
Of course I was disappointed; Frau Wanzel was only too happy to turn her modest apartment into what she called a “salon.” Worse, my father wouldn’t let me invite Anneliese. “I forbid you to have anything to do with her again!” he said, practically shouting. I locked myself in my room and promised myself to try again another time.
But events were outrunning us. A few days later thousands of students marched to a square on Unter den Linden and burned piles of books in front of the university. “German culture is going up in flames,” said my father as we stood in front of our window and watched the torchlight parade below. I never mentioned Anneliese again.
I ended up tagging along to the first concert at Frau Wanzel’s after all; the prospect of staying home by myself was even bleaker. In tribute to our new hostess, my father and Dr. Weinberg began the evening playing Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. The sight of Frau Wanzel in tears, when I’d never so much as seen her dry old face break into a smile, was quite a surprise. As usual, my father threw himself into the music; one could almost see his worry lines soften. If Frau Wanzel’s old upright sounded a bit clangorous, no one seemed to notice; nor did anyone object to sitting on her well-worn oriental when she ran out of chairs.
The whole time my mind was on Anneliese; the music seemed to come from somewhere far off. I imagined that she was sitting next to me in the lime-colored dress I loved, her slender legs crossed at the ankles, her long blond hair done up in a ponytail, her head resting against my arm. I thought a lot about the secret she told me the last time we were together, and the way she looked at me with her mesmerizing eyes, eyes so blue you almost couldn’t see the pupils.
For the following concert my father, Dr. Weinberg, and Fritz Landauer intended to play Schubert’s B-flat Major Piano Trio, but it didn’t happen. At first no one said anything when Fritz didn’t show up; he was habitually late. We chatted and nibbled ginger cookies. To pass the time, my father and Dr. Weinberg played a movement from a Brahms sonata that was so filled with loss and longing that even I was affected. Fritz, as he had encouraged me to call him, never came.
In the morning my father went to the police and was told that his boyhood friend had been severely beaten by Nazi thugs who had accosted him on the way to Frau Wanzel’s. He died of his injuries a few days later. I never forgot my father’s lament: “Such a lovely human being. So decent, intelligent, and cultured. Ruthlessly murdered. Why? Because he was a homosexual.” That was the first time I heard the word.
For days after the funeral my father didn’t pick up an instrument. “These Jew-hating goons are the death of the arts and humanities,” I overheard him say to my mother. But then something changed his mind. Maybe he felt uncomfortable quitting because he was the only violist. Maybe he believed that by making music he was defying the Nazis. All I know is that one day he simply picked up his violin and began to practice the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Fritz’s great favorite, which the friends had decided to play in his memory. My father went himself to invite Fritz’s parents to the next concert, but they declined. Who could blame them? Hardly anyone else showed up that night, just the five musicians, my mother, Frau Wanzel, and I, each of us acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
But nothing was any longer normal or predictable. Early one morning Frau Wanzel appeared at our door, ashen-faced, and informed my parents that her brother had been arrested for distributing Communist literature. She said she was afraid our building was being watched and so she could no longer make her apartment available. “I have nothing against you, Herr Doktor, or your Jewish friends,” she said, clutching her chest with both hands, “but I cannot take the risk. The smallest gathering arouses the suspicion of the Gestapo.” My father pleaded with her to relent, and she eventually agreed to make her apartment available one more time.
“I don’t blame her for losing courage,” said my mother after Frau Wanzel left. “Even the decent people who hate Hitler and his henchmen are cringing with fear.” “God only knows how we would behave if we were in her shoes,” my father said.
Of the musicians, only my father and Dr. Weinberg showed up for what had been announced as the final concert. “Our ranks are thinning out,” my father whispered, looking at the dozen or so people seated around the piano. Judging from their ages, most were Frau Wanzel’s students. Were they there for the music, I wondered, or for my mother’s famous hazelnut torte?
I would have given anything to be elsewhere. The room was unbearably warm; though it was the middle of July, Frau Wanzel never opened a window. The pieces were unfamiliar and sounded sorrowful. To end the evening, Dr. Weinberg chose Schubert’s great final Sonata in B-flat, a grave piece for a teenager to sit through. Naturally I had no idea the music is imbued with Schubert’s awareness that he was dying—or that this was Dr. Weinberg’s valedictory: he’d recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. I knew only that I would never see Anneliese again; the realization struck me with a piercing clarity.
In the taxi back to the airport I found myself wondering, as I’d done so many times before, what became of her? I’d never allowed myself to think of Anneliese as one of them. And yet, after what I had just seen, after the disturbing memories that resurfaced during my tour of this remarkable portrayal of the destruction of the Jews of Europe, how could I be sure? All at once I wanted to know if she was still alive, and what it would be like to meet her once more. Would I still recognize the radiant girl who had confided that long-ago afternoon that she wanted to be a movie star? I still dream of her sometimes, and afterward I wonder—I can’t stop wondering—how everything might have turned out differently.
©2011, Pete Philipps. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.