It had not been the hardest winter. That had been the previous winter—the deluge that was 1947. London like an iceberg, the Home Counties one vast undulating eiderdown of white, snowbound villages in Derbyshire dug out by German POWs many miles and years from home—a bizarre reminder that we had “won the war.” War. Winter. He had thought he might not live through either. He had. The English, who could talk the smallest of small talk about weather, had deemed 1948 to be “not bad” or, if feeling loquacious, “nowt to write home about.” But now, as the earth cracked with the first green tips of spring, the bold budding of crocus and daffodil that seemed to bring grey-toothed smiles to the grey faces of the downtrodden victors of the World War among whom he lived, he found no joy in it. It had come too late to save him. This winter would not kill him. The last would. And all the others that preceded it.
He took a silver hip flask from his inside pocket and downed a little Armagnac.
“André, I cannot do this anymore.”
Skolnik had been pretending to read the Post, billowing pages spread out in front of him screening his face from the drifting gaze of passersby. He stopped, turned his head to look directly at Viktor.
“I have to stop now.”
The newspaper was folded for maximum rustle. It conveyed the emotions André pretended long ago to have disowned in favor of calm, unrufflable detachment.
“Viktor. You cannot just stop. You cannot simply quit. What was it you think you joined all those years ago? A gentleman’s club? As though you can turn in your membership when brandy and billiards begin to bore you?”
Viktor took another sip of Armagnac, then passed the flask to André.
“Nineteen eighteen,” he said softly as Skolnik helped himself to a hefty swig. “Nineteen eighteen.”
“Nineteen eighteen—that’s when I joined. Were you even born then?”
“Not that it matters, but I was at school.”
The flask was handed back, the paper slapped down between them.
“You cannot stop just because it suits you to stop.”
Viktor sighed a soft, whispery, “Really,” of exasperation. “Why can I not stop?”
“Because the Communist Party of the Soviet Union simply doesn’t work that way.”
I would love to be like the lilies of the field.
Someone who managed to read this age correctly would surely have learned just this: to be like a lily of the field.
ETTY HILLESUM, diary entry for SEPTEMBER 22, 1943 (died Auschwitz NOVEMBER 30, 1943), Etty: A Diary (published 1981)
Vienna: February 9, 1934
The war began as a whisper—a creeping sussurus that she came to hear in every corner of her childhood—by the time it finally banged on the door and rattled the windows it had come to seem like nature itself. It had always been there, whispered, hinted, spoken, bawled. It was the inevitable, it was the way things were—like winter or spring.
There was a whisper of war. Even at ten years old Méret could hear it. Her father had come home from the theatre a year ago, slapped the paper down on the dining table, and in his rant against “this buffoon Hitler” had forgotten to kiss her. He always kissed her when he came home from work. The first thing he did, even before he kissed his wife. It coincided with Méret’s getting home from school. Her father was the Herr Direktor of the Artemis Theatre. He would take a couple of hours off midafternoon, before the box office opened for the evening performance, take tea with his wife and daughter in his apartment, return to the theatre and not be home again until hours after Méret had been put to bed.
“How can they let themselves be so deceived? How can Germans be so stupid? It couldn’t happen here. If he’d stayed in Austria we’d have seen through him. Imagine it—a corporal from Linz hijacking an entire country? It couldn’t happen here!”
Now he brought her the consequences of the Nazis seizing power. One year on, and some of those collared in the first roundups, in the wake of the burning of the Reichstag, were being set free. Mostly they were left-wing, intellectual, or both, and the Nazis either regarded a spell in Oranienburg as intellectual rehabilitation or they expected them to leave. Many did leave. Vienna, where most of Austria’s quarter of a million Jews lived, was swelling with an influx of German Jews, German leftwingers, and German intellectuals.
“Darling girl, if I mention the name Viktor Rosen do you know of whom I speak?”
Of course she did. Viktor Rosen might not be the most famous pianist in the German speaking world, but he was close to it.
“He is living in Vienna now. In Berggasse. Close to Professor Freud. He called in at the theatre today. I had the opportunity of a chat with him. He is taking on pupils.”
Imre paused to watch his daughter’s reaction.
She set down her teacup and with the gravitas that only a preadolescent can muster when talking to an exasperating adult, replied, “Papa, Herr Rosen is a pianist.”
“The cello is his second instrument. Just as the piano is yours.”
Now she could see what he was saying. She concealed her joy—it came naturally to her.
“And,” said her father, “he has agreed to take you on for both instruments.”
She wished she could hug him, she wished she could sing her joy. Her father scooped her up and saved her from expressions of love and gratitude that would have been clumsy and embarrassing. He hugged her and spun her around and set her back on the carpet in the middle of the room a little dizzy from the ride. He smiled his pleasure; her mother, gently tearful, wept hers. Méret would repay his joy. Of course she would. She would play for him. Music said it all. She’d never had much need of words. Music was her code.