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

A Child Survivor of Terezin

Tommy Lustig’s wonderful memoir, “Children on Death Row: The Hate and the War,” about his imprisonment in Terezin at 6 years old, and his father’s experience in Auschwitz, was the primary inspiration for my historical novel, “Pavel’s Violin: A Song of Hope.”  I am just finishing up the wonderful experience of helping Tom to edit his memoir, and it will soon be republished on Amazon in print and Kendle editions.  This will be the tenth edition of his work.  Watch for it coming soon, with this new cover:

Final Cover

 

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

Words of Praise for “Pavel’s Violin”

terezin transportfrom a Reader:

The story is real, a vivid account of the people who lived through an unthinkable time in our history.

Melnyk writes: “I hope you will not just learn about what happened,, but that you will become part of the story, yourself”…….”I hope that you will not only hear the Violin, but you will experience the playing of it”. Well he (the author) takes you there. You are one with the characters, and experience their pain, suffering, hope, and joy. And you hear the music. The wonderful music. The universal language that heals. The Song of Hope…

The author has selflessly pledged to donate all proceeds from the sale of this book to the United States Holocaust Museum and other Holocaust Memorials.

Escape to Freedom

I am having the great  joy and privilege to be working with Tom Lenda on a sequel to his Holocaust memoir, “Children on Death Row: The Hate and the War.”  Tom’s descriptions of his family’s time in Terezin concentration camp, his father Pavel’s time at Auschwitz and his violin, were the inspiration for my novel, “Pavel’s Violin.”  It is an honor to know Tom and to be working with him.

Tom&PavelsViolin

Tom Lenda (Tommy Lustig) with Lucie Carlson

The new book, “Escape to Freedom,” will be the story of Tom and his wife and daughter, Rose and Hana, as they escape from Communist Czechoslovakia, and make their way around the world, to Germany, Australia, and the United States.

You can go to Amazon today and get Tom’s book, “Children on Death Row,” published under the name he had back then, Tommy Lustig, and also my book, “Pavel’s Violin.”  Then later this year watch for “Escape to Freedom.

Toms Book 2  Pavels_Violin_Cover_for_Kindle