March 6, 2017
Many years ago, my wife, Dorothea, and I visited her friend, Gottliebe von Lehndorff, in Peterskirchen, a town not far from Munich, Germany.
A single, shattering event had originally brought the two women’s lives together. Both Dorothea’s father, Hans Bernd von Haeften, and Gottliebe’s husband, Heinrich von Lehndorff, had been involved in the failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, and both had been subsequently executed.
Gottliebe was now living in what was essentially a converted monastery. She had created a place where friends could live and where artists, writers, musicians, and assorted creative people could gather, converse, and expand on their interests. In my own field of music, the Austrian pianist, Friedrich Gulda, was a frequent visitor.
On the day Dorothea and I arrived, something unusual was taking place. Gottliebe and some of her friends had decided to relocate a grand piano, presumably the one on which Gulda and others played, from the second to the first floor. The plan was to move the piano out through a large upper window and lower it to the courtyard below. With this in mind, the piano had been tied with ropes that in turn were attached to a beam stretching across the courtyard. There were several people involved in this operation and they were all busily discussing the best way to proceed. The question was how to manage the ropes in such a way that the piano remained stable and unscathed on its journey first outward and then downward.
It quickly became apparent to me, even as a casual bystander, that none of those involved was a professional piano mover. Heated opinions flew back and forth for several minutes, ropes were rearranged again and again, and, finally, a course of action was decided upon. The piano began to be gingerly eased out of the window.
With hindsight, a professional should have been in charge, for the piano suddenly slipped out of a section of rope, careened into thin air, and then, with one convulsive motion, turned upside down. Some of us gasped, others screamed, and those non-professionals in charge pulled desperately on the remaining ropes in an effort to right the endangered instrument.
In all the excitement, I seemed to have been the only one who noticed a small piece of paper that fell from the still upended piano and fluttered gently to the ground. While the others successfully managed to lower the piano safely to earth, curiosity got the better of me. I wandered over to the square-shaped paper lying in the grass and picked it up. In utter disbelief, I saw that what I held in my hand was an image of Adolph Hitler sitting in a field and peeling an apple with his pocketknife. Hitler was wearing casual street clothes rather than a military uniform, implying that the photo must have been taken in the 1930s before the Nazis invaded the rest of Europe and set World War Two in motion.
Adolph Hitler looked so thoughtful, so benign surrounded by that bucolic countryside. Perhaps for many in the 1930s who had regarded this image—one that I soon discovered had come out of a pack of cigarettes—Hitler was indeed seen not only as thoughtful and benign, but also as the German-speaking people’s savior who would lead them to a new and glorious future. Now, thirty years after that devastating war, all of us gathered around the piano probably had Adolph Hitler still marauding painfully through our memories and our innermost feelings. Certainly, that must have been true for Gottliebe who had lost her husband, for Dorothea her father, for me many of my closest relatives in Auschwitz, and for all the others present both German and Austrian who were in one way or another ensnared by Hitler’s ghastly vision.
I showed everyone the photo of Hitler that had lived for decades hidden away somewhere inside the piano. It invoked outwardly nothing more than a few nervous laughs. Was the subject after all those years still too painful to dwell upon openly, or were people simply tired of their failed attempts to grapple with the incomprehensible?
I cannot remember whether I gave the cigarette card to anyone there or placed it back amongst the instrument’s innermost workings, but questions kept coming at me. Who was the smoker who had played this piano? Why had he or she not kept the card rather than squirreling it away? Was the smoker one of those brutal high-ranking Nazi officers who paradoxically also loved his Bach, Mozart, and Schubert? Could the person have been a terrified but apolitical music teacher seeking solace at the piano while trying to live below the dangerous Nazi radar? Or had this poor soul been a German Jew, smoking as he played, who loved his country and his music too much to leave in time to escape the extermination camps?
I’ve often wished that an old musical instrument—my violin, for example—could tell us its own vivid story as well as the one dictated by the performers who have played on it. For a brief moment, as the piece of paper fluttered to the ground and revealed its heart-stopping image, I almost involuntarily blurted out: Speak, piano. Tell us about the man with the pack of cigarettes. Tell us about the people who played Bach, Mozart, and Schubert on your keyboard in order to soothe their aching souls.
Tell us what you know about that dark and sinister time in human history.
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