The Great Synagogue of Olomouc

olomouc synagogue

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights reserved

From “Pavel’s Violin”
Chapter 19: By The Theresien Gate
1897

In her day, Maria Theresa had not been a great friend of the Jews. It was an irony, therefore, that so many places crucial to the history of the Jewish people were named in honor of that de facto sovereign, the last but three of the dying Holy Roman Empire. Most were dedicated by her son, Joseph II, perhaps in gratitude for her making his own Imperial career possible. Two of Joseph’s projects, in particular, came to play important roles in the lives, and deaths, of many Olomouc Jews. One was a fortified town near Bohemia’s border with Germany, built between 1780 and 1790. Another was the Theresientor in Olomouc, a triumphal arch in the city wall, completed in 1753. The first, Theresienstadt, would one day become a concentration camp where tens of thousands of Jews died. The second became, in 1897, the site of one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Europe. Yet it, too, was doomed to death and destruction.

Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim ascended the bema of the new Synagogue on the proudest day of his life, and the most joyful day in the history of Olomouc Jews. It had begun some two hours earlier as people were entering the Theresienplatz through the Teresien Gate in the northeast. The gate itself was a magnificent Triumphal Arch, intentionally preserved when the city walls had been demolished a few years earlier. It was made with red brick, and faced with granite blocks and friezes. The keystone of the main arch bore an image of the Empress, and above, in Latin, the legend MTHERESA DGRIGHBR and the date MDCCLIII. Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God Emperor of Rome Queen of Germany Hungary and Bohemia, 1753. It had been part of the Theresien Wall, and contained guardrooms within several smaller arches.

Once through the Gate, guests found themselves on a wide greensward with paths winding through trees, shrubs and spring flowers, with the main path running from the Gate to the Portico of the Synagogue. Those who arrived neither too early nor too late encountered hundreds of people milling about, or clustered in small groups in animated conversation. It was a beautiful spring day, a week before the start of Passover. A Sunday morning of light blue skies and large white clouds. And to the left, the magnificent new Synagogue, the morning sun backlighting the massive central dome.

“Herr Gartner! Herr Gartner, over here!” The architect turned and waved, as the cluster of well-wishers approached him. They were upon him in a moment, competing to shake his hand. Jakob Gartner, the renowned architect from Vienna, had been chosen to build the Synagogue, which had been completed in two years at a cost of nearly two hundred fifty thousand gulden. Gartner happily pointed out various architectural features, as the crowd grew larger around him.

The building was designed in the Oriental Byzantine style with alternating layers of red and white brick. The large central dome caught the eye first, topped by a cupola and spire. At the front corners stood two towers with smaller, matching domes, in a rich green. Five arches, three in the central façade and one in each tower, surrounded arched stained glass windows, topped with rosettes. At the peak of the gable were two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments of the Law. The building measured twenty-two by thirty-nine yards altogether, and the height of the dome was about one hundred and fifteen feet. Perhaps there may have been some sort of synagogue in the old Omolouc, before Ladislav the Posthumous had expelled the Jews in 1454, but certainly it would have been nothing like this. It was a fitting match for the Cathedral of Saint Wenceslaus, across the city.

As 10:00 o’clock neared, the crowd began to hasten through the three front doors, to find the best seats for the concert. The Synagogue had seating for four hundred and forty men and three hundred and four women. But soon there would soon be only standing room. The Jewish population itself was more than sixteen hundred.

The front vestibule in the northwest led directly into the main hall, on the ground floor, for the men. A side stairway led to the women’s balcony, which overlooked three sides of the hall. And in the center of the hall there rose the great dome, an ironwork structure fully as tall as the outside height of the building, and held high by four massive pillars. At the east end of the interior was the elevated bema with the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark for holding the Torah scrolls, in the shape of a small temple. Also on the bema were the Table for reading the Torah, and a pulpit for preaching. Beyond the Ark, to the southeast, was a small daily house of prayer, with its own Ark and pulpit, and benches for fifty people. The choir and organ were set above that, facing out into the hall. The organ, a fixture of the Jerusalem Temple, at least according to Scripture, had been reintroduced to synagogue worship early in the century, not without controversy.

The Synagogue organist had been playing a Bach prelude as the guests entered and found their seats. As the music ended, Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim stood, and surveyed the crowded pews. This was the first official function in the new Synagogue, which had not yet seen its first service of sacred worship. That would come on Friday evening, an especially auspicious Erev Shabbat, because it would also be the first night of Passover.

“This is a deeply meaningful day for the Jews of Olomouc,” he said. “Nearly thirty years ago, the Jewish people returned after an exile of four hundred years. Far longer than our forefathers sojourned in Babylon, and very nearly as
long as we dwelt in the land of Pharoah. Almost fifty years ago, after the rebellions of 1848, our beloved Emperor Franz Joseph released us from exile for a time, and many Jews in the countryside began to come back to Olomouc. It took another twenty years for our emancipation to become complete, but since then the Jewish community in Olomouc has grown and prospered.”

Martha Oppenheim looked down proudly upon her husband from her own place of honor in the women’s balcony. Their own journey had been shorter and easier than that of the Children of Israel. Berthold came from a family of Rabbis. He had been called to Olomouc in 1892 after serving as Rabbi for two years in Miroslav, south of Brno. He had studied in Berlin and Breslau, and Martha was certain he had a remarkable career ahead of him. He had only been in Olomouc two years when the Jewish community decided they were big enough for a synagogue. And no small synagogue either! One a hundred and twenty feet high with three domes, and room to seat almost eight hundred people. She looked around at the cavernous hall, filled to capacity. “I thank Thee, Lord, I thank Thee,” she thought

“And so,” he was drawing to a close, “all are welcome here today. Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, Czech and German.” He added the last with careful emphasis. “Please enjoy our brief concert.”

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved

Sukkos, from “Pavel’s Violin”

sukkah2

       The Feast of Sukkos was everyone’s favorite holiday in Lipnik. The Rabbi explained it as a celebration of the liberation from Egypt, and the wandering in the desert. A time, he lamented, when “the Jews were more religious than they are these days.” The Talmud commanded that once a year, at the end of the Holy Days, Jews should be build a temporary booth, a sukke, in their yard and live in it for a week. Well, strictly speaking only the men were obligated. But the rest of the family “dropped in” often, and all meals were shared there.
“The sukke reminds us that the Holy One, may His Name be blessed, brought us out from slavery in Egypt,” the Rabbi said each year, “and taught us for forty years in the wilderness before giving us the Promised Land.”
But every holiday had its worldly roots as well, and it was those roots that people who were not Rabbis were most likely to celebrate. Originally the Feast of Booths was a harvest festival, when villagers would live in temporary shelters out in the field, bringing in the harvest, and celebrating their bounty.
“Which is why our sukke today,” Levi whispered, eyes darting about for the Rabbi, “is decorated with gourds and vegetables, and wheat, which no Jew ever found in the middle of a desert!”
By the time they had finished hanging decorations, and putting up a table and benches, it was nearly dark. Miryam and Beylke, along with, the daughters in law, began carrying platters and baskets of food from the house. Levi busied himself with a final inspection of the sukke, the Papa’s duty.
It could be of any size a family needed, as long as it had at least three walls, which could be of any material. The roof had to be natural, however, usually cut branches. The Mishna said so. It had to be solid enough to give shade, but open enough so you could see the stars through it at night. In nice weather it was nice. If it rained, it rained. And when the sun went down on the first day of the feast, the celebration would begin. In the gathering dark, Miryam lit the two candles, saying,
“Blessed are you Adonai Eloheinu, who has commanded us to light the candles of Sukkos.” Levi waved a sheaf of grain and a basket of fruit before them.
“Blessed are you,” he said, “Who gives us the fruit of the earth.”
“Can we eat now?” Anshel begged, from behind his mother, and they all laughed.
“I think we have a wise grandson,” Levi said. “Let’s eat!”
~
After the feast, with stars shining through the roof branches and fresh candles lighted, everyone helped to clear away the dishes. Brandy was brought out for the adults, cider for the children, and the eldest daughter, Mryam’s only daughter, Beylke, began the evening’s festivities with the family’s traditional request,
“Tattenyu!” she called out to her father, “Tell us the story of the Little Sukke!”
“Well, children, gather ‘round,” he said with a grin. This was always the signal for everyone to “gather ‘round,” no matter what age, on benches or on the ground, to listen to Reb Levi’ song.
“You know,” he said, surveying his many children and grandchildren, “Our sukke is not so little.” He gestured with a wide sweep of his arm. “But that is because our family is not so little!” Everyone laughed. Those same words were spoken every year. “And this story, about a sukke a kleyne, is not so much about a little sukke, but about a beloved sukke.” He paused and smiled at them all. “A beloved sukke for a beloved family.
“Of course I cannot tell the story without my fiddle!” he announced. The children all clapped with delight, the adults following their lead. Levi reached into a corner behind the table and brought out his old violin, the one he had used for this moment every year since the children could remember.
He made a great show of tuning the strings, taking far more time than was actually needed. This too was part of the family tradition. The young ones jostled and squirmed with anticipation, inching ever closer to their grandfather. The adults remembered days gone by, when they had done the same thing, in the same sukke. Levi continued to tune his strings, with mock seriousness, until he was interrupted by a young voice in the middle of the crowd,
“Grandpa! The story!” and, remembering his place, “Please!” Levi looked up, in pretended surprise.
“What? Oh. Oh yes, the story!” He drew his bow across the strings, testing his tuning.
“This song is an old, old story about our people. It was first told many years ago, when we escaped from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land.” Eidel, Beylke’s daughter, raised her hand.
“Were you there, Grandpa?” she asked. Levi pulled on his beard.
“You think because of this beard I’m as old as Methuselah?” he laughed. “No, Eidele, it was too long ago, even for me. But if you are a Jew, it is always just as if you had escaped from Egypt yourself. One day,” he turned serious for a moment, “you will understand.” He looked all around before going on.
“Tonight, everyone, I have two surprises!” again the children clapped gleefully. “Beylke, my Daughter, come sit with me.” Beylke smiled. She knew what was coming. She went quickly to her father, and sat next to him on his bench.
“Here is the first surprise,” said Levi, his eyes twinkling. “Beylke has been taking lessons from me on the fiddle.” Everyone laughed. That was no surprise. They had all heard the sounds of those lessons for months, beginning with scratches and squeals, slowly becoming softer and sweeter.
“She has been taking lessons,” Levi said, “and now she is ready.” He handed the fiddle to her, “and tonight she will play for the sukkaleh tale!” More joyful clapping, and a cheer from Motke, her husband. Beylke blushed, and raised the instrument into position.
“This is an old, old tale,” Levi began, “and it has been told many times, in many lands, in the many languages our people have known. Many of the words have changed many times, and doubtless will continue to do so in the many years ahead.
“This is really a song about two sukkes,” he held up his fingers. “A little one, and a big one. We are sitting in the little one.” Everyone laughed. “Well, I know it looks big, but, believe me it is little compared to the other.
“The big sukke is our people, the Jews. It is so big that millions of us from all over the world fit into it!” A gasp arose among the children.
“But even if our little sukke looks weak, like a little storm could knock it over,” He paused and looked at one of his grandchildren. “Motel,” he asked, “has our sukke ever fallen down?”
“No, Grandpa, never!”
“Aha!” said Levi. “Never! And the big sukke is just like that. Only much bigger. For thousands of years we Jews have faced many trials and dangers. We have faced many storms, and sometimes we were afraid our story might be all over, and that our big sukke would come crashing down. One time it was the Egyptians in the Torah. Last summer it was the Prussians right here in Olomouc! The big sukke has been shaken by so many storms, but has it ever fallen down, Motel.”
“No!” Motel shouted. ”Never!”
“And so, no matter what fears come upon us,” Levi concluded, “we Jews may be shaken, but we will always stand.”
He nodded to Beylke, who began the sweet, plaintive tune, her slender fingers light upon the strings, playing, not with a learned technique, but with an inborn gift. Levi began the to sing.

A sikele a kleyne,
mit breytelekh gemeyne . . .

There was no sound, except for the father’s voice, and the daughter’s violin.

My Sukkahleh is small, not fancy at all
but is especially dear to me.
Thatch I put on a bit, hoping to cover it,
there sitting and thinking I’d be.

The wind was a cold one,
the cracked walls were old ones,
the candles were flickering low.
At times as if dying, but suddenly rising,
as if they did not want to go.

My sweet little daughter
sensing the danger,
got scared and started to cry.
“Father,” she cried,
“Don’t stay there outside
the Sukkah is going to fall!”

Fear not my child, it’s been quite a while
the Sukkahleh still stands strong.
The wind has been worse my dear,
but it’s been several thousand years,
yet the Sukkahleh still stands strong!

Beylke played the last half of a verse as an ending, and lowered the violin. The children looked around, quietly, in awe, at Beylke, at Levi, at the walls of their own sukkaleh that rustled and creaked in the night breezes. Miryam had tears in her eyes; as did all of all the adults.
“Our People haven’t fallen yet,” Levi said, “and we never will.”

 

Copyright 2017, Walter William Melnyk, All Rights reserved

Shit Buckets, Rage, and Laughter: an excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin

cattle car

“Pass out the shit bucket,” shouted a guard. And be careful with it, I don’t want your filth all over me.” While the bucket was being emptied, someone saw a signpost by the siding.
“Zgorzelec,” he said. “It’s Poland. My God, we’re in Poland.” And the door slid shut.

“It’s not the things you’d think would be the problems,” Pavel said to Aaron. Aaron was standing on Pavel’s shoulders with his face at the window slot, trying to get some fresh air without cutting his nose on the barbed wire. Moments at the window were at a premium, and available only to men who were already close by.

“What are you saying?” asked Aaron, nearly chocking on his small breath of fresh air. “What do you think our problem is, if it’s not the stench in here!” They had been traveling for nearly two days. Most men had not yet had the chance to sit for a few moments. Most had not gotten anywhere near the bucket. And the stench was so bad they had no desire to get any closer. Many just relieved themselves where they stood. Some people cursed them for it. Others understood, and wept.

“It’s not the stench,” Pavel went on. “Or the hunger or thirst, or the constant standing. It’s not even the dying,” he said, glancing toward the growing pile of corpses in one corner. “The real problem is the sheer, crushing boredom. The real problem is suffering and death have become so commonplace for us that we are growing bored with it.” He turned to the others in the car as Aaron clambered down off his shoulders.

“Don’t let yourself get bored!” He shouted at them. “Don’t let this become normal. Rage! Rage at the horror!”

“Getting angry won’t help,” someone said.

“Couldn’t hurt,’ Pavel retorted. “Chicken soup, you know.” And everyone who was still able burst into thankful laughter. “That’s it,” Pavel thought. “That’s what we need. Laughter. Rage and laughter.”

From Chapter 32, “Whatever It Takes,” 2-3 October 1944
“Pavel’s Violin” (C) 2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights reserved

In Absam prope Oenipontum, an excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin”

The great Austrian luthier, Jakob Stainer (c. 1619-1683) used this handwritten label in all his instruments:

stainer_label

Jacobus Stainer in Absam
prope Oeinipontum 16–

“Jakob Stainer, in (the town of) Absam, near Innsbruck, (date)

And this is the title of Part I of “Pavel’s Violin,” the story of Jakob Stainer and his crafting of the very special violin.

from the title page of Part I, a quotation from Paul Stoving, in “The Story of the Violin:”

The Tyrolean fastness will guard his memory,
and the eagle will tell it to its young,
and pine to pine,
and the winds in dark recesses
will mourn the memory of Jacobus Stainer.

And the tale goes on from there:

I. Jakob Stainer and the Making of the Violin

II. In the Palaces of Bishops and Emperors

III. The Jewish Community of the Moravian Countryside

IV. The Great Olomouc (AH-lah-moats) Synagogue

V. In Terezin Concentration Camp

VI. In Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

VII. The Violin Comes to Pavel

Will Paint  The author, playing Pavel’s violin.

A Nice Violin

Excerpt from Chapter 40 of “Pavel’s Violin”Cuckoo

(C) 2017, Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved

“A Nice Violin”

 ~ 6 March 1945 ~

Adam slowed his battered ammunition truck to a stop in front of the house, after another long day. Seven long trips up and down Vružná, Wrosna and Ostrý vrch. Live howitzer ammunition going up, empty shells coming down. It’s hard to tell whether he or his truck was covered with more mud. They’ll both have to be washed down before he can get some rest. The other trucks are already parked, with no sign of any mud having been removed. He rounds the house to the back gate, and finds Novak and Svododa standing there, watching the back window intently.

“Hey, guys, what’s . . .” They both wave him off wildly, and put fingers to their lips to shush him. So he approaches the gate silently, on tip-toe.
“What is it?” he whispers.

“There’s a cuckoo in the house,” Svoboda whispers back.

“A what?”

“Sssshhhhh.”
“A what?” asks Adam, more quietly.

“A cuckoo,” Novak whispers.

Adam listens carefully. There is a blackbird on the chimney pot, silently grooming its feathers. But no cuckoo, in or out.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Wait. Maybe it’ll start again.” And then it does. Quietly at first, then louder, then more softly again.

“Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.”
“Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.”

And then a child’s melody in ascending and descending scales of sixteenth notes and eighth notes. And then the cuckoo returns.

“It’s The Cuckoo Song,” you idiots,” says Adam. The other two laugh out loud, slapping him on the back.

“Had you goin’ though, didn’t we,” says Novak. “Still, it’s inside.”

The three sergeants cautiously sneek up to the back door, open it quietly, and step inside. Pavel is facing them, playing Komarovsky’s Cuckoo Song on a Violin, his face beaming with delete, enjoying their surprise. He finishs with a slow decrescendo of cuckoo calls. A-F, A-F, A-F; cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo, cu-koo, fading into silence. His audience pauses a moment in wonder, until Pavel bows, and then the three sergeants erupt into thunderous applause.

“It was here when I arrived, sitting on the table,” Pavel says, pointing to the open case. “Here’s the note that came with it.” He hands a slip of paper to Adam, who reads it aloud.

“Dear Pavel,
I hope you will like this Violin. It’s not so new, but very nice, I think. It
comes from a good friend, a Russian Transportation Officer named Sokolov, up in Górkie Wielki who remembers you from your arrival at his unit after your escape. He says you didn’t look much like a violinist then, but he takes my word for it, and wishes you the best. Remember the song we used to sing as kids, The Cuckoo Song? That should be the first thing you play! See you again sometime soon.
Love, Rasti

Pavel holds up the Violin for them to see. “It is a nice Violin,” he says.
It is probably safe to assume that the back room in the little house on the edge of Vendryné has never before experienced the sight of four Czech sergeants dancing circles around one another, and singing,
“Cuck-oo, cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo!”

(C) 2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved

The Violin That Makes the Paradise

FromTerezin Banner “Pavel’s Violin,” chapter 21: “A Violin in Paradise.”

In the so-called “coffee house” in Terezin Concentration Camp, which was all for show, and where prisoners could not buy coffee.

“Přátelé,” she said in Czech, “My friends. I am happy to play for you today. I know the Coffee House usually presents cabaret music, or jazz, but today I wish to be a bit different.” She paused, and the room was silent. “A bit different” could be a dangerous thing.

“Today I wish to begin with an old musical comedy number by Škroup and Tyl. It’s about a dear old grandfather, who longs for the lost days of his youth.” Satisfied the program would be nothing but pious sentimentality, and not wishing to be subjected to such mush, two plainclothes SS officers got up and left, their coffee still cooling on the table. But the handful of Czechs present smiled inwardly, knowing what to expect. As Mira began the first notes of the tune, they sang silently along with her, “Where is my home, where is my home? The Czech country, my home.” They would have cheered at the end, but offered the safer, polite applause instead. Mira looked over to her friends’ table, smiling, as if to say,

“Do you see what I mean? It is the Violin that, for a few moments, makes the Paradise.”

“Pavel’s Violin” Outline

The Tale of “Pavel’s Violin” covers 308 years, from 1637 – 1945. It travels nearly 1,500 kilometers, from Absam near Innsbruck, Austria, to Olomouc, Prague, and the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, and beyond. Here is an out line of the Tale. You can get it now from Amazon and many other online booksellers. (text copyright 2017, Walter William Melnyk. All Rights Reserved.)

Pavel’s Violin
A Song of Hope

cropped-absam_von_westen.jpgPart I – In Absam Prope Oenipontum (1637-1670)
Jakob Stainer and the Making of the Violin

Chapter 1: An Alpine Symphony (1637)
Chapter 2: The Luthier of Absam (1668)
Chapter 3: Heresy and Heartstrings (1668-1669)
Chapter 4: A Far Hope (1668-1669)
Chapter 5: The Voice of An Angel (1669)
Chapter 6: A Lion’s Cub (1670)

Kromeriz Exterior

Part II – Kroměříž Palace (1670 – 1752)
In the Palaces of Bishops and Emperors

Chapter 7: A Farewell in Salzburg (1670)
Chapter 8: The Church’s Greatest Ornament (1678)
Chapter 9: Where There Are Witches (1683)
Chapter 10: A Long Dark Night (1743)
Chapter 11: A New Dawn (1752)
Chapter 12: The Yiddish Fiddle (1758)

Lipník_01_rok 1965

Part III – The Wandering (1758 – 1850)
The Jewish Community of the Moravian Countryside

Chapter 13: Lekhaim (1758)
Chapter 14: Two Surprises (1758)
Chapter 15: Hodele’s Wedding (1784)
Chapter 16: Pints and Petticoats (1792)
Chapter 17: I Want to Be a Czech (1800)
Chapter 18: Where Is My Home? (1850)

olomouc synagogue

Part IV – This Sought-For Peace (1897 – 1942)
The Olomouc Synagogue

Chapter 19: By the Theresien Gate (1897)
Chapter 20: A Guardian in Domazlice (1904)
Chapter 21: In a Wagon from Galicia (1914)
Chapter 22: Sudetenland (1933)
Chapter 23: A Dark Fire Burning (1939)
Chapter 24: Transport (1942)

Terezin Attic Drawing

Part V – Terezin (1942 – 1944)
In Terezin Concentration Camp

Chapter 25: Fear in Every Heart (October 1942)
Chapter 26: In the Ruts of the Herd (January 1943)
Chapter 27: A Violin in Paradise (Spring 1943)
Chapter 28: Out of Ivory Palaces (23 August 1943)
Chapter 29: Touching the Dead (November 1933)
Chapter 30: Naked in the Night (8 March 1944)

Birkenau_gate

Part VI – Auschwitz (1944 – 1945)
In Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

Chapter 31: With0ut the Will to Live (5 April 1944)
Chapter 32: Whatever It Takes (22 September 1944)
Chapter 33: The Wind In The Lyre (6 October 1944)
Chapter 34: When The Music Dies (26 October 1944)
Chapter 35: Your Neighbor In Need (3 October)
Chapter 36: Death March (19 January 1945)

Bruntal

 

Part VII – Pavel’s Violin (January – September 1945)
The Violin Comes to Pavel

Chapter 37: Welcome Home (22 January 1945)
Chapter 38: The Survivor (27 January 1945)
Chapter 39: Return of the Partisan (February 1945)
Chapter 40: A Nice Violin (March 1945)
Chapter 41: Sorrow’s End (March 1945)
Chapter 42: A Song of Hope (September 1945)

Dying at Auschwitz – an excerpt from Pavel’s Violin

An excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin,” chapter thirty, “Naked in the Night.”

(C) 2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights Reserved.  Do not duplicate.
Use the link to the right to purchase “Pavel’s Violin” on Amazon.

Auschwitz BarracksMira looked to her left, through the chain link fence and barbed wire, across the train tracks and the infamous arrival ramp, to the barracks of the Women’s Camp. Despite the hour, one building still had a light burning in one window. Mira had once been told the building was the Music Block, the barracks of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra. She had seen or heard them occasionally, from a distance, over the past six months. Often playing as work details left in the morning, or returned in the afternoon. Sometimes they gave concerts for the Nazi SS officers. Occasionally she had seen them playing on the arrival ramp, as Jews exited a new transport and were selected for life or death by the feared Doctor Mengele. She fixed her eyes upon the one lit window, the one that often remained lit when all else had gone dark. She had been told the room belonged to the conductor of the orchestra, the world famous violinist Alma Rosé. How Mira had wished she could talk with Alma! How she had wished she could play her own Violin beside her in the orchestra. But it could not be. The Women’s camp was in a different world.

“Still, I have been able to play for the families,” Mira thought. “Still, I have been able to teach Beáta, who is getting quite good.”

There was a momentary lull in the rumbling of the trucks, and Mira could hear the faint sounds of a violin coming from that lighted window in the Music Block. She strained to hear the tune. Chopin’s Etude in E, Tristesse. It was rumored to be Alma’s favorite piece, and she often played it late at night. Sometimes it could be heard drifting across the silent camp, a song of lost love, of hopeless resignation.

A song lives in me,
a lovely song,
it stirs up memories
within my heart.
My heart was still.
Now that tender song cries out again,
calls me, everywhere!

Life was far off,
dreams gone away,
My Heart! how calm
you were so long ago,
so long ago.

Now it all wells up again,
all my joy, my heart’s desire,
deepest yearning, sleepless anguish
lives!

I just want peace,
peace within my heart,
never to recall
that song.

Mira remembered the words, as the music drifted across the horrible selection ramp. She would never see Joseph again. Had she ever wished to forget the pain by forgetting him? She would not have thought so. Who was it Alma had loved so dearly, that she so longed to forget? Longed to forget, as the only way to find peace?

“Well,” Mira thought, “I will find peace soon enough tonight.” She hugged Beáta and Mirek closer. They had been so strangely quiet. “I hope it will come quickly, when it comes.”

The Stories Demand To Be Told

terezin transportFrom the Preface to “Pavel’s Violin” ~

Wherever we look, even if we avert our eyes, the world is continually expanding with the insistent stories of humankind. The stories demand to be told. They yearn to be heard. They are stories of immense courage, dark fears, ecstatic joys, and pains beyond what it is possible to imagine. The telling of our own stories lies at the core of what makes us human. Listening to the stories of others, telling their stories, being willing to be changed by them, lifts us to the heights of what it is possible for humans to become. The retelling of another’s story is an act of healing, a commitment of love, and an affirmation of life. There are stories, often, that are more than the tale of a single person, or even of a people. They have the power to define for us what it means to be human. Such stories must be told, for they have a claim upon the lives of us all. The tale of “Pavel’s Violin” is such a story.

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk. All Rights Reserved.

Reading at IONA: Art Sanctuary

June 28th, Wednesday Evening, at 5:00 PM, I will be reading from “Pavel’s Violin” at the IONA Summer festival of the arts in Sewanee. Copies of the book will be available.
Iona art sanctuary 1From Word’s Worth (http://revmoore.blogspot.com/), a blog by Diane Moore, in October 2013:

Yesterday, I attended a reading by local authors of the Autumn Assembly of Authors at IONA Art Sanctuary. I had been invited by my friend, the Rev. Francis Walter, who read from his novel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears at Mobile Bay. Following this amusing reading, I was re-introduced to Edward Carlos, a sculptor and artist I met the first year I moved to Sewanee, Tennessee, shortly after he opened his Art Sanctuary. I had been deeply impressed by his religious and spiritual art, some of which reflected visionary events that he experienced during four visits to Iona, a small island off the western coast of Scotland.

The reading was one among a slate of Fall readings and art exhibits sponsored by Carlos, who was called to “offer a place for writers and artists to share their creative work with each other and the community, and the emphasis is to source creativity and spirituality,” Carlos says. I might add that many Sewanee writers and artists produce rich creative work that isn’t read at the annual Sewanee Writers Conference, which features mostly national luminaries, so Carlos provides an outstanding service for less-recognized literary and artistic figures.

The IONA Art Sanctuary sits atop a hill off Garnertown Road and overlooks a field of iona1adried sedge grass and seven acres of lake and woods. The building is situated on a N-S, E-W axis and offers art lovers a view of colorful sunsets as they exit the 70’x64’ building. The interior of the sanctuary follows the design of a nave with a Celtic cross shape. A 20′ high gate stands in the center of the field of sedge grass and symbolizes an entrance between the physical world and the spiritual world.
Above the entrance on the IONA veranda the sculpt of an angel hovers, part of a scene about the Nativity, which is further carried out inside with a life-sized “Creation Nativity.”

Carlos has also sponsored the exhibits of many talented art students and area artists at IONA Art Sanctuary. Although Carlos lives on campus with his wife, Sarah, and a flock of dogs, he spends his meditative moments at the IONA Art Sanctuary.
I look forward to seeing my blue-eyed host and to reading my poetry next Fall during the Autumn Assembly of Authors at IONA Art Sanctuary, another “thin” place of inspiration and beauty on The Mountain.

From “Pavel’s Violin” Chapter 29, “Touching the Dead”: (c) 2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights Reserved:

Terezin Attic DrawingRadoš lifted the latch slowly. There was no lock. There was no need to lock in a corpse. He backed into the closet and shut the door.

“You guys better not latch it on me!” he called out to them. That had been known to happen occasionally, but Tommy and Giri were ethical competitors, and assured him they’d do no such thing. Rad turned from the door and held his arms out in front of him near the floor, slowly waving them from side to side as he crept forward.
“Nothing here, nothing here,” he said under his breath when he had gone a couple steps. He started to announce that conclusion to his friends, when he touched it.

There was no point in dressing a corpse. Or even wrapping it in a sheet. Clothing and sheets were like gold. Many people had not seen a change of clothes since arriving in Terezin. Many people did not have a sheet to cover them at night on their hard wooden bed, or the cold stone floor. So it was a naked corpse that lay in the dark in front of Rad. And he had touched its rib cage. He drew his hand back quickly in fright.

“There’s one in here,” he called out. “I touched it.”
“Did you touch the face?” Giri asked. “You have to touch the face, it’s the rules.”
“I know, I know,” said Giri in a shaky voice. He started to sweat, even though it was cold in the closet.
“Is it a man or a woman?” Giri asked.
“I’m not gonna try to find out,” Rad answered. Tommy and Giri grinned. There were some things you just didn’t do.

“All right,” said Rad, “Here goes.” He felt his way in the dark, up over the torso, to the neck, and then over to the chin. The mouth was closed. The nose, and then the eyes. The eyes were open! They had lost their natural moisture, but had already begun to putrify. Rad screamed, pulled his hand back quickly, wiped it on his pants, and threw up.

What Readers are saying about “Pavel’s Violin”:

 “I am getting close to the end of your book, it’s hard for me to stop reading but I have to sometimes…I was reading till very late last night. Sometimes it’s very heavy reading…but It’s so well written…and it gets lighter when Pavel is speaking or thinking. Thank you so much for writing this!” – L.C. – Prague.

“This book has touched my deepest soul and surprisingly that of my 11 year old Goddaughter who is studying the Subject matter. We have read the book simultaneously with my guidance along the way. We have both laughed, cried and then actually mourned the book characters. A must read for everyone remotely interested in the plight of our Jewish brothers and sisters during the war. As my signed copy reads, “may we never forget.” — D.C., Tennessee

stars-5-0._CB192240867_Rated Five Stars on Amazon and Goodreads.

Join us at the IONA Summer festival of the Arts on Wednesday, June 28th, at 5:00 PM. Reception for the artists, and book signing, follows.

630 Garnertown Road (off Sherwood Road, Past Saint Mary’s Center), Sewanee, Tennessee.

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