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The Cello in My Life

By Jacqueline Mendels Birn

Music has always been a large part of my life. I recall, when I was perhaps six years old, my mother would play songs on the piano from “Blanche Neige et les sept Nains” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and my sister and I would sing along.

My father used to whistle a short melody when he approached our home: it was the first few bars, the leitmotiv, of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” He whistled this melody his whole life. When we were in a crowd and he couldn’t see us, we would hear his whistle and were promptly reunited.

The piano we had at home was a Gaveau, a spinet, and it was against the back wall in the room where my sister and I slept. My mother loved her black and shiny mahogany piano. She got it ten years after she married my father. She had played since she was a child. Her mother had been her first teacher. My maternal grandmother played the piano for the silent movies in Hamburg, Germany, where she lived. This was to earn some money at the time of the Great Depression in Germany after World War I, which they called “the Great War.”

Almost every night I asked my mother to play for us “Mozart, page nine,” meaning page nine in the book of Mozart sonatas. It was a sonatina for piano in C major, K 545. My sister and I loved that sonata and we fell asleep listening to it. Recently, I was able to find a CD of Mozart sonatas for piano interpreted by Walter Klien, and the biggest surprise was that I found that sonata, the last one on the CD. I immediately emailed my sister and told her that she should buy that CD. We both love that piece. I was able to find the first few measures of that sonatina on my iPhone, and that is the sound I hear when someone calls me on my cell phone.

In November 1941, my mother received a letter from our grandmother, telling her that she would not go on living because she had received the “command” from the Gestapo and was supposed to report the next morning for deportation. She knew exactly what that meant because so many of her friends had already disappeared and never returned. When my mother received that letter, she sat at her piano and played a sonata by Chopin.

In 1942 we were still in Paris. Life was becoming more and more dangerous for Jews. We wore the Jewish star, big and yellow, on the left side of our jackets. I thought it looked very pretty on my green sweater. We fled on July 30, 1942, after miraculously escaping the terrible Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews including 4,000 children on July 16–17, 1942. My father had been able to move the piano at night and carry it to a nice neighbor across the yard in another building in the group of apartment houses where we lived. To this day, I wonder how it was possible to carry the piano down the stairs, across the yard to Monsieur Langlais, who kept my mother’s piano for the duration of the war. He never touched it or let his young son, Jacqui, play it for fear that neighbors might ask how he suddenly had a piano in his apartment. My parents tried to remove all valuable objects and leave them with a kind neighbor. It was a very good idea because our apartment housed German occupying forces after we fled. The French police came to take us to a concentration camp one week after we fled.

Then followed the terrible years. After we crossed the demarcation line into the unoccupied zone, in the middle of the night, my parents were arrested, interrogated, and detained for a month. The authorities granted us freedom after we paid a heavy fine and under strict conditions: we were registered as Jews, illegal and foreign. We were declared as such in all the offices for Jewish affairs, all the way to Vichy, we were under surveillance, under watch, in a minuscule village in Dordogne, less than 100 kms away from its local capital, Périgueux, and the headquarters for Jewish affairs, in Sarlat. Neither the French police nor the Gestapo came to get us. Sometimes we had to hide in the woods, even in a chicken coop, whenever there was a warning of visits by French gendarmes, French militia, or Gestapo. Every day alive was a miracle. For my parents it was an ordeal and constant fright, but for my sister and me, it was like a long vacation. We even went, for a while, to the little school in the next village. We sang the hymn to honor Maréchal Pétain which started with “Maréchal, nous voilà … .” Instead of learning the Marseillaise, we learned songs from the teacher and from the other children, and we even went to Mass a few times. I don’t remember being hungry. And we survived. 

After November 1942, all of France was occupied. Every Sunday, my parents lifted their glass and made a toast, “A dimanche prochain,” hoping to be alive another week, until the next Sunday. I gave that sentence as the title of my memoirs. We never sang at home during those years.

While we still had electricity, and my parents had a shortwave radio (until they exchanged it for food), they would turn on the radio to BBC broadcasts in French. The leitmotiv announcing the news was the first few measures of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, just the rhythm, not the sound. That was the extent of the music we heard during those times.

Then my brother, Franklin, was born in the worst of times in August 1943 and under atrocious conditions. (He was named after Franklin Roosevelt, whom my parents’ saw as their only hope for survival.) Franklin survived and brought all of us a lot of joy.

After the liberation of Paris and of most of France, we were able to go back home to Paris at the end of 1944. Our apartment was in shambles. Little by little, my father found out through the Red Cross that almost everyone in our close family, including my Dutch grandmother and a little cousin, Mirjam, 19 months old, had been rounded up, deported, and murdered in Sobibor or Auschwitz. At first, I learned that at least 29 members of our family were murdered. Now I know that at least 200 members of our extended Dutch family were murdered.

After the war, my mother got her piano back. She took me to a piano teacher for lessons. I learned to read the left-hand clef (la clef de Fa) and the right-hand clef (la clef de Sol), but I was very poorly coordinated and didn’t like the teacher at all. She was very sad looking, all dressed in black, her living room furniture covered with sheets. It was depressing, and I did not want to continue lessons with her. My mother asked me if I wanted to try to play the cello. I had no idea what a cello was. 

I have to say here that I come from a family of musicians, going back to my maternal great-greatgrandmother, who was a singer. The descendants who survived the Holocaust also play instruments and there are two professional cellists; one of them died at the age of 90. One is also a professional violinist, and four others are in a quartet, the Rafael ensemble. They were all rescued as children on the Kindertransport from Hamburg to London in 1938.

Through a violinist friend of my mother, Monsieur Chédel, who was teaching the violin to my sister, we were given the name of a cello teacher, Monsieur Victor Clerget. I went there with my mother. He lent me a three-quarter size cello and showed me how to hold the bow and play open strings: la, ré, sol, do, as we say in French, meaning A, D, G, C in English. All my life I have to say the notes in French and count the measures in French. We went home and when my father came home, I sat down in front of the family and played the four open strings. I was so proud and happy and thought it sounded beautiful. That was the beginning of my love story with the cello. Soon, I was able to play sonatinas and concerti, but I always started with exercises, scales, and more and more difficult studies. I still practice every night and I feel guilty if I don’t. It feels like abandoning my child.

My parents took us to an operetta a few years after the end of the war. The operetta played and sang Johann Strauss waltzes, and I was so delighted that my parents offered me a record of Strauss music for my birthday. It was a 78 rpm record as they made them in those days. Later we went to the same theater, the Châtelet, and heard Hoffman’s tales by Jacques Offenbach. I loved it.

I practiced the cello every day after school, and soon my teacher told my parents that I was very talented. I took lessons twice a week, two hours each time. My teacher wanted me to become a professional cellist. I went to a second teacher, a famous cello professor, Maurice Maréchal. I remember taking the crowded metro with my cello and going for a lesson in his apartment on the sixth floor of his building. There was no elevator. I was out of breath when I reached his door and was scared of him and his critiques and corrections of my playing. I practiced six hours a day; sometimes I practiced in the garden with my back to the sun and my cello in the shade. I continued academic studies by correspondence school.

After preparing for entry auditions to the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique de Paris, I realized that I had terrible stage fright and I gave up the idea of preparing for a career in music. I was 16. It was a difficult decision and I cried in bed at night, because suddenly I didn’t know what I would study or do in my life. I went back to school, majored in sciences, and I continued practicing the cello, taking lessons, and playing for my own pleasure. I played sonatas with my mother, and we played trios with my sister on the violin, my mother on the piano, and me on the cello. We had a dog, a white setter, and he used to lie down under my chair when I was practicing.

Music was and is an essential part of my life. I had no grandmothers, no grandfathers, no cousins, no uncles or aunts. They had all been murdered. All I had was my parents, my big sister, my baby brother, and my cello. The cello became my first love and remained the love of my life.

My teacher found for me a full-size instrument. It had been in an attic and was in bad shape. He took it to a luthier to have it restored. It was and is a beautiful instrument, a French Mirecourt from approximately 1860, and it has a beautiful sound. Whenever we went on vacation, I took my cello along. One summer, I borrowed a large wooden cello case from my teacher and we put it on the roof rack of the car because there was no room in the trunk. I even went hitchhiking with a backpack and my cello. That was not very wise, I am sure.

I met Richard, an American student who was on a French government fellowship to study French foreign policy in Paris. When he asked me to marry him, I went to New York with my cello. I am not sure if he realized that the cello was such an essential part of my life.

We have now been married 59 years. Richard joined the American Foreign Service, and we lived in many countries around the world. I played chamber music in Helsinki. I played in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. I played quartets in Mexico City. I played trios and quartets in Toronto and in Malta and on Maltese television and on the baroque stage of the Manoel Theatre. Back in Washington, I have played in the McLean Symphony as principal cellist. I played in the Friday Music Club, and in small groups, mostly string quartets. We give concerts and play in outreach programs for retirement communities. I play in several different groups at different times.

For the past five years, I have played Jewish music as a soloist and with a string quartet on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We performed in front of the diplomatic corps, officials of the US government, and Holocaust survivors. It is every year a very emotional moment for me, especially when I play “Ani Maamin.”

While my parents were alive, whenever I went for a visit with them in Cannes where they had retired, my mother borrowed a cello and we played sonatas together. She asked me to bring my own bow, because she knew that no one likes to play with a borrowed bow. I had to explain to the security agents that I was carrying a bow and not a weapon.

Music has always been a joy for me, as well as a consolation. After I received the news in 1988 of my brother Franklin’s suicide, I sat down at the cello, I cried, and I played a suite by Bach. My conductor encouraged me to come back to play in the orchestra, and I remember crying and playing at the same time. My mother had done the same thing. After my mother died, and after my father died, I played.

I have not yet decided what music I want to be played during my last days of life, or during my funeral, but I will decide that soon and will tell my children.

©2018, Jacquline Mendels Birn. 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.