Monday, January 21, 2013

The substitute genius

Friends, in 2009 I self-published three books, my autobiographical novel "Amanuensis" and two books of stories, one of short stories, entitled "Discovering America" and one of novellas, entitled "Trove."  I have decided to e-mail some of my stories to you as a break from my other articles.  Every author likes to be read, and noone is particularly interested in buying my books, so I thought I might expose some of my writings this way.  I would be interested in any candid feedback.  Maybe you can forward or recommend a story to your friends to expand the exposure.  My first story, chosen at random, is entitled "The substitute genius."  Read on...

The substitute genius
In 1944, when I was 15, I was tested at the Franz Lizst Conservatoire in Budapest for piano.  My precocious ability was already known to the staff there, but they would not enter me before because they said I was under-age, but it was probably because I was Jewish.  I was already known as a virtuoso, but nevertheless I had to take the test with the rest of the class of entrants.
            Unfortunately, my year of entry coincided with the takeover of Hungary by the Nazis, because the Hungarian Government under Admiral Horthy was not considered sufficiently Fascist for them. The Iron Cross movement had undermined the Government and had assisted the Germans in their rapid conquest of Hungary.  We knew that it would become much worse for the Jews from then on. 
            When my name was called “Wilhelm Wolfe,” I stood and entered the Hall.  My name was certainly not Hungarian, but could have passed for Austrian or even German.  I bowed to the Committee and sat down at the piano.
            I decided to play the piano part of the Piano Concerto #21 by Mozart.  In those days, being a Jew, I had to be very careful what I chose.  Nothing too obviously Germanic, such as Beethoven, and nothing too emotional, that might be labeled “Jewish.” I chose Mozart because he was after all Austrian, and his work had that sense of cool detachment that could never be labeled overly emotional.  This particular piece was both lyrical and to some extent bombastic, something the Hungarians admired.
            As I sat down to play I was aware that several other people had filed into the Hall to hear me.  I concentrated on the music. I imagined a whole chamber orchestra behind me, filling in the empty spaces.  I was both confidant and animated.  As I performed I realized that more people had entered the Hall, and by the end there was quite an audience, including some of the other entrants.  As I finished the final flourish, there was enthusiastic clapping.  Notwithstanding the fact that I was a Jew, I was accepted into the Conservatoire, the only Jew who was admitted that fateful year.  The general opinion that I heard was that I was a genius, although I ignored the compliments and the anti-Semitic remarks and kept my head low.
            My father warned me that things would become drastic for us.  Jews were being arrested on the street or at work by the Iron Cross and the Gestapo and simply taken away, never to be seen again.  My father hid some money for my mother and me in case he was arrested. 
            At school I was subject to a constant barrage of anti-Semitic remarks.  A few of the boys were, however, quite friendly.  It would have been dangerous for any of them to be seen to be too friendly with me, such as walking home together on the street.  That was enough to cast someone under suspicion.  The friendliest boy, Jan Kertesz, said “Good morning” to me every day, and we exchanged remarks about music and life.  I would have been happy to get to know him, but it was not to be.
            Among the regular anti-Semites was a boy named Istzvan Szabo, a Hungarian nationalist.  Some of them were also anti-German, but they also hated the Jews.  Szabo was an accomplished pianist and was second in the class to me.  I think it irked him that a Jew should always be on the top, above him, and he always let me know it! 
            My father was eventually arrested and taken away, and we never saw him again.  That’s how it happened in those days.  My mother managed to eke out a living, and for the most part we hid.  It was dangerous even to inquire where he might have been sent.   
            One day a ration of food appeared in my locker.  I was afraid that it was a trick and left it there all day untouched. But, the ration for Jews was so low that I could not afford to leave it there to rot.  So I took it home.  I wondered who had left it for me. This became a regular event, and the extra food kept us alive.
            Also, a bottle of milk that we hadn’t ordered appeared every now and then on my doorstep.  I tried to catch whoever was leaving it, but could never do so.  Whoever it was was making sure that I stayed alive. I wondered why.
            One morning without warning, as we were being lectured in music theory, the door opened abruptly and an SS officer appeared dressed in their characteristic black uniform. He looked like a slug to me, that’s how I thought of him.  He spoke to the teacher and then addressed the class.  He simply said, “Wilhelm Wolfe stand up!”  I was frozen in my chair, I wanted to stand but suddenly my limbs would not obey me.  I was terribly afraid, somehow time was passing, I had no idea how long. 
            Suddenly there was the scraping of a chair on the floor and the creaking of the floorboards.  Someone stood up, but it wasn’t me!   I stared at the boy who had stood for a moment before I realized that it was Istzvan Szabo, what was he doing standing up?  The teacher stood open-mouthed as if he had been turned into a statue.  The boys looked here and there in confusion, but nobody spoke, nobody said anything.  I was just about to spring up and say, “No, it’s not him, it’s me, take me!” but the Nazi asked Szabo, “Are you Wolfe?”  And he immediately replied “Yes, sir.”  I was amazed, I was completely taken aback, I felt faint.  “Follow me,” the Nazi said and marched out of the room, followed by Szabo, the door being held open for them by a Green Cross guard.  We all sat in stunned silence. I was trying to understand what had happened.  Why had I hesitated, and why had Szabo sprung up in my place? 
             We later heard that Szabo had been taken out to the back yard of the school and shot in the head!  Why had he done this thing for me?  It was incomprehensible!  Later the Principal took me aside and said that from now on I would be known in the school as Istzvan Szabo and I would be issued a special identity card.  I was not to speak of this to anyone, least of all the boys in the school.
             To this day I cannot understand why he did it.  He certainly didn’t like Jews!  Why then?  Luckily the Nazi control of Hungary lasted only until October 1944, a mere 8 months, but enough time for them to murder 350,000 Hungarian Jews.  After the war my mother and I managed to escape Hungary and arrived in Austria in 1945. We lived there until 1950 and then were able to move to the new State of Israel.
            When I arrived in Israel and had finally settled in Jerusalem, I began attending the Rubin Academy of Music, where I received a special scholarship for advanced studies.  I started composing, and I dedicated my first composition to him, to my substitute.  Maybe I will try to make contact with his parents, if they are still alive and if they will want to communicate with me.  
            Maybe he was a true Christian, he gave his life so that I might live, or maybe he wanted Istvan Szabo to be the name of the best pianist in the school.


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