The Auschwitz Violinist – Chapters 1 & 2

Here are chapters 1 & 2 of my novel The Auschwitz Violinist, the second book in the Adam Lapid mystery series.

Chapter 1

I was buying a newspaper at a kiosk when the man called my name. He was on the opposite curb, holding up a short hand. The rest of him was short as well, from his legs to his torso to his graying hair. He was young, too young to be turning gray. But there were many such men and women about. War ages the young almost as fast as it kills the living.

His name eluded me, though his face seemed familiar. When he came across the street and said hello to me in Hungarian, I figured out where I had last seen him. It was in 1944, and we were in the same barracks at Auschwitz. For a short while at least. Then he simply wasn’t there one night. I assumed he died—that was what usually happened to people in Auschwitz who were there one day and gone the next. Prisoners were regularly shot for one infraction or another, or beaten to death for the amusement of the guards. But there he was, six years later, on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, dressed in a blue short-sleeved shirt, black slacks and shoes, his arms browned by the blazing August sun. Kaplon, his name was. Yosef Kaplon.

“Thought I was dead, didn’t you?” he said after crossing the street. He smiled widely. He had a gold tooth on the right side of his mouth. I wondered idly when he got it. Couldn’t have been before the camp. The guards would have yanked it out of his mouth.

“It was a safe bet,” I said, shaking his extended hand. He had long fingers and a soft, uncalloused hand. He was no day laborer.

“That is very true. Of course, I knew you were alive for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I opened up a copy of Davar and saw your picture plastered across half a page. And what a headline: ‘Adam Lapid, Hero of Israel.’ It was quite impressive what you did in that battle.”

I felt a throb in my chest where a coin-shaped scar marred my skin. The story of my wartime exploits had been published without my knowledge—I was lying in a hospital in Tel Aviv in what amounted to a coma at the time, trying to survive two bullet wounds I had taken in Israel’s War of Independence. Those had been dark times for the new country, and the people needed heroes. I fit the bill. It got me a lot of attention at the time and sometimes still did. I didn’t like it. Killing was sometimes necessary and justified, and occasionally satisfying, but I wasn’t interested in the glory that came with it.

“A wild exaggeration,” I said.

“Not from what I read. I was very happy to read that you survived your wounds.”

“How did you survive?” I said, changing the subject. “The camp, I mean.”

His face turned somber. “I owe it all to my mother.”

He must have read the question in my eyes, for he smiled again. “Instead of telling you, why don’t I show you. Are you busy tonight? Come to Café Budapest at eight o’clock, and the secret of my survival will be revealed.”

#

Café Budapest smelled thickly of goulash. Meat—like eggs, butter, and a host of other food items—was still strictly rationed, so the owner probably had some connections he pulled to get his supply. There was a bar along the left side of the room. Two flags hung side by side on the wall behind it—the Israeli and Hungarian flags. You would have thought the two countries were firm allies. Scattered about the room were a dozen or so round wooden tables. All of the tables were occupied. The atmosphere was festive. Men and women sat over steaming bowls and tall glasses filled with wine or vodka or brandy, chattering in Hungarian and Hebrew, laughing, smoking cheap cigarettes. I looked around for Kaplon, but he wasn’t there.

I took one of the tall stools at the bar. The barkeep was an amiable-looking, overweight man in a gray shirt and spotless white apron. He had the ruddy cheeks of a habitual drinker, but not the broken capillaries that signify excess. His hair was dark, just a little bit receding, and his wide mouth was overhung by a thick, Stalin-style mustache. He brought me a bowl of goulash with a hunk of dark, coarse bread on the side. The smell brought water to my mouth. I dunked the bread in the broth, stuck it in my mouth, and thought of my mother. The memory came unbidden, like a trespasser. The way she’d made it was different—thicker, with a bit more salt—but it was close, too close for comfort. For a moment, I regretted ordering it. But food was food, and it was delicious.

“Good, eh?” the barkeep asked, smiling the smile of a merchant who knew the value of his product.

I nodded.

“For a moment there,” he said, “you looked like you were someplace else.”

I said, “I was back at what used to be home.”

His smile faltered momentarily then returned. “That’s as good a compliment as I can expect.” He held out a meaty hand. “Milosh Dobrash.”

“Adam Lapid.” His handshake was firm, his palm warm.

We chatted for a while, exchanging background stories. He had come to Israel in 1928 along with his wife. They’d worked a variety of jobs for some years, struggled like everyone else, and in 1936 opened the café together. His wife was the one who made the goulash, and any other dishes on the menu, and he took care of the day-today running of the place. The café became a gathering place for Hungarian Jews. A place to talk a familiar language, eat familiar food, and share pleasant memories.

It was the last part that had kept me away from Café Budapest. I did not want to share any memories of Hungary. Dredging up the pleasant memories would require digging through whole layers of unpleasant ones.

I told Milosh a little of my history, how I had been a police officer in Hungary from 1933 to 1939, the first Jewish detective on that country’s police force, and that I worked as a private detective after anti-Jewish laws led to my firing from the police force. I left the worst things out, but I could see that Milosh was smart enough to fill in the gaps.

“You look like a policeman. That’s what I figured you were when you came in.”

“I’m not a policeman anymore. Just a detective. For things the police can’t or won’t handle. Or when you’d rather not get the police involved in your affairs.”

Milosh nodded sagaciously. He didn’t ask me to explain why I chose not to be a policeman in Israel.

When I told him that I was there to meet Yosef Kaplon and asked if he knew him, Milosh broke into a smile. “Sure I know him. You don’t know what he’s here for, do you? Well, you’re in for a special treat. He should be on in ten minutes or so.”

After bringing me some more bread, which I used to soak up the dregs of the goulash sauce, Milosh went to pour drinks for other patrons. I sat with my thoughts for a moment, wondering what had possessed me to come to Café Budapest that night, when I’d been avoiding it for so long. It had something to do with Yosef Kaplon and what he’d said about his mother. I wanted to hear his story, and he had just smiled enigmatically when I’d tried getting it out of him earlier that day, saying that I should come to the café at nine.

So here I was.

Milosh came back to where I sat. He nodded toward the other end of the café. “Here he comes.”

I turned and there was Yosef Kaplon stepping out of a side door in the far corner of the café. I noticed that there was a small elevated platform snug against the wall, with a single high stool standing on it. Kaplon, dressed in an immaculate dark suit and silver tie, stepped onto the platform. Conversation ceased and an anticipatory silence fell on the café as he bowed deeply. It was then that I noticed that he was holding a violin in his left hand, a bow in his right.

Kaplon wedged the violin under his jaw and began to play. It started out slow and soft, like the overtures of a hesitant lover. There was a searching quality to the melody, an exploration of sound. Then it turned low, and the silence in the café seemed to grow deeper as I, and the rest of the patrons, strained our ears to pick out every note. Sadness and grief were what those notes inspired, and no one in that room would have had to look hard to find ample cause for both. Through it all, Yosef Kaplon stood with his lower body rigid and his torso shifting to accompany his bow movements. He kept his eyes closed throughout the piece. His expression changed continuously, though, shifting from a smooth-faced tranquility to a rough-looking grimace.

It was only when he had finished the piece that I realized that my heart was hammering in my ears and that I had held my breath toward the conclusion. Some of the other patrons, women and men both, were dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs, and one middle-aged man was weeping openly. I had never been a connoisseur of music, but Kaplon’s playing was masterful. It had the transformative quality of great art—it took you for a short while to another place and time.

This was but the opening piece, and over the next hour or so, Kaplon played many more. Some were cheerful, others morose, and all were beautiful.

When he had finished, people lined up to shake his hand, and I saw a few of the patrons slip money into it. He was shaking hands with his right hand, wiping sweat off his forehead with his left, and beaming.

Afterward he came to the bar. Milosh had set a glass of pálinka brandy for him, which Kaplon downed in three great sips before asking for another.

I complimented him on his performance. He waved a dismissive hand, but I could tell he was pleased.

“So now you know how I survived.”

I told him I didn’t.

“It was the music, Adam. It was the music.”

#

“Do you remember the day you arrived at the camp?” Kaplon asked.

I winced.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Do you prefer not to talk about it?”

“With you, it’s all right.”

“But not with everyone?”

“They weren’t there. They wouldn’t understand. It would be pointless to try to explain.”

He nodded, took the brandy bottle Milosh had set on the bar at his elbow, and poured himself another glass. It was his fourth, but apart from a flush in his cheeks, he was showing no signs of the liquor. I was done drinking for the night, but I had gone through a similar number of cigarettes. Most of the patrons had already left the café, and Milosh was conversing with a couple of stragglers by the door.

“You’re probably right,” Kaplon said. “I was there and I don’t understand it myself. But do you remember the day you arrived, the moment you got off that awful train, that there was band music on the platform? There were barking dogs and barking men in green uniforms, and I couldn’t tell you which scared me more, but amid all the pandemonium and utter dread, there was also music. Do you remember?”

I did and told him so.

“The Germans had this idea: If they had some music playing when a new shipment of Jews arrived, the prisoners would think they’d arrived at a nice place and would be passive, easy to control. Did it work on you? Did the music fool you when you arrived at Auschwitz?”

“No,” I said. “Not for a moment.”

“It didn’t fool me either, though I was just shy of seventeen. A mere boy. But that place…it was…I’m not sure I have the words for it. Even the blind and deaf would have sensed the wrongness of it. Still, who could have imagined what they had in store for us? That the people of Bach, Strauss, and Brahms could resort to such savagery.”

I didn’t tell him what I had already figured out for myself, that it was only a people as cultured and advanced as the Germans who could have done such a thing. A less advanced people would not have had the planning and organizational skills required to create the death industry the Germans had erected, with the gas chambers, the slave camps, the efficient transportation of prisoners to the camps, their swift elimination within, and the disposal of nearly all trace of their existence. Savages, at least in the way Europeans used the word, would have been much less methodical and efficient. And fewer Jews would have been murdered at their hands.

He peered into his glass, downed its contents, and refilled it. He took another sip and said, “Did you come to Auschwitz alone?”

“No.” I didn’t elaborate. What would be the point? They were all dead. I was the only one of my family left.

“I came with my mother,” he said. “I was an only child. She had me after five miscarriages. The doctors told her it would be risky for her to be pregnant, but she wanted a child, so she kept trying until I was born. My father died when I was two, so my mother raised me by herself. It wasn’t hard—she came from a well-to-do family, had inherited money from her parents. I had a comfortable childhood.”

His eyes were wet, glistening. He took a quick gulp from his glass and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“It was my mother who got me to play the violin,” he went on. “Made me play it, is more accurate. It was part of being a cultured man, she said. I hated it. Didn’t want to practice. But she got her way. She had that ability. Forced me to practice every day. Eventually, I got good. Not stellar but pretty good.”

“You sounded stellar tonight,” I said, and meant it.

He looked around at the few people who lingered in the café, then back at me. “These people, they are starving. Not just for the food and other goods that are now rationed. That is merely a physical hunger. They’re also starving for their lost families, for their memories, for some taste of culture and art and music. I sound so good to them, and to you as well, just as an average flower would look magnificent in a desert. No, I know what I’m worth. I’m no Jascha Heifetz or Isaac Stern. I’m not and would never be a top violinist, however much I want to be. But I was good enough for the Germans, good enough for Auschwitz.”

Kaplon told me the rest of his story. He told me how one day, a German guard came and took him from his work detail. He was sure that he was being taken to his death; instead the guard led him to another barracks, one housing musicians from one of the camp orchestras. One of the violinists had caught typhoid and died. Another violinist in the group had been one of Kaplon’s teachers back in Hungary. He had spotted Kaplon in the camp one day and told the guards that he was a worthy replacement for the dead violinist. And so Kaplon was conscripted.

“We had all sorts of duties in the orchestra,” Kaplon said. “We played marching music in the mornings when the other prisoners were led to their work details. Do you remember that, Adam?”

I thought back. “I do, but only vaguely. I was so tired and hungry and cold that I only heard it as noise, not real music.”

“We also played during executions. That was hard. I don’t know what the purpose of that was. Just one of the many perversions of Auschwitz. One more insanity in a world of them. Perhaps it was one more way to humiliate us.”

Kaplon fell into a momentary, pensive silence. Then he said, “The guards and the SS would sometimes have us perform for them. They would have dinner parties in their barracks or houses. This was another world, in close proximity to the prison camp, but it might have been on another planet. They had food there. Rich food and plenty of it. Things we only dreamed of. And wine and beer. Enough to drive you crazy. They would eat and we would play merry music. I remember how my stomach used to grumble during those parties; I was certain they would hear it over the music.” His face twisted in revulsion. “Sometimes they would have women there. Local Polish women. The guards were animals, even the cultured ones. I hated performing before those pigs, but each party was a godsend. I would often be able to filch some food, slipping it under my shirt for later. It helped tremendously. This was dangerous, of course. Had I been caught, I would have been shot. But it was worth the risk.”

He poured himself another glass.

“But the hardest assignment was playing on the train platform when the newly condemned arrived. I’ll tell you something, Adam: Being on that platform, watching those ragged, exhausted, starving people being marched to their death, all while I played cheerful music, it’s a hard memory to shake.”

He downed the rest of the brandy. He upended the bottle and frowned when he discovered it was empty.

“And your mother?” I asked.

“She died the day she arrived. From the platform they took her straight to the gas chambers. But all those violin lessons, all her badgering and prodding and pushing, they saved my life. She saved my life.”

He let out a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a moan.

“And, oh, how I miss her, Adam. Every single day, I do.”

Chapter 2

It was four days later, on Sunday, the 27th of August, that I learned Yosef Kaplon was dead. His death merited a small mention on an inner page of Davar. I read it while seated on a bench in Dizengoff Square, smoking a cigarette. The paper said that a Yosef Kaplon had been found dead in his apartment the previous Friday, and that the police had determined that he had committed suicide. The paper did not state the method of suicide, but it did list the time and place of the funeral. My watch told me I had thirty minutes to get to the cemetery. I quickly got to my feet and headed there.

There weren’t too many people at the funeral. The Jewish faith didn’t look kindly on suicide; perhaps that explained the sparse attendance. Or maybe not everyone who wanted to come could get away during a workday. Or, more likely, people got uncomfortable when someone they knew killed themselves. It made you start thinking, and that was never good.

It was a hot day and my clothes and hair quickly turned damp with sweat under the glaring sun. A few wispy clouds trailed across the sky. A faint westerly wind shifted the air about without cooling it. I stood with folded arms as the ritual of burial was carried out. I breathed in the scent of freshly dug earth, only half listening to the prayers muttered by a young rabbi who seemed eager to finish his part and leave in pursuit of some shade. As Yosef Kaplon’s diminutive body was lowered into the ground, I looked down at my shoes and considered the wrongness of it. A survivor of Auschwitz was supposed to live out his days, grow old and gray, die in his bed. I recalled how during the War of Independence, new conscripts to the Israeli Defense Force, some of them mere days off the ships that had brought them from war-ravaged Europe, were handed a rifle and uniform and sent to plug a hole in this unit or that line. Many of them died in their first battle. There was something about those deaths that went beyond the usual wretchedness of war.

Kaplon’s funeral was a desolate and lonely affair. There was no grieving wife, no family members with whom to shake hands or mumble some words of consolation to. There was just a handful of acquaintances and the dead body ready to be interred. It angered me that Yosef Kaplon would soon be forgotten, like so many of our people. He would have a headstone, yes, and that was more than most of the inmates at Auschwitz had, but with no close friends or family to visit it, was it really that different?

I spotted a few familiar faces among the mourners, people who had shared Kaplon’s last performance with me at Café Budapest. And Milosh Dobrash was there, dressed formally in a white shirt and tie, a black suit and hat. His grim expression made him look older. Unlike myself, he mumbled along with the religious texts, not missing a single amen.

The grave digger started shoveling the dirt on top of Kaplon’s corpse. Then he offered the shovel to the attendants. A few took up the offer and cast a spadeful or two of earth into the grave. I did the same. When I turned to hand over the shovel to the next man, I found Milosh standing behind me, his mouth set in a hard line beneath the canopy of his mustache.

Milosh did not satisfy himself with a single shovelful, nor with two, nor with ten. He kept on pouring the dirt until there was none left.

#

I couldn’t say why I stayed behind to watch Milosh as he finished filling the grave, then packed the mound flat with the back of the shovel. He straightened with a sigh and handed the shovel back to the grave digger. His face was red from exertion, sweat dripping from his forehead and cheeks. His mustache looked wet and matted. He took out a handkerchief, sopped away as much sweat as the cloth would take, and folded it back into his pocket.

“I’m not fit for this kind of work,” he said.

“Too much goulash and bread will do that,” I said.

Milosh chuckled dryly. “True, true.” He turned to look at the fresh grave and started bending down before stopping midway, wincing in pain. “I did something to my back. Can you get me that stone, Adam?”

I picked up the stone he was pointing at and another for myself. I placed both stones on the grave and wondered where this particular custom had come from. We stood in silence and watched the grave digger stick a small sign into the grave with “Yosef Kaplon” printed on it, along with the dates of his birth and death. Then it was done.

We left the cemetery together and walked slowly west along Trumpeldor Street. I offered Milosh a cigarette, but he shook his head. I lit one for myself and was five drags into it when Milosh invited me to come with him to Café Budapest. “I want to discuss something with you, Adam. Do you have the time?”

I said that I did. I realized that I was not surprised by his invitation. I had expected it. It was why I had stayed behind with Milosh by the grave. That feeling of wrongness, of unfinished business, wasn’t mine alone. Perhaps Milosh would supply me with some answers, or maybe he would raise new questions. Either way, I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The café was closed and empty. A sign hanging on the inside of the door informed passersby that the café would open at eight o’clock that night. Another sign gave the details of Kaplon’s funeral and exhorted people to attend. Milosh unlocked the door and we stepped inside. He closed and locked the door after us and removed the sign with the funeral details.

I followed him to the bar. He went behind it, rummaged in a low shelf and came up with a squat bottle three-quarters full with purplish liquid. “Slivovitz?” he offered.

I shook my head and he made me a cup of black coffee. He took the bottle of slivovitz and a tall glass with him to one of the tables. All the chairs had been turned over on the tabletops, and we took two of them down and sat on them. He held the bottle high, gazing at it mournfully.

“Years ago, before the war, shortly after we opened this place, I got the chance to buy a few cases of slivovitz and pálinka. Top quality. Now, only a little is left. You can’t get this stuff anymore. The Soviets have cut Hungary off from the rest of the world. Bulgaria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia are also blocked off. Soon this will be gone and all we’ll be able to serve is beer and wine.” His upper lip curled in disgust, making his mustache jump up and down like a circus bear. “I only serve this stuff on special occasions, and I think today qualifies, don’t you?”

I gave no answer and he didn’t wait for one. He poured himself half a glass, downed it, grimaced, then poured himself another.

“Want to know something funny? I’ve never liked slivovitz. Don’t know why I drink the stuff. It burns my throat and tastes like spoiled plums.”

I said nothing. People harmed themselves in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. Some drank; others killed themselves. We were there to talk about the latter. From my years as a policeman I’d learned never to interrupt a man about to talk. Whether you were interviewing a suspect, a witness, or anyone else, letting someone talk in his own time tended to get you the best information.

He said, “But it does cloud your mind when you need it clouded.” He sighed. “This…this business with Yosef. It doesn’t sit right with me. I knew the man. He played here once or twice a week for nearly a year. It doesn’t sit right.”

I sipped my coffee, waiting for him to continue.

“I imagine that this kind of thing always comes as a shock to people. And to be honest, I was not too close to Yosef. I liked him, and I enjoyed having him play here, and it gave me pleasure to see how well he was received. But I did not see him much outside of the café, and if you’d ask me how he spent his days, I would have no answer. So perhaps my shock at his suicide is misplaced. And yet, I feel that I should have known something, sensed that something was about to happen. Am I wrong in feeling this way, Adam?”

I said, “You feel what you feel. There is no wrong or right about it. I would say, Milosh, that people are good at hiding their troubles. If you feel any blame for what happened, don’t. It isn’t your fault.”

He sipped some more brandy and wiped his mustache dry. “It isn’t that. Or not exactly that. I know that I had no responsibility to prevent him from taking his own life. It’s just that I feel the need to know. I don’t think I’ll know peace until I do.”

“Know what?”

“What drove him to it, what his life was like. Anything that can explain this.” He gave me a level stare. “Can you do it, Adam? Can you find out?”

“I can try,” I said.


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