Tale 18 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

The Piano


Miashka nestled in the corner of her wealthy neighbor's porch, listening through the window as the maggid wove his stories. An itinerant preacher who arrived on Thursdays for the Saturday service and left Monday for the next town, a maggid took his meals where he could find them, principally at the tables of rich congregants like the Finkelsteins. One of his duties at these meals-besides providing news of the outside world-was to entertain. Although talk of war was everywhere, he had discovered that distraction was more appreciated, and thus better paid, than a rehash of maybe-this-will-happen, maybe-that-will-happen.

"An instrument like this piano you've never heard! It could accompany the angels and they would be content. So much richer than a violin; and so soothing. When I heard it I was staying with the Nachman's of Pinsk ... " the showman paused, dropping the name like a pebble into a pool and letting the "oh's" of appreciation ripple through the diners and pass into the crowd outside the house. "The eldest daughter played it as if she had been instructed by the Angel Gabriel himself. We fortunate listeners could not pull our attention away from her..." As the maggid continued providing Horodokers with a view into the lives of the rich and famous, Miashka's mind fixed on this instrument that could so affect people, "A piano..."

The maggid left David-Horodok on schedule but the dream he had inspired stayed on. Miashka wanted to play the piano. No matter that her father was in America and the money he sent barely covered the family's living expenses. No matter that the small store her mother ran was forever on the verge of bankruptcy. A dream is a dream, and a poor child can dream as much as a rich one. In fact a poor child can dream more, because she has more to wish for.

Miashka began quietly to earn money for a piano, not an easy job in a place where making a living was difficult for even grown men and women. But she was blissfully obstinate. "Let me wash your floors. Let me clean your oven. I'll scrub the mud off your porch." Her determined little figure could be seen trudging from door to door begging for work. And she labored so intently, never distracted from the music inside her dream, that she did an excellent job. In no time groshchen followed groshchen.

Miashka's campaign however was short-lived. Aunt Osnay, protector of family pride, reported it to her mother. "Do you know what your daughter is doing?"

"From dawn until dusk I'm in the store selling. From dusk until bed, I'm cleaning and washing and cooking. Miashka doesn't make trouble. What else am I supposed to know?"

"She's cleaning other people's houses," Henna was aghast. To work in another person's home was a shande, if only a minor one. Even today, if you ask a Jew what her mother did in Horodok to survive, you'll hear about how she "helped out because the mother was sick," not about how she got paid for being a housekeeper.

"But why? Why would she clean up after other people?"

"Because she wants to buy a piano. A piano! It's meshugge! As if she could ever make so much money. For this she brings shame to our family, in particular to my brother in America, who can't defend himself."

Henna put a stop to it of course. "I didn't raise my daughter to be a housemaid! You dishonor our name, and then who will marry you? If a person has to clean other people's houses to eat, then I say okay. But we haven't been brought to that, at least not yet. And I will never let you ruin your chances for a good match because of some impossible piano!" And that was that, at least as far as Henna was concerned.

Miashka, however, dreamed on. Meyer Finkelstein would see her out behind the house, sitting on the family woodpile singing sad songs for anyone to hear, for the sun, the sky, maybe even for God. "A good voice, and getting better with practice. Too bad she can't afford lessons. Poverty wastes so much talent." Meyer was aware that making a dent in David-Horodok's poverty was beyond even his means.

As he listened to Miashka through the window, his wife Tziril would nag from the kitchen, "I wish you paid as much attention to your daughter's talent as you do to that urchin next-door. Your daughter sings, but do you care?" Meyer remained silent; he loved his daughter so much that he wouldn't hurt her. He had long ago realized she had no music in her, regardless of the fuss his wife made. So, no matter how hard his wife tried-and her words could cook a herring-he could not see his appreciation of Miashka's talent as a betrayal of his own flesh.

However, as 1914 wore on and World War I became a reality, the question of a piano grew unimportant to everyone. For Miashka's family, as for dozens of other Horodok Jews with husbands and fathers in the United States, the disaster was overwhelming. The thin web of security that had held them together, periodic funds from their men overseas, was broken. The mail could not get through. Money was tight everywhere.

"But Hode, you owe me three rubles." Henna would beg. "You need to pay your bill."

"I feel terrible, but what can I do? Revenue from the meat tax is down and the rabbi's salary has been cut again. I just don't have the money."

"Shifre, can you give me a few kopkes on your bill? I have to pay my suppliers tomorrow."

"Maybe next week. I hope next week. I'm going out peddling again despite the soldiers. Maybe I'll get more than a few eggs and some vegetables in exchange."

And so it went. The store's customers stopped paying, ruining Henna's credit with her suppliers. She had to close the store and took to the back roads of Belarus herself. She bought small quantities of combs, powder, and trinkets, with cash of course, then left for a week at a time to peddle them to women in the villages. To save money, Henna wore shoes only in winter. She made just enough for the family to cook evening meals of rice and milk. But no matter how frugal she was, even heating wood became a luxury beyond their means.

During one of Henna's trips, Miashka and her little brothers and sisters found themselves kneeling around their small brick furnace, its few rays of warmth barely keeping their blood flowing. The branches and twigs that Miashka had gathered in the nearby forest that morning, and that at danger to her life and honor, were pitifully few. Miashka had dressed everyone in his or her heaviest clothing, with coats and gloves on top, and still the smallest ones hugged each other sleepily, as if malech-hamoves, the Angel of Death, had already entered the room.

"To hell with Mama and her honor." Although Miashka wanted to please her struggling mother, she had long since begun to question the worth of solid respectability. It had silenced her music; now it threatened to kill her family. Miashka needed to find a source of heat, and do it quickly. "If we freeze, no one will be left to be respectable."

So she sneaked out to the Finkelstein's woodpile next-door and stole a few sticks of wood. The faces of the children convinced her that she had done the right thing. The next day she did it again, and then again, until one day she was caught. Meyer's daughter Ida caught her.

Miashka froze as Ida stared her down. "You're stealing our wood. What kind of girl are you?" Ida was thinking her mother had been right. She had never been allowed to play with Miashka because Ida was so much "better" than the prost Miashka. Until now, Ida had not paid much attention to her mother's prejudices.

"I'm a girl whose brothers and sisters will freeze if I don't take the wood; that's what kind. You can put me in jail if you want, but their deaths will be on your head. Remember that."

Ida hesitated; Miashka seemed so desperate. Ida had never been good at firmness, taking after her father rather than her mother. Her one feeble attempt to mimic her mother spent, she turned her back and went into her house.

As wartime conditions worsened, the schools closed leaving Ida alone at home all day. With little else to do, she took to watching Miashka through the window; she saw the girl haul water, run to the market and back, cradling a loaf of black bread on her return, and yes, steal wood from their woodpile. Still she could not bring herself to report it to her parents. When Miashka ran into Ida again in the Finkelstein's back yard, Miashka eyed Ida suspiciously and waited for adults to descend. But nothing happened. Miashka decided she might have a co-conspirator in Ida rather than an enemy, and attempted to seal the alliance. "Would you like to play over at my house for a while?" Ida, curious as well as bored, accepted.

Ida looked around the single room which served as Miashka's house. Little could be seen to play with; when you're poor and hungry, you don't own toys. Instead the children did their best with their imaginations; they told stories, sang songs, danced a little, played guessing games.

"You're a cow."

"Am not."

"Are too. You just change your mind when we get near the answer so your turn will be longer."

Miashka thought a story might be in order. She began, "Two gypsies found themselves away from their circle of wagons in the middle of a snow storm." Miashka spoke with great drama, then looked expectantly at Ida.

Ida waited. "And then?" she asked. To her consternation, everyone laughed. Miashka explained, "You're the one who's supposed to say what happened next."

"But it's not my story."

"It's everybody's story. You get to add the next part."

Ida hesitated. "Okay. Let's see. They found their way to David-Horodok." The children jeered. Ida was clearly not used to story telling.

Miashka explained again. "We can't have kings and queens and devils in the story if it's in Horodok. We live here and already know we haven't got any. If you put the story in Horodok, it's ruined for everyone else."

Ida thought a long time. She could see this was a complicated business. Finally she whispered, "They went into Moscow?" Everyone cheered; Ida felt wonderful. She had made a good choice; anything could happen in Moscow.

And on the story went. Around the ring once, twice, three times. Ida was enthralled. Never having been blessed with brothers and sisters, she was in a new world. She pleaded with her mother to let Miashka's family play at her house, where it was warm. "You can't be serious. I wouldn't think of letting those prost children into this house." But finally Tziril relented. With cannon fire on the outskirts of town and refugees streaming through the streets, she dared not let Ida stray very far from home. What else was Ida going to do with herself?

So Miashka came, sometimes with the little ones, sometimes without, and they not only sang songs and told stories, but played dolls, and cards as well, things Ida owned because she was not poor. Miashka and Ida quickly became friends.

But as their friendship grew, the situation in which they lived deteriorated. The Germans were attacking from the east, moving ever closer to David-Horodok. The trickle of refugees became a flood. Even the Slonimer rov, the beloved rabbi, packed up his wagons and moved east. Such a sad day when he left, but everyone realized he was old now and could not withstand a battle.

Ida's father Meyer, a wealthy man with a well-appointed house, was given the "honor" of quartering many of the Tsar's officers as the Russian army moved westward and then retreated eastward. Later the Germans, Poles, Balakovitzes, and Bolsheviks would provide him with the same honor. One night while drinking late with a Russian colonel staying at his house, he heard the story of a tsarist general stationed in Pinsk, a man of refined tastes better suited to be an artist, and one of the many reasons the Russians were losing this war.

"The last thing a fighting man should care about is classical music." The war-hardened colonel was disgusted with his superior. "But he has a positive obsession. He heard about some exquisite instrument owned by a rich Jewish family and requisitioned it. I must say it's a beautiful thing, what with all the painting and inlaid wood. He listened to concerts on it every night; made us come too. Bored us to death."

"Was the Jewish family called Nachman?" Meyer Finkelstein asked tentatively. He couldn't believe he was hearing about this piano again.

"Yes, I think that was the name. And do you know what that fool of a general ordered us to do? Take the thing with us out of Pinsk-in the middle of cannon fire, burning houses, looting and enemy soldiers, I had to commandeer a horse and wagon from some wild-eyed civilians and move the damned thing from our headquarters. Shot a couple of them before they'd let me take their wagon. The last I saw of Pinsk, it was under a barrage of enemy shells and this stupid piano was following me out." Meyer could believe it had been awful, for everyone involved, but not a face muscle of his flinched.

"Did you get the piano out unhurt?"

"Unfortunately yes, so I still have to lug the thing to the general's next headquarters. I wish I could burn it. Maybe I will and say the enemy did it."

"Can I see the piano?" Meyer surprised himself. Why did he care about a piano?

"I don't see why not. It's right outside of town; if the Germans advance past Pinsk, we'll have to burn the bridge here in a few days. I have a whole regiment of troops to get to the other side before then." He looked at Meyer speculatively. "I would dearly love to get rid of that piano. Maybe you'd like to buy it."

The wagon and piano, which had already cost several lives, was hidden in a grove of trees, the piano protected by several layers of blankets. A dejected civilian in a crumpled black suit sat beside it, throwing off the blankets at the colonel's orders. The sight was worth the ride. This instrument was one of the most beautiful things Meyer had ever seen. Inlaid with patterns of birds and flowers-mahogany, oak and cherry wood interspersed-it must have cost a fortune. Meyer was mesmerized. "How much do you want?"

"A hundred rubles is fine-the cost of a new suit for me. That'll pay for the burns I got in this one taking the damned thing out of Pinsk."

"And what about me?" The stoop-shouldered young Jew standing next to the instrument asked. "Are you releasing me as well?"

The colonel considered leaving a witness to his transaction alive, especially one who knew the general, and took out his gun. Meyer was horrified. "Who are you?" he asked before the piano cost more lives.

"The general's concert pianist." Asher bowed.

"Why don't you come with me and teach my daughter." Meyer looked hopefully at the colonel.

The young Jew bowed again with heartfelt gratitude as the colonel put his gun away. Then Asher hooked up the horses, climbed onto the buckboard, and drove the wagon back to Meyer's house, while Meyer and the colonel discussed the virtues of vodka on their horses behind. The three of them unloaded the piano and the colonel went to his room to count his money. His last words were: "Remember that this piano burned. I never want to hear anything to the contrary."

"You bought a piano?!" Meyer's wife was incensed. "You spent 100 rubles to buy a piano when we may have to leave this town in a matter of weeks? What are we going to do with a piano? Do you realize what that money could have meant to us? What were you thinking?"

"You said Ida should learn music," he replied lamely. His folly was embarrassing in the morning light, but the colonel had already left at daybreak to move his troops across the bridge. Anyway, Meyer knew the transaction would have been irreversible. "I brought someone to teach her."

"I saw him. You brought an extra mouth to feed."

"The colonel would have killed him if I hadn't. He already had his gun out."

Tziril hesitated, then simply left the room. "I hate this stupid war," trailed after her. Even she could not blame Meyer for saving the life of another Jew.

Remarkably, however, retreat did not come to David-Horodok for another year. Having taken Pinsk in September of 1916, the Germans stayed put. Fall weather was already turning the roads throughout the Pripyat marshes into mud, making a forward advance almost impossible. For this reason or other reasons not known to the Horodokers, the Germans remained in Pinsk. Shelling could be heard nightly and Russian military garrisons fortified the town, but no one moved. The tsar dismissed the general who had been responsible for the loss of Pinsk and so much else, so all problems surrounding the piano suddenly disappeared. It was theirs, to do with as they pleased.

Everybody in town accustomed themselves to the nearness of the front, even Asher. He tried to make his music a normal part of everyday life. He tuned the piano, practiced on it, and taught Ida her scales. Tziril and Meyer paid little attention as they scrambled to make a living, since Meyer's bottled drink business had become an unaffordable luxury in the war-torn economy.

Aware that his position in Meyer's household was precarious, Asher entreated Ida to play. "It's music. Open your heart. Play with feeling." And again Ida would try, but the best she could do was avoid hitting wrong notes. It was not going well and they both knew it. Miashka meanwhile sat in the corner and watched with longing as her friend lived her dream. After two months of undistinguished effort, Ida finally turned to Miashka and suggested, "Why don't you try for a while; I want to read." That was how the music started.

No one had to entreat Miashka to play. Soon the house was filled with beautiful melodies, chords, runs and trills. Miashka, it seemed, could bring a listener inside the music. Even Tziril remained quiet about Miashka's lessons, having accepted, with a shrug, a world turned upside down-beautiful music from a peddler's daughter; feeding a family composed of strangers; walking down her own street in peril. She had stopped trying to understand; getting through was all she could afford to think about.

Soldiers came and went over the next few years, and each time more of Meyer's valuables disappeared. But the piano remained, probably because no one wanted to shlep it around any more than the Russian colonel had. Miashka continued to play; her heart overflowed. Her music was a happiness to all who heard her during those years, to many the only happiness.

The end of David-Horodok's ordeal drew near in the summer of 1920, although Horodokers had no idea at the time. The Poles held the town in the spring, and the Bolsheviks took it back again in early summer. This time Bolshevik occupation made Meyer a marked man-there was nothing more dangerous under these consolidating communists than having been a "capitalist."

The Bolshevik commissar stood outside the Finkelstein's house, pushing Meyer toward his fate. The officer demanded flour; Meyer said he didn't have any. The commissar slapped him in the face.

"You profited for years from the labor of the poor working class; you obviously have had food while they starved." He punched Meyer in the stomach; Meyer doubled up in pain.

Miashka watched from inside her house. She could see things were going badly for this man who had been so kind to her. But let's face it. During these wars it didn't mean a thing to kill a person-nothing. People were worth less than animals.

"Give us your food or we'll take your life." The commissar hit him again. Miashka couldn't stand it any longer. She dashed toward the door.

"No," Henna screamed and grabbed her. "Leave it alone. They'll kill you."

Miashka tore away and ran out the door. Then she threw herself at the feet of the commissar and grabbed his legs.

"Please don't kill him. Reb Finkelstein's been a friend to the poor, not an enemy. We are poor; we have nothing." The commissar could see she wasn't lying; her ragged clothes and skeletal appearance could not be disputed.

"Reb Finkelstein let us take wood from his pile the last three winters so we wouldn't freeze. He's a good man. He even bought a piano so that I could learn to play. You can't kill him." The commissar started to laugh. The girl had overplayed her hand.

"What kind of lie are you telling me? No capitalist teaches some poor wretch to play the piano. You expect me to believe that?"

"I'll show you." And Miashka went inside Meyer's house to play. She played like the Angel Gabriel himself had taught her. No one could turn away. The music drifted out of the window and through the commissar's heart. However he was still not satisfied.

He demanded that the daughter of the family play. He suspected that the piano had been bought for her and Miashka was an afterthought. However, Ida's incompetence proved that Miashka had been the sole beneficiary of both piano and teacher.

Being a fair man in his own mind, the commissar postponed Meyer's execution. Instead he questioned Miashka's brothers and sisters, discovering not only that they had been using Meyer's wood for the past three years, but that Ida, the daughter of the family, had known about it from the beginning. The commissar assumed Meyer had also known; perhaps he had. The Bolshevik had more than half decided he would deport Meyer and his family to Siberia rather than shooting them when time itself intervened on Meyer's behalf.

Before Horodokers could turn around, the Bolsheviks were gone; the war was over. The town had been won again by Poland, and Horodokers would not see the Russians return until 1939. A border between the Soviet Union and Poland was drawn through the village of Malishov, 30 kilometers to the east of David-Horodok. So Meyer wound up neither killed or deported. Miashka had saved his life, just as Meyer had saved her soul.

As soon as possible, Miashka left with her family for the United States, where they joined her father. Meyer took his family to Israel; he had had enough of both Russians and Poles. And what happened to the piano? The Bolsheviks took it with them when they left, of course. Shlepping didn't seem to bother them because they also took all the furniture from the orphanage and anything else that wasn't nailed down. Horodokers remained grateful that that was the only contribution they had had to make to the new communist system. Until 1939 that is, but that's another story.



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