Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rhapsody in Trieste 1945

Third from the top left, my uncle. On the pillow is my mother. Third and fourth from the top right are my grandparents.

The Story Begins.

When you try and tell a story that lives in the past and has shifted and changed in memory, you risk getting a few facts wrong, a few dates out of place, a few pieces that don't belong but were inserted because the storyteller needed some message to come through from that time. But underneath, the story remains and that's what I choose to focus on for now. I'll be telling lots of family stories here and the facts may change as I learn them more completely, but at the roots, the seeds of the story will remain the same. Here is the first one.
This is a story my cousin recorded from my mother talking about the end of the war in Trieste. If you want to know more about what was ending, check out this vivid and concise account of just one small part of what it meant so you can understand how beaten down and demoralized the people were at this point in time. War always counts among its victims those who survived.

My uncle was born in 1912, about ten years before my mom. He was a pianist, a brilliantly talented artist who early on gained a reputation as a rare musical genius. It's hard to know exactly what his politics were before the war, other than to suspect they began as something quite different than what they became. I suspect his politics, if you consider that he was always so totally submerged in his art, were an intellectual exercise that he amused himself with at times. As a musician, he saw only one truth and that was music. It was pure. It was apolitical. It was his soul.

And even though he was perfectly and superbly classically trained and was a talented composer whose works still have the power to astonish, he was a child of the Jazz Age and that too was part of his soul. He could move from Chopin to Ragtime to improvised Jazz with an effortless flow from one to another as if they were one piece. And considering his fierce passion for music in all its forms, you can probably understand how the moment impacted him the first time he heard Gershwin's music.

And from there you can understand what it did to this musical purist, this classical idealist with a jazzman's soul when the Nuremberg Laws were passed and he was forbidden to play or listen to Gershwin because he was Jewish. In Trieste during the occupation, the only music allowed was German, Italian and French. No Jews. No Blacks. No Slavs. No Americans.

My uncle taught himself to play Rhapsody in Blue in secret froms sheet music he managed to get hold of during the war. He never heard it except from his own hands. He played it until it was perfect and then he played it some more. I imagine it became a sort of rebellion for him, a musical fight against the horrors going on outside his world.

How he survived is another story, but this one today ends with the day Trieste was finally liberated. I don't know the exact date of the concert this story is about, but it was sometime in 1945. After the horrors, after the celebrations, a concert was scheduled to help heal Trieste, to let it know it was finally free. And my uncle was chosen to play the piano, to begin the first baby steps toward healing a devasted city.
The music he chose to play was proof that the war was finally over. He played Rhapsody in Blue to a stunned room of people that I've been told listened in tears to this magnificent piece of music, this symbol of a new beginning after so much sorrow and pain.

But what they did not know as they listened to him play was that a couple hours before, my grandfather had died. My mother's responsibility was to keep my uncle from finding out before the performance, and to keep my grandmother from falling apart during the performance. When my cousin asked how she could do this she said that it was more important for Trieste to heal and the concert would have been cancelled if my uncle knew. She felt it was n't about them, about individuals. It was about a community who needed the healing power of music in its purest most powerful form. They needed this proof the war was over so they could go on with their lives.
Yes, this was a powerful and unselfish moment, a moment of pure altruism and caring for something beyond one's own needs and desires. It was a patriotism that is rooted in the very soil because the ground was still wet with the blood of those who weren't there.

But as future stories will show, one moment of humanity, one remnant of altruism does not erase the horrors of war and eventually the bad memories win. The war, as it did to many people, left my mother with a sort of functional insanity that is commom to a lot of war survivors. I'll write more on that in the next installment.


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