“And a one, two, three, four… off you go.”
Piano, mezzo piano… crescendo, bit by bit… mezzo forte… forte. Fortissimo. Pizzicato. Back to bowing, now accelerando… Fermata. Rest… A rap on my elbow to fix my positioning… slur, accent…
“More vibrato,” commanded a voice from behind me. “That’s better. Make it sing! La-da-dee-da-dee-da… la-da-dee-da-dee-da… The music is alive! You are not just playing notes on a piece of paper! Da-da-da-da-dum-de-la-da… much better.”
Ten bars to go. Crescendo. Faster. Staccato… decrescendo… finis.
I let my bow slip off the strings of my beloved cello, breathing heavily. My fingers loosened their grip on the neck, and I relaxed in my seat.
“You have been working hard,” my instructor said, his Polish accent slipping in through his almost perfect English.
“Thank you,” I replied, my simple English laden with a thick Hebrew accent. “It is an escape from the world for me.”
“A good thing to have these days, eh?”
“Well, pack up and get along home. Keep working on this song, add in your new scales… hmm… what else can I give you this week…” He fumbled through a stack of sheet music, mumbling as he went. “Here we are. See what you can do with this… my favorite piece as a budding cellist.”
“Thank you, Mr. Amsel.”
“It is my pleasure, Jacob.”
I nodded and finished packing up my cello, then left Mr. Amsel’s house and began walking home, assessing my lesson.
It hadn’t been so bad; I had made a few mistakes, not many more. I wondered what he would have thought if I had told him I had practiced for over nine hours this week, in between my studies and helping father with the store. He was proud of that store, my father. Abram Ben-Levi, owner of the only kosher store in our part of Poland.
At least, we owned it for now.
Recently on the radio, I’d heard things about a man named Hitler. From what I could pick up with my little bit of Polish, he did not like us Jews. I asked Father about it many times, but he would just shake his head and mumble, “next year, in Jerusalem” in Yiddish. Sometimes he would catch my gaze and would add, “Jacob, when I was sixteen…” Here he would look up at the ceiling. “I did not know of such things as what Hitler is doing. You needn’t, either.”
I would sigh. After all, I was almost seventeen. What could be worse than how the Assyrians had treated my ancestors? Surely, God would not allow His chosen people to suffer more than they had then.
I couldn’t imagine much worse at the time. I had my cello, my family, my schoolwork. We attended the Synagogue like all of my Jewish friends. We would listen to the Rabbi, then whisper in Yiddish and afterwards play ball, shouting in the streets as we tossed it back and forth. Apart from our studies, we didn’t have a care in the world.
It was a good life.
I turned eighteen two days before the Nazis invaded our part of Poland, shouting in their harsh German tongue. They stomped through the streets, shaking the foundations of our old, wooden store and the living area above it. The little Jewish children would run to their parents crying in terror, and there were times I wished I could do the same.
It was a few days later, however, that the Nazis struck. I’ll never forget the date: September 6, 1939.
It was the last day I played my cello.
The last day my father ran the only Kosher store in our village – in fact, after September 6th, Kosher stores were only a faint memory in Poland.
The last day I walked the streets without fear.
The first day of torment, the first day of agony, the first day of a life I never wished for.
I had just set my bow to the strings of my cello when the door of the store was broken down. Harsh German voices shouted downstairs, and my mother came running up to me.
“Jacob, get down there quickly!”
I could tell from her voice that I didn’t have time to pack away my cello, so I rushed downstairs to see what was going on. As I stepped off the stairs, I had to put my hands in front of my face to keep glass from hitting it.
The Nazis were shattering the cases in which my father kept candy for the young Jewish children. The windows had been broken, and the door torn off its hinges. They were cutting into the wooden shelves and counters, ruining it all.
“No! Stop it!” I screamed in Polish, rushing at them. For a moment, they seemed to stop their destruction. I felt their eyes turn toward me, and I froze. Then two Nazis grabbed my arms and forced me against the wall, where one quickly put a gun to my chest.
I thought I was going to die.
I closed my eyes.
This was it. This was the end of my existence. I was going to die because my father owned a kosher store that had been the pride of his life. I would die because my name was Jacob Ben-Abram. Because I was a Jew.
Suddenly, the noise all around me stopped. I opened my eyes and saw the Nazis nodding to each other. One shouted something harshly in German, and three soldiers came running down from upstairs. Then they were gone.
I fell to my knees, crying. What right had they to do this? Who told them they could ruin what we had worked so hard to do? A cold gust of air pushed through where the door had once been, and I shivered.
I heard footsteps crunching on the broken glass, and then felt a hand on my shoulder. “Jacob…” It was my mother’s voice.
“I hate them!” I shouted in Yiddish, slamming my hand on the floor, wincing when glass cut into my palm. Almost blindly through my tears, I began pulling the glass out of my hand.
My mother knelt by me and took my hand from me, gently working out the broken shards. “We must love, Jacob.” She whispered.
“How can we love them after what they’ve done?” I said bitterly. “This was our life! How do they expect us to live?”
A thick silence so heavy it became hard to breathe fell on the room. My brown eyes locked with mother’s. She didn’t have to say anything; I knew what she wasn’t saying. They don’t expect us to live.
“They want us to die?” I questioned.
Again, thick, heavy, silence. “Then why didn’t they just kill me?” I yelled, starting to shake uncontrollably.
“Jacob, Jacob…” she said, stroking my curly black hair, and letting go of my hand.
“I’m going upstairs,” I said.
I wasn’t ready for what met me there. It hurt more than the damage the Nazis had done to the store. My cello music was strewn all over the room. The case had been knocked over and the front had come off the hinges.
And there, in the middle of the room, lying on the floor… was my cello. The neck was almost broken off, and the F holes had been broken in. A gaping hole in the front made by a gun matched the hole in my heart… and it showed the emptiness inside. Someone’s boot had snapped the scroll off of the cello, and curled strings stuck out in the air.
“I HATE THEM!” I cried again, picking up the cello and hugging it to me. “How… could… they do this to me?” I said between sniffles. My life. My joy. My future. Gone. Just like that.
I don’t know exactly how long I sat there, but morning light was just beginning to come through the window when I heard footfalls beside me.
“Jacob Ben-Abram,” my father said.
“Papa…” I whispered, my voice hoarse.
He helped me up, and then held me in his arms as best he could. “I am so sorry, my son.”
I only sobbed.
“Maybe next year in Jerusalem.” He murmured.
“Yes.” I said. “Anything to get us away from this terror.” My voice cracked when I tried to speak, and I hid my face in Papa’s shoulder.
“We can’t leave now, though. It’s too dangerous for Jews.”
“But we can’t just stay here,” I said.
“That’s why we need to pack up quickly. We’ll be off before dark.”
“Where are we going?”
“The three of us are going to different places. You will be out in the country. It will be safe there, my son.”
“Will… will you and mother be safe?”
“Of course, my boy, we are in God’s arms.”
I nodded. Not quite the answer I was looking for, but it would do.
Father left the room, and I glanced around. What did I have left?
I picked up and reorganized my cello music, wishing to pick my instrument up and play it. I slipped a sliver of the wood into my pocket, and then picked up the scroll. I had always loved to trace my fingers around the scroll, imagining the carver’s steady hand chiseling away at a block of wood to create a piece of art.
Trying to tear my thoughts away from the pain in my heart, I slipped my few clothes into my school bag along with a few books, pencils, and a stack of paper, then shoved my sheet music in as well.
The sun was just setting as we left the store. Father had tears in his eyes, and so did mother. Me, I only had hate.
Mother stopped at a farmhouse just outside the town, but Father and I kept walking. I knew I might not ever see her again. I think father was thinking the same thing, because he leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “Next year, in Jerusalem.”
We trudged on in silence until a man with two bikes leaning against a tree nodded to us as we passed by, and father nudged me. “Go with him.”
“Next year in Jerusalem, Father.” I said.
With one last glance back at father, I walked to the tree where the man waited. Without a word, he handed me the other bike and we rode off. As we pedaled, the land became more barren, and the houses were farther apart. I was glad of the silence. It gave me time to think, calm my thoughts a little more, and put them in some sort of order. Under any other circumstances, the steady rhythm of the bikes on the road would have been comforting, but today they echoed the marching of Nazis’s boots.
Finally, we rode around to the back of a large red farmhouse, parking the bikes in yard and climbing the stairs to the back porch. Three young girls came to meet us at the door to the house, jumping with excitement.
“Papa!” They showered him with hugs and kisses, and then turned to me.
“What’s your name?” The youngest asked shyly.
“Jacob,” I replied.
“Like in the Bible,” the oldest said.
I almost laughed. “Yes, like in the Torah.”
What I said was met with stares. Suddenly I realized I had spoken in Yiddish.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m used to speaking Yiddish.” I stumbled over the Polish words, wondering if they understood English.
“Oh.” The youngest girl’s mouth formed a perfect circle, and her eyes grew wide. “Will you teach me to speak Yiddish?”
“Come, Jacob.” The father said. “I will take you where you will stay.”
We went up two flights of stairs, and then turned left. “This is your room. If the Nazis ever come searching, you will turn over the mattress, then hide in here.” He pushed the closet open, then went to the back, lifting a small piece of the wall. “There’s a trapdoor there that leads to a bigger hiding place. You will be safe there. Otherwise, you’re free to do as you wish inside. Outside it’s too dangerous.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“We will eat in an hour; you may join us if you wish.”
“Again, thank you.”
I set my bag down on the floor. I probably shouldn’t unpack too much. If I ever needed to hide, I would not have time to clean up, I thought, and then I slipped my bag under the bed. I walked over to the window and looked out, consumed with my thoughts.
What would it be like living here? Cooped up inside all the time, but with an endless field outside. I didn’t even have my cello. If the Nazis came, I’d have to hide… and maybe I’d have to keep hiding. Or maybe I should just let them take me away so I can die. It might be better than this misery. Then I wouldn’t have to live around them. Stupid Germans. I doubt they even have a good reason to hate Jews…
A bell rang downstairs a little while later, and then I heard chairs scooting across the floor. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was dinnertime. My stomach growled, and at first, I pushed the thought of food away, but then thought better of it and went downstairs to eat.
The family sat around the table, but there was an empty place. I took a seat, and then they all held hands and the father bent his head to pray. “Dear Lord, thank you for today, and thank you for providing for us for yet another day. Thank you for bringing Jacob to be here with us, and I pray that you would be at work in his life as well as ours. Amen.”
I was puzzled. “You’re not Jewish?” I thought my father would have wanted me to go to fellow Jews, not someone of another religion.
“We are followers of Christ.”
I nodded slightly. “I see.”
The mother smiled, sensing the tension in the room and then breaking it. “I don’t think we ever told you our names. It seems our daughters know your name… but you don’t know ours.”
“Greta!” The youngest said happily.
“I’m Ruth,” The middle girl said quietly.
“Britta,” the eldest answered.
“And that’s daddy, and that’s mommy,” Greta bounced in her seat as she pointed at her parents. “And you’re Jacob! Like Isaac’s son in the Bible!”
“Hans and Leisl,” the father said, his blue eyes smiling at his daughters.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” I shifted somewhat uncomfortably in my seat.
“Leisl has been studying the Old Testament books- your Torah – all day today to learn the rules you have for eating… I hope you find our meal… kosher, I believe, is the word.”
“Yes, sir.” I replied. “Kosher.”
After dinner, we migrated to the living room where Leisl lit a few lamps and then Hans opened a big book.
“It is a custom in our house,” he looked at me as he said this, “To read from the Bible every evening and study God’s word. As a member of our household, we would like it if you joined in the conversation and study with us.”
It won’t hurt, I figured, and took a seat in the living room by Greta.
“"Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."” Hans read, his low voice flowing over the words.
He read in Polish, and I struggled to pick up a few words. After Hans explained to me, I nodded.
Suddenly, Britta spoke. “Papa, when it says ‘in my Father’s house,’ it’s talking about heaven, right?”
“What will it be like, Papa?”
“There will be no tears. No pain. No hurt. You will never fail at anything… and we will worship God.”
“Why can’t we go there now?” Greta asked.
“He’s still preparing a place for us, so it will be perfect.”
“Perfect… meaning nothing will be broken?” I said haltingly in Polish.
“Not a single thing.”
“Will any Germans be there?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that… God loves Germans just the same as us.”
“If there are Germans there, I don’t want to be there.” I turned on my heel and went up to my room, where I took out my book and lay on the bed reading. I could hear their voices downstairs discussing the passage Hans had read. An hour or so later, there was a knock on my door.
Britta peeked shyly around the door. “You can’t hate the Germans,” she said, stepping inside the room. “God doesn’t like it.”
“I don’t follow your God,” I said angrily.
“Do you believe in the ten commandments?”
I turned on my side to look at her. “Of course. I’m a good Jew.”
“Hate breaks one of them.”
“No it doesn’t. Nowhere does it say ‘You shall not hate.’”
“Jesus said anyone who hates his brother is doing the same as murdering him.”
“The Germans aren’t my brothers.”
“You’re all descendants of Adam, aren’t you?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“Which means that way back you have the same father.”
“So you’re brothers. So you’re murdering them.”
“Maybe I am. Why shouldn’t I? They broke my cello, ruined my father’s store… our future, our past…”
“Sometimes it’s better just to let go.” Britta slipped silently away, and I tried to go back to my reading, only to throw the book down on the bed. After Britta’s comments, it was impossible to do anything but think about them.
What had Hans read? “In my father’s house, there are many rooms…”
Surely, God would not let the Germans in after what they had done.
They murdered first!
“Vengeance is mine,” declares the Lord.
They had no right!
Neither do you.
They. Ruined. My. Life. Is that so hard for you to grasp?
You are no better than they are… and inside you know that. If God has no right to let the Germans in, why should He let you in?
I rolled over and went to sleep.
Morning came too quickly. I woke up with my fingers itching to play my cello, which had been broken millions of times in my dreams.
I sat up in bed, my fingers playing with the crocheted blanket on the bed. I could hear voices downstairs, and Greta’s was the loudest, saying something about a golden house.
“Let me guess,” I muttered. “The Father’s house.” I dressed quickly and ran downstairs. I was hungry, and I could smell Leisl cooking something.
After breakfast, I explored the house more, looking around downstairs and playing with the girls. In the afternoon, I discovered the piano. I ran my fingers over the smooth white keys, enjoying the sound of music, albeit a little dissonant to my untrained hands. Yet what could I do on a piano? A piano was most certainly not a cello.
“Do you know how to play the piano?” It was Ruth, her quiet voice barely breaking into my thoughts.
“I am a cellist.”
“Do you want me to teach you piano?” She asked.
“What are the names of the keys?” I wondered aloud, a plan forming in my mind.
“This is C. D. E. F. G. A. B. And to the left of a key is the flat; to the right is the sharp. The black keys, that is. Except for E sharp and B sharp, those are F and C.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I ran upstairs and grabbed some of my cello music, then sat down at the piano to try to play it. “Where’s this note?” I asked.
“That’s this E.”
Slowly Ruth pointed me to where each note was on the piano, and I stumbled through the song. She nodded when I reached the end of it.
“That’s pretty. Did you play that on your cello?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What’s a cello sound like?”
She frowned. “I’ve never heard magic before.”
“That’s what makes cellos so special.” I winked. “Now you play for me,” I told her.
She brightened and took my seat at the piano, immediately beginning to play. I clapped when she finished, and for the first time I saw Ruth smile.
“Why do you hate the Germans, Jacob?” She questioned suddenly, turning around on the seat to look at me, her face immediately serious.
“They hurt my family,” I replied, almost as quietly as Ruth had asked her question. “And broke my cello.”
“I’m sorry… but… can’t you forgive them?”
“Why should I?”
“Because God hates sin.”
“It’s not my fault humans are sinners.”
“But we can be forgiven for our sins, so we should forgive others.”
I shrugged. “The Messiah will come to free us from bondage, not our sins.”
“Not will come… He already came.”
“You’re a Christian. That’s what you believe. I believe something different.”
“But what if you believe isn’t right?”
I walked away, tired of arguing with a nine-year old.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and playing on the piano more. I went up in my room while Hans and the family were reading from the Bible, lying on my bed and thinking. The girls had gone to bed when I finally sat up and went downstairs. After getting a mug of warm milk, I stood at the window of the kitchen, looking outside, longing to be free. I felt caged inside the house, never being able to go out. It had only been a day and a half of being locked up, but already I was like a bird beating my wings against the bars of the cage, a captive in my own country.
Hans came and stood by my side, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at the trees outside.
“We would like it if you joined us for devotions in the evenings, Jacob.”
“You have your religion, I have mine. If your God lets Germans in, I’m not going to let Him in.”
“Sometimes letting go makes us freer than holding on.”
“After they ruined everything my family and I worked so hard at? Our store, my father’s pride and joy? My cello – my joy? They took all I have ever known. And it was gone. Just like that. Gone forever. And now I’m cooped up inside for who knows how long… next year in Jerusalem, huh…”
Hans was silent for a few minutes. “Jacob, God’s doors are open for anyone. He loves us all the same; even though we have sinned… your sin is equal to that of the Germans in His eyes. Your hate just as ugly as their wars.” He put a hand on my shoulder, but I jerked away.
“Then how can any of us go to His house if all of us have sinned? I thought you said it was perfect.”
“We can be made perfect through Jesus.”
“Jesus committed blasphemy.”
“In the eyes of some Jews he did, yes. Yet what if He really was God’s son?”
“Can you prove it?”
“Only as much as you can prove that He isn’t.”
“Then there’s no reason to believe it.”
“What’s going to happen to you if you’re wrong, Jacob?”
“I’ll beat some Germans up in Sheol, I guess.” I started turning away from Hans.
“And be separated from God and live in imperfection and brokenness forever.”
“NO!” I jerked back toward Hans, suddenly angry. I couldn’t decide what was worse – imperfection for eternity or living with Germans.
“Either you end up suffering forever, or you love Germans.”
“It’s my life, okay?”
I stormed off to my room, shutting the door tightly behind me, wanting to lock out the world.
Things continued in a very dreary way for the next few weeks. I learned more on the piano with Ruth’s help, and very quickly, we learned not to discuss religious things. Before long, even Hans left me alone about it, although I started joining them for their evening devotions.
Winter came, and with winter came the first snowfall. I watched from my bedroom window as the girls made snowmen and had snowball fights. Sometimes I joined in, making snowballs from the snow that gathered on my windowsill. They celebrated Christmas, and I watched from the sidelines, wishing to celebrate my Jewish feasts and festivals.
Once things settled into some sort of routine, I no longer felt like a prisoner inside a house. There was laughter, singing, music… if I had had my cello and my parents had been there, I would say it was a happy time. The hate in my heart even loosened its grip slightly, but it was still there, an ever-present cold hand in the middle of the joy.
Harsh knocking sounded on the front door. I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. 4:07. Looking outside affirmed that it was 4:07 AM, not PM. A quieter knocking came from my door, and when I opened it, I found Ruth outside my room.
“Hide,” she whispered.
I turned over the mattress, grabbed my bag, and began heading for the closet. Hans rushed into the room. Nodding when he saw me already on my way, he helped me down into the hiding place, and as I grabbed his wrist, I locked eyes with him.
“Do y’think… if I let God and the Germans in… He’d give me a room?”
“There are many rooms in His house, Jacob. I’m sure He’d be happy to have you there.”
I smiled for the first time in months.
“We can talk more later,” Hans said, and then he left, shutting the trapdoor over my head. I heard the wall slide back into place, and then the closed door closed.
I was alone. And I was afraid. I shivered. It was cold and damp down here, as well as being pitch black.
It was a long night in the hiding place, but I had comfort: In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.
And He’s preparing one for me. Maybe there will even be a cello there…
Bible quotations taken from the ESV translation.
Yes, I love cellos. :) There's something magical about them, almost as magical as oboes. However in most of the stories with cellos oboes wouldn't work in their place, so I go with a cello.
Anyways... this is set in WWII, and is about a young Jewish man.