We lived more or less in hell. At least the SS's best attempt at hell, where they took just about everything away from us. When we first entered the camp, they took our families. Then they took our hair, our clothes, and our belongings. With tattoos they took our names. We were not people anymore-we were numbers on an SS officer's inventory list. Items waiting to be counted.
I was certain that the worst thing they could do to me was take away my music, as well, but that misconception soon dissolved. My hope had all but left me as my weeks at the camp began, early in 1941. They worked us like dogs. And when I say dogs I'm being generous. They whipped us and screamed at us as if we had no souls. From that point on, life was about as good as it would become. I savored my small rations of soup and bread, filling my empty stomach with whatever scraps they gave us. The routine became so mind numbingly slow that for some time I was certain I had died and this was really just hell-in some way I had displeased the Father and was sentenced to suffer eternally.
They played music over the loud speakers and forced us to sing at times, just another way of reminding us who was in charge, but it took me three months to find out about the camp's orchestra. A man approached me one day at the factory, with a small wooden object under his arm. In the moments he took to approach me I tried without success to figure out what he held. Was it a club? Did he wish to punish me for something I had done?
"Juliek Nachbar? Prisoner A3275?" He called, looking between the forty or so of us that worked at that station. I considered staying silent, but by then I had started to recognize the object under his arm. I didn't want to believe what I saw. The smooth, polished wood that once shone proudly, a rich, almost orange brown, like the sunset in my hometown. I put my hand up.
The man crossed the floor to step in front of me, holding out the violin with a slight smile. "Welcome to the group. You're to report to the musician's block after work today and join us for practice. We need a good violinist." I stared at him in disbelief. "What? Don't you want it? It's a beautiful violin
" My hands immediately snatched the instrument away from him, shaping to the violin as they had all of my life.
"Thank you." I said, but he had already walked away, leaving me with a violin in one hand, a bow in the other, and tears shining in my eyes.
That night I followed one of the men I had never noticed back to the musician's block. He explained that for the entertainment of the SS, they had formed a Lagerkapellen, or a camp orchestra. I sat down among the other men, all holding some sort of battered looking instrument. Smiles lit faces; something I hadn't seen in a while. The SS had taken everything from me, but now they had given me something back. I set the violin under my chin and drew the bow across the strings once, playing a simple chord.
I had never heard anything so beautiful. The note rang out clearly and fully, as they always had for me, the violin's body succumbing to my will, the strings obeying my command as the bow moved for my fingers. The others watched silently as I played a simple part of one of my favorite pieces-Beethoven.
If I was in hell, at least I had a little piece of heaven to hang onto.
They ran us like dogs. I hadn't eaten anything for days, maybe even weeks. The passage of time had all but fled from my consciousness. The only thing I was truly aware of was the object under my shirt, banging against my chest in time with my strides. It kept me going, for all that was worth. It seemed almost unfair, the way the shoved us into the barracks after they'd had enough of watching men drop dead from exhaustion. Not that anything had been anything but unfair from the moment we entered the camp, but this was a new brand of inhumane treatment.
I was soon crushed by another body and called out, begging for mercy. In another life, Juliek wouldn't have degraded himself by begging. But the new Juliek had watched his wife, the love of his life, die with their child in her arms. The new Juliek had seen her go towards the crematories and never return.
I recognized the voice. It was Eliezer, the boy. He was an odd child. But a familiar face was a comfort in these dark times. We talked for a few moments. All around us the dead were heaped upon the living. The only difference between those who had died and those who still lived was the pain they had to endure
By some grace of God, I managed to push my way through the corpses, my shirt pulled up to my nose to ward against the smell of rotting bodies, and sit up enough to pull the violin to my chin. My hands eagerly did their job, one wrapped around the neck of the violin, fingers already on their respective strings, the other holding the bow ready above the body of the violin.
I considered for a long time the consequences of my action. All around me were dying people, my brothers and sisters in faith, and in suffering. The SS officers weren't in sight, but I was certain they were near enough to hear us.
Music had given me hope. It had kept me alive when everything else was taken from me. I owed these dying people something
and I gave them the only thing I knew how to give. My bow flew across the strings like it never had that night, my fingers fighting to keep up with it, working heat back into my frozen hands. I poured all I had into that concerto, my favorite piece by my favorite musician, playing for all I had. I had lost so much in the years I lived in the concentration camps
my family, my name, my wealth, my job
but they couldn't tear the music out of my heart. And the music was beautiful that night! The best I had ever played, for an audience of the dying.
I played for all that I had lost, and for all that they had lost. The notes cried in the air, circling up to the heavens, to my God, to my family, for all I was worth. I was aware of nothing but the notes and my fingers stretching to keep up with my mind, finally giving me what I had been searching for.
Towards the end of the piece, my fingers slowed. I guess it was only to be expected. I had given that piece of music everything I had. Content, I slumped over backwards, still cradling the violin in my arms like a child, holding it to my chest with what little strength I had left. I died with music echoing in my ears and spinning through my heart. It strengthened my soul even as my body weakened. Breath left my lungs for the last time, and I died, clutching the sunset red violin to my breast, watching as angels flew over my head.
"Juliek," they said. "You played beautifully tonight."
"I know." I replied. "I know..."