My family always loved music. I remember, when I was a very little girl, Mamma would start singing whenever my sisters would fight. It always calmed them down. At night, Papa would play his violin for us. He played every night, even when he was tired, and he was often tired.
He played and Mamma sang while the gestapo was closing our clothing store. He played and Mamma sang while we sewed star shaped patches on all of our clothes. He played until they moved us into the ghetto, and took his violin away. Even after that, Mamma kept singing. Right up until they shot Amber.
I found myself craving music, more than I craved anything else from our old lives. More than food, or warmth, or safety. I hummed to myself, but I was often hushed by the other seamstresses. Especially if a guard was near. I tried to sing at home, but it made Mamma tear up, and Papa would say, “Not now, Emma.” But he would never say when later, when I could sing, might be.
Is it any wonder that I was drawn to the music at the wall?
I first heard it one cold day, when we were sent outside for lunch. I was sitting on the ground, with my back against the wooden wall that surrounded our ghetto. The other women were quiet, sipping the thin soup they gave us.
In the silence, I heard the strains of a violin. It was a simple tune, but the first I’d heard in so long. I glanced around, trying to tell where the song was coming from without drawing attention. Who had managed to sneak a violin in here? Perhaps it had been too old and worn to be worth much money.
The player had not been playing very long, I could tell. His violin squeaked, and he started over many times. It was nothing like how Papa had played. But still, it was music.
Too soon, the guards called us back inside. I went without hesitation, but it made my heart ache to leave the music behind.
“Mamma, I heard someone playing a violin today,” I said as we set the table that night.
“You did?” Evelyn, my sister, asked. “Where?”
“Hush,” Mamma said. “Evey, don’t encourage her.”
“But I only heard it during my break. I didn’t do anything against the rules, Mamma,” I said. At least, I didn’t think I had. There were so many rules, it was hard to keep track sometimes.
“You are imagining thing,” Mamma said, “No one could have a violin in the ghetto.”
“What is this?” Papa asked, coming into the room.
“Someone has a violin,” I said, “I heard him playing today. But he doesn’t play as well as you. Maybe you could teach him.”
“Emma,” he said, making motions for me to hush. “What are you doing?”
“I am only telling you,” I said.
“Yes, and what you tell me can be overheard. What if the guards hear? They will hurt this man you heard playing.”
“They might also hurt you, for listening and not reporting him,” Mamma said. “Really, Emma, it’s better to tell yourself that you imagined it, and forget it.”
The next day, Evelyn and I walked together to the sewing house. We did not talk, but we were sisters. We didn’t need to. So I was not surprised when she followed me to the wall during our break, and sat down beside me. We drank our soup, and waited.
The music came again. Evelyn tried not to give any outward appearance of having heard it, but I saw her hands tighten around her bowl. When the man hit a sour note, she almost laughed.
We didn’t speak of the music until we were in bed that night. “I don’t think you should listen again,” she whispered.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it will only make you want to hear more of it, and when it goes away you’ll be sad.”
“How do you know it will go away?” I asked, and she gave me a look that I richly deserved. It was good. Of course it would go away.
“I’ll tell Mamma,” she said. “I don’t want you ending up like Anita’s brother.”
“I’m not going to kill myself because I can’t listen to someone play the violin badly anymore,” I said. “Go ahead and tell Mamma. What is she going to do to me?”
The only benefit of having nothing is that your parents have nothing to take away from you as punishment.
Evelyn knew she didn’t have anything more to threaten me with. So she did her best to ignore me when I went to the fence the next day.
Again, the music came. Again, it was a simple song. The man could not have been playing more than a few months. This song was one of my favorites. I listened as he got closer to the chorus. He seemed, there, to run into a particularly troubling note. He started over again, fouling up at the same place.
After two more attempts, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I opened my mouth, and sang the chorus for him. Maybe that would help him get it right, I thought.
Then, I heard boots crunching. To my horror, I realized where the music had been coming from. The guards barracks at the other side of the wall.
I crouched down to look through the gap at the bottom of the wall. I saw a pair of heavy, black boots, then the knees of two gestapo guards as he bent down to see me!
For a moment we looked at each other. Then, I sat back up. I stayed where I was, frozen. I would hear him running in a moment, coming for me. Would he beat me, or worse?
But I didn’t hear any running. Instead, he started to play again. And this time, he got the note right.