Ava Kadishson Schieber
WHEN ISABELLE ORDERED HER TROUSSEAU, she had the bedsheets and spreads made out of black satin. As the news about this circulated around town, part of the community was shocked.
The younger generation of the town’s Jewish families were trying to keep up with the times, yet they were also holding on to their traditions. There were many manifestations, expressions of their nostalgia for the bygone era, especially for the vanished decadent splendor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bowing, kissing hands, and the like. Between the restless desire for the modern and the yearning for a romanticized past, younger people like Isabelle were groping for new self-expressive “isms.”
Isabelle’s home was one of the fanciest in town and the meeting place for those wanting to be part of the new wave of arts and ideas sweeping through Central Europe. Isabelle had adopted the flair of art deco, and she definitively set the pace. Her gatherings were filled with talk about art, literature, music, theater. But the real attraction on those occasions was the inevitable card game, the culmination of the social event.
Ladies of that circle would frequently travel from the Balkans to Central Europe and bring home new and enticing topics for conversation. And of course there were the results of their equally inevitable splurges in the latest styles of dress, so others in the small town could be envious and dash off to make copies of the gowns. The gentlemen of the group would go on so-called business trips.
They would tour the cabarets of various European capitals, and hopefully, they would bring home only a dog, which mattered mostly because of its pedigree. The dog’s lineage would have to be as long as that of the impoverished nobility who were breeding those very costly animals mostly to maintain their own deflated lifestyles. Then there were also the talented members of the Novi Sad group who organized amateur charity performances of the current big-city shows.
Father was part of the creative segment in the group, debonair in off-white spats, homburg, bow tie, and kid gloves. How that image remains in my memory. But I also remember my father in a very different picture. The transformation occurred when he would take out his violin and play. I liked to watch and listen when he played the intense Hungarian folk songs and fierce Gypsy melodies, with their rhythms as basic as a pulse beat. As a child, I was deeply affected by both the fervor of this music and my father’s deeply involved playing. The performance made me feel tense with pleasure and upset at the same time. Alone, during the long war years, I often thought how much I would have liked the chance to know Father better.
At times of respite—when the war, like a deadly illness, was in remission—I used to wonder about my parents’ generation. Until the moment they and their world vanished and my home was destroyed, that generation was the arbiter of elegance and behavior for mine. My parents’ generation had survived the horrifying First World War. Did they have an inkling of impending disaster before it flared up again in utterly destructive violence? They were so unprepared when the next war began.
After so many decades, I’ve tried to analyze and be more objective about what my own emotions were when World War II broke out in our region. The first order of the Nazi invaders was that all Jews had to register. Disobedience meant the death penalty. Every Jew had to wear a large yellow patch with the Star of David in the center. Thus identified, one was an easy target for slaughter. I remembered learning that when infectious diseases ravaged Europe in centuries past, to prevent the spread of illness every victim’s household had to have a yellow sign on the door—a warning, visible from far away, to avoid this dangerous place.
We were marked in order to be kept at a distance. I remember my anger overpowering my fear. We were regarded by the Nazis as unclean, contaminated, dangerous to be near. These arrogant representatives of power first debased, then killed everyone who had registered. I felt enraged at being persecuted, hunted like a rabid animal, when I was a decent, rational, thinking teenager who had done no harm to anyone.
There was a hill in the middle of town where big country fairs and other festivities were usually held. This was the place chosen by the Nazi command to be the site where the Jews had to register. Silent rows of Jewish families stood in meticulous alphabetical order. Everyone, even small children, wore the yellow mark.
Father’s anger must have had an intensity similar to mine. My family wordlessly left the line that was slowly moving toward doom. We said good-bye to each other. Alone, each one took his chance. We were the ones who survived.
Following the end of war, the unimaginable, mechanically efficient mass murder became history. The Nazi brutality is duly recorded in the dry statistics of the event called World War II. In their meticulous manner, the Nazi murderers prepared and stored the neatly arranged files documenting their efficient destruction. They must have been proud of preserving the information as a hallmark of their national heritage, a collection of memorabilia for posterity.
IT WAS MANY YEARS LATER that I met Isabelle again. She remembered me vaguely, as one of the kids from the prewar era, she said. She invited me to her home, and I gratefully accepted. There were not many people around who would ask me to visit them.
Isabelle had aged way beyond her years. That was true for all survivors. By now she had found a new group of card players, but the gatherings lacked the flair of the prewar assembly. I wondered whether theirs was a brave attempt to reconstruct a vanished era or whether it was cowardice about venturing into a changed reality.
I participated in some of these strangely ghostlike and ageless get-togethers. Middle age was unkind to these veterans of dying and of living beyond death. Isabelle still had some of the mannerisms I remembered and admired as a child. One of them was her complete lack of interest in practical daily chores. Somebody always took over, or the work just wasn’t done.
In spite of the devastating experiences in Isabelle’s life, her vague approach to just about everything had not changed. This could have been the reason she had managed to survive one of the most notorious death camps in the Nazis’ regime. I didn’t ask her about that time. I wasn’t ready to talk about myself, either.
One day, during a chance encounter with Isabelle, she started talking in her unpredictable way: “You probably know I played the cello as a young girl. It was easier than the violin, and I liked the way I could embrace the instrument. My whole body was involved. I never became even a fair musician. But playing did save my life.
“It must have been one of those murderous minds that was behind the perverse idea to form an orchestra in the death camp,” Isabelle continued. “There were former members of some European symphonies. I believe the Nazi commander of the camp put me into the orchestra as the ultimate insult to those musicians. I never played in tune.
“Most of us were barely alive, the same as those walking toward the ever belching chimneys. We were holding on to our instruments, our only link to another day, trying not to show any deficiency. Weakness meant death; I tried to play as correctly as I possibly could—my life depended on it.”
I had a vision of emaciated faces, shaven skulls, musical instruments protruding out of colorless rags, bony fingers playing music while endless lines of people were being marched into the gas chambers.
Isabelle’s muted voice continued: “At some time Leo became concertmaster. He was such a brilliant musician. What a wasted career.”
Leo, my father—how I used to watch him, leaning his head on the smooth wood with a loving touch, gently putting his hand around the fingerboard just below the pegs, lifting the bow.
Isabelle looked like a shriveled leaf. A cloud of sadness descended upon me. She continued in a whisper: “Leo was an artist. He held us together with the strength of his big musical repertoire and his daring humor. Sometimes he would sneak in some Offenbach themes into the Viennese waltzes we were playing. The Germans never realized that. We of course were terrified and delighted.
“I don’t know how long we continued to play, for weeks, months, always accompanying those death marchers. The orchestra kept diminishing in size. We all knew those who didn’t show up in the morning would never be seen again.”
Isabelle looked completely gray. I didn’t think a live person’s complexion could develop that shade. I saw her as she must have looked in the camp, embracing the cello. If she played, she existed. Ravaged by starvation, playing music in the ultimate degradation of humanity.
I could see the endless lines of human shadows moving slowly toward buildings with smoking chimneys. For me this was going to be a lifelong source of horror-filled dreams, not to mention my waking hours. For Isabelle, this had been reality.
Isabelle’s barely audible voice became gray as well: “When Leo fell ill, we were all very frightened. Who was going to lead the orchestra if he didn’t show up in the morning? He was weakening, and could barely hold the violin.”
There was a long pause. I wasn’t sure if she was going to continue. My father had never returned. By now the pain was only in the brain, like the sensation long after an amputation—the missing part is always present in the nerve center of an amputee.
Isabelle was talking again. I wasn’t sure if I had missed something but didn’t dare to interrupt.
“One day there was a group marching toward the chimneys; yet in spite of their shaven heads and rags, they looked different. They walked erect, with an aura of pride. Leo knew who they were, as he had always liked them. ‘They are Gypsies,’ he said sadly. ‘They are proud to have been put into the same category as we Jews.’”
Isabelle’s voice seemed to have gained strength when she continued: “Leo took his violin and started to play Ravel’s ‘Tzigane.’” His playing was a triumphal ode for the doomed Gypsies. “When he finished, he put down his violin and walked off. I never saw him again.”
I felt an upsurge of gratitude toward Isabelle. It had been difficult for her to share that memory.
I was fifteen when my family dispersed, each on his own, to try and survive. We had all agreed to that decision. Actively taking that chance, together and yet to be separated, was all that was left of our self-respect.
Hearing Isabelle’s reminiscences, I felt pain. I also felt pride. At least I knew that Father had made the choice to die with dignity. It was, until the end, his way to live.