My father called any music other than Jewish music, German music, and hated me for playing it.
His idea of an orchestra was comprised of 12 instruments and resigned to the Temple.
He always complained about “that screeching in the attic” when I practiced, thinking my violin as something evil.
“Why do you knot learn to play the lyre or harp?” he always asked me.
But I was always an ambitious boy and wanted to play great music not associated with scripture.
I wanted to play in the great concert halls in Berlin or Paris or Prague.
Now, I play here, scratching out “German music” each day when the work men march out of camp to the factories and each evening when they return.
My father, had he survived the train that brought us here, would have hated my music more than ever.
No Jew, he would tell me, has any business playing in a Nazi camp.
Deep down, I know he is right.
This is not Temple or great halls, but some aspect of living hell, to which my music has become the soundtrack.
Yet – I tell myself – in this misery, with all this suffering and dying, I somehow bring an aspect of pleasure, if not to the shriveled bodies, then to their souls.
I do not play for the Nazi guards, though I do play at their command. I play for my fellow Jews, hoping that these sweet notes might ease some aspect of their pain.
I find some inkling of pride in this small accomplishment.
I tell myself, had my father survived – had he arrived at this place alive rather than as one of the dead bodies brought out of the cattle cars – he might have found something of worth in me and my skilled fingers.
He would, of course, frowned upon my playing before each of the official executions, each note a bullet hole in the body of a Jew.
Even I can find no justification in that, and hear only the misery of my music as living Jews cart away dead Jews to the crematorium for burning.
It is the work march I cling to, hoping that our small band of musicians can add some strength to men sent off to work the Nazi war machine.
They seem so admirable, those men in their blue-striped pants, each escaping the pathetic drudgery of the camp for the drudgery of labor, my music still fresh in their ears.
Some even hum as they leave, appreciating my talents the way they appreciate the extra rations to the Nazi give them for working so hard.
I think if they can hear what I play, they are still better off than those who have become the bone meal in some Nazi herb garden.
I pretend sometimes that my father – who is among the bone meal – can hear me, too, and have his spirit lifted.
But this thought always leads to the thought of how many Jews have died while I have played, and how many are dying before my eyes, even those who are not escorted off to sniff the carbon monoxide the Nazi provide.
Sometimes I believe I play the dirge not for a dying man, but for a dying race of people, and wonder if any of us will survive.
The work, beatings, cold and lack of food drain men’s spirits as well as their bodies.
And I know that if I survive, my music will forever contain their drying moans, haunting me from their mass graves.
At night, I dream that I play for my living father, not German music, but those liturgical poems my father loved so well. Sometimes I even think I hear his voice chanting hazzanut as if to defy the Nazi’s wish for our culture to vanish from the earth.
I dream that my violin is a harp that I am playing along to his sacred word, we, two, holding together traditions that would be lost without us.
Those dreams do more to heal me than a full dose of scarce medicines the camp surgeon can supply.
Then I wake up and the world is turned upside down.
You are supposed to wake from nightmares, not into them.
At such moment after waking, I see all of the beatings and the starvation, the underfed, the gassed, the worked to dead, and I know I will go out and play “German music” anyway.
How can I do such a thing, my father asks from beyond the grave?
Am I not Jewish, too?
How can I play while I watch other Jews die?
With food so short, I grow too weak to play, a strange mercy I attribute to God.
I could not have forced myself to case in any other way.
Now I am just another Jew, my bones exposed. I move in the haze of dream that starvation and fear provide none of the horror real to me any more.
I know I will soon join my father in dust.
Son we shall sing Temple music together, when we meet again.