I was hungry as I went to see the Rabbi. Warsaw’s streets were grey and there was a smell of rain and damp, I shivered as I huddled as deeply as I could into my thin coat.
“Oh give us peace oh Lord.” I thought, “and take this hunger from me”, I added although this was rather a selfish thought with all that was going on. Poland in 1937 was not a good place to be, particularly if you were Jewish, with anti-Jewish riots and anti-Jewish laws and the Germans just across the border. And all I did, and all the other followers of Rav Moshe did, was fast and try to stay awake.
Meanwhile, in my head there was always music; fragments of symphonies, dances, songs both Jewish and Polish, death marches, all crowding into my mind wanting to be performed. The sounds swirled around. I was a student of French literature but music was my true love and I spent most of my time playing the piano and writing down the melodies in my head. I was able to use my musicianship to teach the piano to local children and thus enhance the meagre amount of money which was all that my parents could send me.
Rav Moshe lived above a haberdashery shop which his wife ran with her sister. There was always a beautiful smell of perfume and incense as I walked in and pushed aside the curtain. I had noticed the smell six months ago when I first went to meet him. My fellow student Isaac from the “Ghettos’ benches” at the university told me of this great teacher who told his followers that the Messiah was imminent and who offered hope. I went more out of curiosity than any idea that he would be anything more than another charlatan, but to my surprise I found him to be wise and kind, and perhaps I needed a father figure. And soon I was going to see him most days of the week; whenever I needed encouragement or somewhere I could sit in peace.
That first time, when I was ushered into his presence, I found him to be a surprisingly young man; early thirties at a guess so only ten years or so older than me. I remember him looking at me on that first afternoon; his clothes bright but old and those eyes turquoise and with a twinkle but which pierced deep into my soul.
“And so Samson, have you come to defeat the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass?” he asked me and then chuckled. I flexed my muscles surreptitiously in case I was called upon to give battle. If only life were so simple; if only our enemies could be defeated with the swing of a jawbone.
Other young people came in over the course of that first evening; men and women, mostly young, and there were a couple of gentiles as well, looking rather furtive and shy, and we all talked quietly whilst Rav. Moshe sat in a corner looking on and smiling. And then he spoke, telling of the persecution that we were suffering, but how it was only temporary and how the Messiah would arrive to defeat our enemies if only we had faith, and did what was necessary.
“Cast aside your bodily appetites” he told us, “your spirit is imprisoned by your want of food and sleep, your need for drink and for the carnal. We are spiritual beings. Fight against this and your saviour will come.” And a whiff of holiness came from him as he spoke; pale and anguished as he clearly was.
We then read from the prophet Jeremiah and ended the evening singing a psalm, and I went home thinking that my life would never be quite the same again, and for those six months it was strange and different, I had hope and I had a friend who I looked up to and admired. Other than my friend Isaac, I rarely saw any of the Rabbi’s other followers outside his home, just occasionally in the library or in the streets near to the university, and I wondered if they felt liberated or just hungry and tired.
Perhaps if I had had a lover I would not have been so eager to follow Rav Moshe, but Debra had left Poland a few months before, she had fled to America with her family, seeing the way that the wind was changing in Poland and the threat from Germany. After she was gone I was happy to embrace the life of an ascetic and pin my hopes on the arrival of a Messiah who would deliver his people. The world, our world was falling apart and anything that offered hope had to be worth trying. So I walked the streets of Warsaw, looking at the looted shops and the fearfulness of my people whilst trying to stay upright, faint from lack of food and sleep.
At times it was easy; I could stay up all night writing music and reading the poetry of the French troubadours and Villon, or walking the dark streets until daylight tentatively appeared and people started to wake. I imagined all the followers of the Rav Moshe united in ushering in a new age, praying as our stomachs craved food and our minds sleep. My parents lived out in the wilds on their farm so they did not know what their son was up to and were probably too busy to care.
At other times I struggled, falling asleep in lectures and spending my time obsessing about food; staring into the windows of bakeries and smelling bread and cake. I started to let myself go; I neglected my appearance, forgetting to wash and letting my hair grow long and not bothering to shave, perhaps like my namesake my strength was in my locks, but I had no Delilah to tempt me to have them shorn.
Rav Moshe told us that he only ate two slices of black bread a day, and slept one hour in the afternoon before staying awake all night praying and writing, but then he had had years of practicing, getting right with God. But most days I could subsist on a large breakfast going through the rest of the day with only cigarettes to keep me company, and I was down to three or four hours’ sleep a night.
My friend Isaac talked of going to England. His parents shop had been daubed with a “J” and then the following evening all the windows had been smashed. A cousin of his in a small village in the east had been badly beaten and left for dead. Politically, after the years of hope following the liberation of Poland from the Germans and Russians, things were not going well for us, there was now a right-wing government bringing in increasingly anti-Jewish laws and there were riots and the fear of a German invasion.
“You are giving up aren’t you?” I asked Isaac, as we sat in my room, the smoke from our cheap cigarettes blurring everything, “this is our country, and perhaps the rabbi is right, perhaps the messiah is at hand.”
Isaac shrugged; I had always thought of him as a bit of a dilettante; always smartly dressed and regularly following a new philosophy or craze. I had noticed that he had not been to see the rabbi as frequently as he had once done, and now he and his family were fleeing. My lack of food was making me less tolerant than once I had been.
“If we give up, the goyim will have won.”
“They always do Samson.” He told me “you cannot live on fairy tales from the Bible”.
I sat in silence, and my stomach rumbled quietly.
That night I walked around Lazienki Park; beautiful during the day, by the evening it became a haven for prostitutes. I remembered Debra; our nights together, and I wondered if I would ever be kissed again by someone who loved me passionately, would give themselves to me without reserve. But she had left me; Debra so brave and strong, had departed with her family and all their belongings. She had written to me and said she loved me and wanted me with her. But I knew I would never see her again. My last memory of her, was of her laughing in my tiny kitchen. I cannot remember what it was about, just how she was lost in her mirth and the way she looked at me with love in her eyes. I doubted that anybody would ever look at me like that again.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I did not hear the policemen until they were upon us, coming from all sides hitting people here and there, and dragging away some of the women. I felt too faint to run, but for some reason nobody seemed to notice me, as if I had become insubstantial and invisible. I stood amongst the trees watching the police do their work and then when they had gone, leaving blood and possessions on the ground, I carried on walking.
The smell of women’s perfume and sweat remained in the park; since I had met the rabbi my senses had become stronger, and particularly my sense of smell. Sometimes walking through the city during the day I was overwhelmed by the different aromas that surrounded me. Open windows revealed the scent of food, sweat and sometimes sex. I was like a cat; lithe as I strode through the city; a different smell on every side.
Encouraged by Rav Moshe, I had started to go regularly to the synagogue again, something I had neglected since coming to the city. I attended one close to where I lived and one of the oldest in the city. I knew that my parents would be pleased as they had worried that I would become less devout once I moved to Warsaw.
That sabbath I prayed as the daily portion of the Torah was read out. The Hebrew words seem to lose their meaning; I could feel their holiness but it was as if their sound was more important than what the words actually meant. As I listened I felt as if I were going into a trance and everything around me felt unreal, as if it were fading away.
As the cantor continued to recite from the Torah I felt my spirit leave my body and float free. I looked down upon the people below me, their heads bowed as they prayed in this ancient synagogue; these men, mostly old, looked poor and pushed down by the cares of daily life, more weary even than I was. And then on the other side of the Mechitza the women in their homely clothes praying and some talking to each other as the world around them turned into chaos. And then I drifted higher, above Warsaw and saw the many gardens of our city and the lakes and then there was the whole of Poland spread out before me; out in the country my parents were also praying, exhausted from another never-ending week of toil, like many others in the shtetls and villages. And surrounding my country the dark mass of our enemies waiting to destroy us all; Jew and gentile, rich and poor, or perhaps they were just waiting for us to turn upon each other, and do their job for them.
The following night Isaac and I trudged back from visiting Rav Moshe; for the first time our leader had looked tired and ill. He had talked about the end of everything. In the past there had offered hope but now he seemed bleak, even his clothes seemed less colourful and there was no twinkle in his eyes. He had hugged me as we left, and I felt moisture, and realised that he was quietly weeping, and I felt indescribably sad.
It was dark as Isaac and I walked back towards our respective homes, most of the gas lamps were broken and Warsaw was a city of shadows, and for some reason I shivered. We were both quiet and sad, both infected by the mood of our leader and guide. Isaac was usually more optimistic than me, but tonight he seemed even more gloomy. I puffed on a cigarette and watched the tiny wisp of smoke engulfed by the mist.
I slowly became aware of the sound of running coming closer; a single pair of steps getting faster, every so often slowing down and then finding an increased amount of energy; the sound echoed round about us. Isaac had started to talk about leaving for England; he was going with his family next week, he hoped to resume his studies in London and had been learning English in preparation. The footsteps ran past us, a young man silent apart from the clack of his shoes on the paving stones, and I had a brief glimpse of his eyes scared but determined as he pushed past us.
And then behind us came a group of men in some kind of uniform and armed with staves and knives. They crashed into us and for a moment we were both caught helpless in the flickering light of one of the few lamps that were working. I heard the word “Yids” and they were upon us. Immediately I was hit hard upon the head and fell to the ground stunned, and lay helpless, all my bravery and strength gone as blows rained down upon me, and again I felt outside of myself, watching myself set upon by these thugs. And then Isaac was on top of me protecting me from the blows, which never seemed to stop, along with the sound of wood and fists landing on my friend’s body.
I could feel something wet on my face and realised that it was Isaac’s blood. And then our assailants were gone, and everything was silent. After a moment I gathered my strength and rolled Isaac off me and he lay still. I checked frantically for a pulse, I slapped him wanting him to cry out. But then I saw all the blood all over his neat shirt and jacket, and his pale face and his eyes staring up at me. I bent over him and gently kissed him on the lips, Isaac my friend.
I stood facing the school orchestra aware of all their eyes trained upon me, waiting for me to lift my baton, whilst behind me sat their families, alongside the great and good of St. Albans. Before the interval we had performed Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World to loud applause, but now we were going to play something less familiar and more ambitious, a premiere of Scenes from a Shtetl by Samson Leader, me, their music teacher.
The hall was old and rather grand with stained glass windows all on rather militaristic themes; St. George and the dragon, Gideon defeating the Midianites, that sort of thing and, appropriately, on one wall were lists of pupils who had died in various wars; the Great War, the Boer War and other colonial adventures and now there was a new plaque commemorating those who had perished in the last war, the paint almost still wet. The hall was full and smelt of polish as well as of the rich and comfortable of the provinces. There was a history here but also the future.
Once I had arrived in England with Isaac’s family I had looked for a job. Isaac’s family were kind and said that I could live with them in the small flat they had rented but I swiftly found rooms and a piano and became a piano teacher and found other work where I could. For a year I enjoyed myself; yes I missed Isaac and was devastated by his death and I was worried about my parents but I was young and I felt myself invincible. And despite the fear of war there was more freedom about London and I did not feel that sense of being watched and of being in danger.
I did not forget Rab Moshe; I had gone to see him once more before I left Poland.
“You can stay” he told me, “we are strong, you are Samson the mighty warrior. If we stand together, Jew and gentile, we can overcome this wickedness. Perhaps that is the sign of the coming of the Messiah.”
But I shook my head, I just had the urge to leave and forget everything, the memory of my closest friend lying dead in my arms would not go, and Isaac’s family had begged me to go with them and escape such evil. Rav Moshe shook his head and then hugged me. I felt that I had disappointed him and betrayed him. And when the world discovered what had been done to my family and my people I realised that I had done.
Once in England I stopped attending the synagogue and became just another young man without tradition or history. And then Poland was invaded and England declared war and I realised that I had forgotten about the Messiah and so I started to fast again and prayed, and found a synagogue to attend. And then, as soon as I could, I joined up.
I fought in Italy and saw friends and enemies die. Amidst the death and boredom, in my head I composed music, hearing it all the time drowning out the sounds of war; bombs, screams and endless talk. I heard the orchestra and the choir; tunes from my youth; dances, laments and the songs my mother sang as she prepared for the Sabbath. With this music in my head I did not need to eat; in fact earthly things just distracted me.
The piece, written on manuscript paper, stayed with me once I came back to England at the end of the war. It remained forgotten in a suitcase with photographs of my family and friends who had been destroyed by the modern-day Philistines, and various other bits and pieces from my past life. I looked for work and made friends. I started to teaching music; first at a small school in London but then at a more prestigious public school in St. Albans where I stayed. The pupils were polite and eager to learn and I was given free range with the school orchestra and choir. My end of year concerts became highly regarded and started to be reviewed in the various local newspapers.
The school had boarders and I lived in the school in very plush rooms, eating my meals with the staff and students. At first I had forgotten the nameless piece I had worked on obsessively during the war but looking through my suitcase one evening I found it and thereafter spent my time when not involved with school and the orchestra I led in the city, working on it; playing tunes on the piano and violin and imagining the voices and the music, and it became Scenes from a Shtetl.
This was the seventh school’s concert I had organised, and for the first time I was nervous; as well as giving my hard work I was giving something of myself. I looked at the orchestra one last time and behind them the choir all poised for the performance, and then I raised my baton. The orchestra was good; many of them I had worked with since I began teaching at the school and I had them well drilled. Equally the small choir, who I had worked with strenuously, would be a match for any group of professional singers, but this was a difficult piece of music and nothing like anything that they had worked on before.
The first movement began with a dance I remembered from my youth, played on the violins and cello, and as it got into its stride other instruments joined in and it became intertwined with another slower, more stately melody and the two played against each other before joining together and becoming one, and then a third more militaristic march came in and the three pieces separated and then joined once more, to finish together; the two dances in time to an army marching into the unknown.
The middle movement was based on a lament and mixed with a lullaby which I remembered my mother singing to me when I was very small. And then the choir came in; the young boys with unbearably beautiful voices singing the song my mother used to hum whilst preparing the food on Friday afternoon before sunset. The orchestra playing a minimal accompaniment at first but then rushing them on to something more frantic before the movement ended with another simple lullaby sung by the choir over a plaintive clarinet.
And then the third movement; the violins playing a dance, something I remembered hearing at a wedding, and then the rest of the orchestra joined in and the choir, bringing back in melodies from the first two movements. There was a vibrancy about the music and an optimism, but as the dance drew to its end the drums came in; the kettledrums and the snare; at first quietly, unobtrusively as if part of the dance, and then they became louder and soon drowned out the dance and the children’s voices, until there was just the sound of drums and then one loud crash and Scenes from a Shtetl was at an end.
I looked at the orchestra and then the choir. They looked flushed as the piece ended. It had been demanding and complicated but they had done well; they perhaps did not realise its significance, were just relieved that it was over and they had the holidays to look forward to and for many of the students in front of me there was university or employment to come. In the future would they remember this concert? Talk about it, or would it just blur with the rest of their memories of school?
I turned and faced the audience as they clapped; I had expected more than this; either rapturous applause or shocked silence, but this was polite but nothing more. The reaction to the Dvorak earlier had been far more enthusiastic. There was a slight air of embarrassment about it, a feeling which continued after I talked to parents and other member of the audience afterwards.
I spoke to the Dean of the Cathedral, who was a strong supporter of the school, and attended all our events.
“That second piece, I am not familiar with it?” Underneath the rather churchy tones was the hint of a Merseyside accent which he could not quite hide.
“Oh something I remembered from my youth.” I told him.
“Quite catchy, an eastern feel. Perhaps a bit modern for us out in the sticks.” He laughed and moved away to talk to the headmaster.
As I stood in the hall watching the pupils, who shortly before had worked together producing beautiful music, separate beings now, receiving congratulations from their parents, I got to thinking of Rav Moshe; what had happened to him? Had he too fled to England or America? Or had he met his end in the gas chambers his Messiah no nearer? No matter how welcoming people were in England I was still an alien; I had heard myself being referred to as “The Jew” on a few occasions, or even “that foreign gentleman”. Perhaps I should have stayed amongst the mystics and the madmen; praying to a God who had washed his hands of us and left us to be mocked and then slaughtered in our millions. I did not belong here, and never would.
“You have got to eat” the carer tells me, “this is no good Mr Leader.” At least it is the kind one; Charlotte I think her name is. Not like some of the other ones, Sonia in particular, who is rude and at times abusive.
“I am okay, thank you.” I tell her politely and then I push away the plate. Rav Moshe would have been pleased with me. Even as I come towards the end of my life I still remember his teaching, and it has become more relevant. I truly do not need food nor sleep as I wait for salvation and rescue.
I have been in the Abbeyfield Care Home for almost a year now. I had always tried to be independent; I like my own company and knew that I could look after myself. But my neighbour, Mrs Smythe, who was always interfering, became “worried” about me, did not think that I could cope on my own and therefore reported me to social services, a very bossy social worker visited me and decided that my neighbour was right and thus I found myself here.
For some reason I never married; I had a lady friend for awhile whilst I was a teacher at the boarding school, but we never talked about marriage or children, or at least I cannot remember doing so. I am not even sure what happened to her, presumably she disappeared like so many people do. Funny I remember Debra back in Poland far better than I do her, I cannot even remember her name, well not at the moment, although it might come back to me later. After I retired from the school I stayed in St. Albans, bought a small house and moved my few possessions in, after all I had no family living and I had made a few friends in the city.
In my retirement I taught the piano and violin to various local children and continued with my other musical activities. I even got involved with the cathedral, which I had avoided for a long time; something about Christian triumphalism bothers me, but much of the music in St. Albans is centred around it. It seemed curiously alien with all the stained-glass windows and statues of Jesus, weak and alone on the cross.
And slowly I became without friends, they all seemed to drift away or die, and now I have no visitors and just the occasional letter from old pupils and what is left of Isaac’s family, who have always remembered me. The care home is not great; perhaps if I had family they would have pushed for something better. Some of the staff are kind, but they all want me to join in with the activities and socialise with the other residents. So many times I have been interrupted listening to music in my room, or reading, and made to join in some awful nonsense as if I were a senile old fool.
Sonia is the worst. I was showering the first morning after I first arrived and she came in without knocking.
“Rather tiny isn’t it” she pointed at my penis, not that she would pass muster naked I am quite sure; red faced and over-weight. “Come on you need to get a move on, breakfast is being served.”
I ignored her and carried on with my ablutions. She waited a while, and then pushed me hard, “come on you Yid, I haven’t time for you lot.” And then she spat into the shower, viciously.
I spoke to one of the other staff about Sonia; I don’t know her name but she wears a different uniform and doesn’t appear to do much work, so I assumed she must be important, but she got cross with me, and spoke to me as if I were a child.
“Now don’t you go making trouble for Sonia, Mr Leader” she told me sharply. “It is just her way and she is a fine member of staff.”
I did not bother after that. I suppose I could have complained to someone higher up, but how would I get access to paper and pen? How would I post the letter when everything is controlled and overseen?
Sonia was presumably told about my complaint because she got nastier, often punching me when we were alone; usually in the groin or in the stomach. She would not say anything whilst doing it, concentrating all her efforts on hurting me. Once another carer walked in as she slapped my face, but she just hurriedly left and Sonia carried on as if we had not been interrupted. Whilst she hit me all I had was my Scenes from the Shtetl playing in my head. My piece of music had never been performed again and nobody had ever asked about it, but in my head it was never far away; the violin, the children’s singing and then in the end the banging of the kettle drums destroying everything that had come before.
The dining hall always smelt of food whatever the time of the day; it was as if the endless dinners had permeated into the walls. There were pictures hung up, bland landscapes and seascapes, not made to be looked at properly, just something to break up the dull wall paper. In the centre of the hall were two pillars which dominated the room, sometimes I thought they were holding up the whole building; the roof and everything else pushing down upon them, stopping the whole place falling apart. They must have been strong.
“Doctor Thomas is going to have to talk to you” Charlotte tells me. “You need to eat, and the night staff say they can hear music in your room late at night.”
I shrug; night is the only time that I can listen to music without being interrupted or I can read and pray, or just remember. Not sure why my life is being so controlled, but I feel powerless at the hands of these people. I know that I will be dead soon, and perhaps I just need to endure this until I die.
Doctor Thomas is a young man, too young to be a doctor really but he seems friendly enough. He came to see me and told me about nutrition and getting enough sleep, I just look at him. I could tell him about Sonia and a couple of the others, but in the end however kind he and some of the others seem they look after each other. He puts me on a “high protein” diet.
“So you like music?” he asks me.
“Yes, I was a music teacher over at the boarding school. I cannot play anymore, my fingers are too tired.”
“I like some of that classical stuff” he says, “the Four Seasons”, all that, “Phantom of the Opera.”
I smile in dismissal.
Later I slowly walk into the dining hall Sonia at my shoulder pushing me and hissing.
“You had better eat, always causing trouble.”
She pauses to take breath. I hold onto one of the pillars to stay upright. I feel shattered, I always do when rushed. She moves me on and pushes me into my seat; there is a nutritional drink besides my plate which is overloaded with meat and potatoes. The smell makes me feel faint and nauseated.
Time must have gone on, because she is at my side. Perhaps I was praying.
“You have not eaten a thing.” She shouts, for once careless of those around her. She sticks a fork in the mess of the dinner and tries to shove some of it into my mouth. All around me the elderly gentiles chomp on their food doing as they are told. I push my arm backwards into her fat midriff, as hard as I can, it is soft and rather disgusting.
“You bastard Yid” she shouts as she falls backwards.
I stand up and push my way to the pillars, I feel strong and happy that I have managed to fight back. I stand betwixt the two pillars, they are the right distance apart, and I look at the residents and staff, most of whom have realised that something is going on.
I pray for strength and in front of me I can see Rav Moshe looking directly at me with those turquoise eyes, and he is smiling slightly, encouragingly. I summon up all my powers and push with all my strength. Sonia and the other staff just stand as I strain, sniggering slightly. For awhile nothing happens and I realise that I will fail and end up a stupid old man, pathetic and weak, but I keep pushing and praying. And suddenly I feel a wave of strength and power come into me; I am young once again and have power and I push once more. And at last there is a crack and a shudder and then a loud tearing sound from the bowels of the building. And with an almighty crash both pillars fall apart from each other and crash to the floor, bringing the roof of the temple down with them, leaving nothing but dust and ash which drifts upwards into the blue sky above our heads.