This is a piano tale. It’s a story about coincidences, Jewish connections and post-Holocaust fallout. I have a piano. It’s unusual because of its construction, but mostly because of its history. It was built by the Bechstein company circa 1908 in Germany. It is a rehearsal piano — an upright with extra long strings and an extra pedal to muffle the sound during practice sessions.
I don’t know the piano’s history in the 40-odd years between the time it was made and the time when it was purchased in 1949. I’ve often wondered about its previous owner or owners, and what may have happened to them during the war. What I do know starts in 1949.
My parents and I were living in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany at that time, as were many World War II displaced persons. After World War II many Jewish survivors left Eastern Europe and made their way to various locations in Western Europe, where they awaited passage to other continents. Bergen-Belsen functioned as a displaced persons camp under the authority of the British government. My father’s great-aunt Sadie, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, located us in the camp and served as our sponsor so that we could immigrate to the United States.
We arrived in the Unites States on December 7, 1949, courtesy of Sadie and the United Nations International Refugee Organization. The United Nations agency had chartered ships to bring refugees to these shores. We were aboard a ship called the General J. H. McRae. My parents and I disembarked with our personal possessions and a piano. My father had purchased it in Bergen-Belsen, on the theory that he had a daughter (I was just 2.5 years old) and that a proper girl’s education had to include piano lessons. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I had absolutely no aptitude for playing musical instruments, but that’s not my father’s fault; his intentions were quite good. But since we were immigrating to the United States, and who knew if there were pianos there, he decided to purchase a fine piano in Germany and bring it with us to our new land.
My family settled in New York City. Over time, my parents moved from the Bronx to Manhattan, to the Bronx again, and finally to Queens before moving to Troy, New York. The piano moved with them. By the time they were preparing to move to Troy, I was married and had an 8-year-old daughter who expressed an interest in piano lessons.
I asked for the piano to be shipped to my home in Potomac, Maryland, instead of to Troy. My parents eagerly agreed. Much to their surprise, when the moving truck unloaded their furniture in Troy, there was the piano. An obvious mistake had been made. A truck was dispatched to bring the piano to Potomac from Troy, and my daughter began her lessons.
A few years later, I was working as the head librarian of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Rockville, Maryland. We had an extensive collection of videocassettes pertaining to the Holocaust. Lily, a parent of one of our students, came to the library to borrow a documentary about the Lodz ghetto. She explained that her mother had been in the ghetto and was then sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her mother was liberated in Bergen-Belsen. Lily added that she had been born after the war in Bergen-Belsen.
We tried to determine if our parents knew each other in Bergen-Belsen. I gave her my parents’ names and Lily gave me hers, and we agreed to check with our parents that evening to see if they knew each other. In order to jog my parents’ memory (this was about 40 years later), I asked her what kind of work her father did in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp. The camps functioned like towns. People stayed in these camps for a number of years before they could emigrate, and you had to support yourself. Lily said that her father sold pianos.
I checked with my parents that evening. My mother had no idea who had sold us my piano. But when I mentioned Lily’s father’s name to my father, he said yes, that was the man.
I still have the piano.
There is a coda to this story. I have no musical talent. But my daughter has a son who is a very gifted classical musician. At the age of three, my grandson sat down at my piano and started playing melodies that I recognized. Since the age of five, he has been a student of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He has his own piano at his home, but when he comes to visit me in my home, he always plays my piano for me.
A longtime librarian for Jewish day schools in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, Anne Kalichman Pfeffer now lives in Pikesville, Maryland