Born December 5, 1931, Essen, Germany
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 audi- ence 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 any- thing 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 destruc- tion 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.
Hands cupped around a glass of tea, Jakob Herz surveyed the scene from his sixth-floor window with wry satisfaction. The few languid flakes he’d seen the first time he got up during the night had turned into a heavy snowfall—the first since the death of his wife had persuaded him to give up the house they had lived in for nearly 50 years and move to this apartment. It’s someone else’s turn to shovel, he mused, and got up to answer the phone.
“Is everything all right, Pop?” the wife of his middle son wanted to know.
“What should be wrong?”
“I mean, do you have everything you need? They’re predicting a major blizzard.”
“Plenty, including toilet paper.”
“Very funny. Please take care of yourself, Pop.”
“Everything’s under control. If only my damn paper would come.”
“You know it will only depress you, Pop. Stay home and relax. Don’t do anything foolish.”
“Don’t worry,” he said and bid his daughter-in-law good-bye. He looked again for his newspaper, but it still hadn’t arrived. He slammed the door shut, got dressed, and went down to the empty lobby. No sign of the doorman; nor had the sidewalk been cleared. He would call the building manager. He went back upstairs and was still fumbling with the keys when he heard his phone. One of the boys, he thought, and rushed inside. But it was the rabbi to inform him that Saturday’s Bar Mitzvah had been postponed.
“The boy’s grandparents were coming from New York and, as you probably heard, La Guardia and Kennedy are closed.”
Jakob hadn’t heard. “In that case we can use the little chapel tonight.”
The rabbi said that if the snow didn’t let up there might be no need to open the synagogue. “No one will come.”
“Have we ever not held services on a Friday night?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Well, I’m going,” said Jakob.
“Jake, this is no weather for you to venture outdoors.”
“I can handle it, Rabbi.”
“I know you can Jake, but what would be the point if no one shows up?”
Jakob broke out in perspiration. He took off his cardigan and wiped his forehead. “You know we always get a few regulars. I’ll be OK.”
“Anyone who comes would understand if you aren’t there. On a night like this—”
Jakob interrupted. “I’ve been through worse, Rabbi. Besides, the streets may be cleared by then.”
“In this city? Not likely. I may not be able to get there myself.”
“You’re coming from the suburbs, Rabbi. I can walk.”
“I wish you wouldn’t take the risk, Jake.”
“What about the mourners? We have a long yahrzeit list this week.”
There was a long pause before the rabbi said, “Surely God would understand.”
Jakob promised the rabbi to check back later in the day and hung up. He went into his minuscule kitchen and turned on the radio. Even his favorite classical music station was breaking into its regular schedule with bulletins on the storm. Schools were closed and all but essential workers were being sent home. Accumulations of as much as two feet were expected before the storm blew itself out over the Atlantic.
Jakob made himself another glass of tea and went back to the window. He studied the sky. If he stayed home people would think he was sick—maybe had another heart attack. On the other hand, going out was taking a risk—he could fall and break something. How hard even simple decisions were without Fanny. Not that he didn’t know what she would have said: “Jakob, on such a night you will not set one foot outside the door!”
A minute later his mind was made up. He was damned if he was going to let a little snow make him a prisoner in his own home. It simply was a question of dressing properly. With that he began a mental list: an extra sweater, his heavy parka, the scarf Fanny had knitted for him, the Russian hat with earflaps, fur-lined gloves, thick socks, galoshes, and his inhaler. When he had laid everything out on the bed, he added a flashlight.
Several times during the afternoon Jakob tried to call the rabbi, but the circuits were always busy. At four o’clock he still had not heard from his sons. Would it kill them to check on their father? On second thought, they probably couldn’t get through either. It was time for his nap. Certain he would wake if the phone rang, he stretched out under the afghan Fanny had made for him for his 75th birthday and closed his eyes.
At seven, rested and fortified by a bowl of leftover pea soup and two fingers of slivovitz, Jakob exam- ined himself in the hall mirror and rang for the elevator. In the lobby, four women looked up from their knitting, but he had no time to get into a conversation and merely nodded. “His wife, may she rest in peace, should only know,” he heard one of the women say as he passed. Still no sign of the doorman; he’d forgotten to call the manager. Jakob pushed open the thick glass door and was greeted by a blast of frigid air that almost cost him his balance. He wrapped the scarf around his mouth the way Fanny used to tell him and stepped into the street.
The snow was deeper than he had expected. There were no footprints to follow. By the time he got to the first corner he was short of breath and wheezing. No one was about. Abandoned cars were everywhere. Except for an occasional siren the city was eerily still. He looked up expectantly at each of the few cars that managed to slog past, but he might as well have been invisible. His hands and feet were getting numb. Another two blocks and he would be on the main thoroughfare; from there the going would be easier.
He resumed walking, barely able to see through the wind-driven snow. There was a mailbox at the next corner, he remembered; he would lean against it and take a short rest. But he lost his footing before he could get there and fell flat on his back. “Nothing broken,” he said in the darkness. “Thank God.” He tried to get up, but it was as if some strange force over which he had no control kept him pinned to the ground. For a moment he saw himself shoveling snow again under the oversight of the Kapo, the Ukrainian with a habit of punctuating his commands with a truncheon. Already beyond endurance, Jakob couldn’t work fast enough to satisfy the sadistic brute. Several times he had fallen in an exhausted heap, overcome with pain, the will to live ebbing with each blow.
The horn of an emergency vehicle brought the present rushing back. He groped around until he found the flashlight, but it was dead. He struggled to his feet, found his bearings, and pushed on. He hated being late. At last he rounded the last corner, stopped, and gaped—the stainless steel obelisk in
front of the entrance, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, was unlit. The caretaker didn’t make it, he thought. Good thing he had a set of keys; he had insisted on it years ago. He patted the reassuring bulge in his pocket and willed his legs on.
When he was within 20 yards he saw that the entryway was deserted. Nobody was waiting. Not a soul. The circular drive was unplowed. Foot-high drifts blocked the three massive oak doors. Under a single mercury vapor lamp, the empty parking lot glistened like a glacier. It was all Jakob could do to keep from sinking to his knees. A rivulet of sweat ran down his spine. In the darkness, the hulking granite building resembled his old synagogue on Kristallnacht.
Part of him said he should turn back and go home. Maybe the rabbi was right. On the other hand, he had come this far.... Jakob took two puffs from his inhaler, waited for his wheezing to subside, and went to work. In a few minutes he had brushed enough snow from the center door to squeeze past. Inside the only illumination came from the exit signs in the lobby. Above the Ark, the ner tamid, the eternal light, cast a fragile glow over the first row of plush mauve seats. He switched on a bank of lights. The sanctuary had never looked so cavernous. He raised the thermostat to 75 and went back to the lobby. Weary, his eyes half-lidded, he found a chair and sat down.
By nine o’clock, an hour past the usual starting time, Jakob resigned himself to the futility of waiting longer. Something, though, would not let him leave. He knew what had to be done—had known it all along. Slowly and with small steps lest his knees give way, he walked down the center aisle, ascended the three steps to the Ark, and opened the heavy brass doors. The sight of the seven Torahs, each dressed in a different multihued cover, made him feel inches shorter. He waited until he had collected himself and recited the Shema. Then he closed the Ark again, carefully descended the steps backward in the respectful manner of the rabbi, and approached the cantor’s lectern. From the list in his pocket he began to read. “Mildred Adelsohn...Charles Anderman...David Bloomenthal...” and so on, until he came to “Frederick
Weiler and Dr. Alfred Young.” Finally came the names of four congregants who had been laid to rest that week. By now Jakob was hoarse. He popped a lozenge into his mouth, discreetly, as though the eyes of the entire congregation were on him, and recited kaddish.
The idea was heaven-sent, of that much Jakob was certain. Why else would it have popped into his head on Yom Kippur, minutes before the final blast of the shofar signaled the end of the all-day service? Before he died and was reunited with Fanny, he would perform a final mitzvah, a special good deed that would be pleasing in the sight of God. Not that anything was wrong with him, but at his age.... He left the thought unfinished. Pleased with his brainstorm—and tickled that he had once again defied his doctor by fasting all day—he left the synagogue in high spirits.
Two weeks later Jakob began to fret; he still had not determined how to keep his commitment. All sorts of ideas came to him at night, ideas that in the morning seemed trivial. Once he decided to call up his sons and ask them for suggestions, then changed his mind. What did they know about mitzvahs? Another time he started to dial the rabbi’s number but stopped himself. “What are you trying to prove?” he could hear the rabbi ask. Jakob was used to the question; his friends had been asking the same thing since he’d appointed himself head usher of the synagogue. Why would a sane person take on such a thankless job, let alone someone his age? Jakob never obliged them with an answer. He doubted that even Fanny knew what had led him to the decision. “What a nice idea, Dear,” was all she had said. “But shouldn’t you wait until you sell the business?”
“I won’t start until you’re fully recovered,” he promised.
Jakob asked the doctor to repeat the diagnosis and sank slowly into a chair. Better he should have died in the camp. He held his head in both hands. “What are her chances?”
“Difficult to say.” The doctor took off his rimless glasses and used his handkerchief to wipe them. “I recommend we begin treatment right away.”
Jakob nodded. “I want to call my sons.” He rose halfway from the chair and fell back again. “Would it be all right if one of them calls you so you can explain this non, non—”
“Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” the doctor repeated.
Jakob tried but couldn’t make the words leave his mouth. He mumbled his thanks, started to rise, and passed out.
That Friday Jakob went to synagogue. No point in calling his sons, he told himself; they would find some reason to beg off. A few people recognized him and looked surprised; they were accustomed to seeing Fanny at services by herself. Early in their courtship Jakob had confided to her that his belief in God went up in ashes, along with the ashes of the Jews he’d seen being led to their deaths. “How can we continue to praise a God who could have stopped what was happening but didn’t?” he’d asked.
“God was present in the camps in every tiny act of human kindness,” she had replied. “God was within every Jew who shared a piece of bread, in every mother and father who comforted a child on the way to the gas chamber.”
Jakob envied those who could believe. He couldn’t. Even now he felt like a stranger. The prayers, though familiar, rang hollow.
After a while Jakob started to notice certain things. People got up in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon and walked out of the sanctuary. Directly behind him two couples carried on an animated conversation. Three pews in front of him two teenagers were necking. Other teens were changing seats with stunning frequency. The woman on his right was chewing gum. By the end of the service Jakob had made a solemn vow: If Fanny beat the odds and recovered, he would volunteer to become the synagogue’s full-time usher for as long as he lived.
After six weeks of radiation therapy and four cycles of chemotherapy, her doctors gave Fanny only a 50 percent chance of living another year—provided she finished the course. The chemotherapy, one week of medicine followed by three weeks of rest, so devastated her that her doctors doubted she’d have the strength. But Fanny not only endured but also began to rally.
And so it came to pass that Jakob became a synagogue fixture. Squat, bald, and impeccably dressed in a dark-blue, double-breasted blazer, he stood at the entrance of the sanctuary before each Sabbath service and handed out copies of the weekly bulletin. Soon he knew most congregants by name. He thought of everything—matches for the candles, wine for the cantor’s kiddush blessing, that every seat had the correct prayer book. He tested the finicky sound system and adjusted the thermostat, tinkering with the setting as if he were at the controls of a jumbo jet. He patrolled the aisles like a movie matron from a bygone era. “This is a house of worship!” he repeatedly reminded people, from disorderly teenagers to board members talking above a whisper. After a year, impressed by the decorum he had achieved, the board proposed to give Jakob a modest gratuity. He wouldn’t hear of it, not then and not six years later, when Fanny died of viral pneumonia and the board offered to put him on the payroll.
Jakob opened his eyes. The pain in his chest was gone. He seemed to be strapped to a narrow bed; everything around him shook and swayed. The only light came from a dim fixture over his head. In the distance he heard a muffled siren. All at once he realized he was in an ambulance.
“Where are you taking me?”
A man in a white jacket leaned over him and said he would be all right. “We’re giving you some oxygen, Jakob. Try not to talk.”
Jakob nodded and thought, I’m 83 and he calls me by my first name. “Are you taking me home?”
He felt a hand on his arm. “Just try to relax, Jakob.” This time it was a woman’s voice. “We’re almost there.”
He wondered who would say kaddish for him.
“I’m sorry, Jakob. Did you say something?” The woman put her ear close to his mouth. She was sucking on a mint.
He remained silent.
“Please try not to talk, OK?”
Jakob said OK. He closed his eyes and moistened his lips. With an effort he played the night over in his head, retracing every step before the blackness. At last he remembered and a weak smile flickered across his face. Surely, God was pleased.
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