Nocturne for a good man

I have always wondered if music could transform a person. Of course, mythology and literature are filled with sweet-voiced female characters like the Sirens or Lorelei whose enchanted singing makes men lose their reason and face a cruel end — and I’m not even mentioning the famous Pied Piper who with his unsophisticated woodwind instrument delivered a deadly adversarial attack onto the proprioception systems of all Hamelin’s rodents and, after having been denied his honorarium, enchanted all the children of the respectable town and conducted them away.

No, I’m talking about a totally different transformation — without any black magic. In The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck depicts a heartlessly precise totalitarian apparatchik, Stasi Captain codenamed HGW XX/7 ordered to put the famous playwright Georg Dreyman (and his comely actress girlfriend) suspected of dissent on 24-hour surveillance. The agent meticulously documents the most intimate moments of the writer’s life until one day Dreyman plays a piano piece, Sonata for a Good Man, stating “If you really hear it, can you be a bad person?” Haunted by that question, as if it were directed to him, HGW XX/7 starts covering for Dreyman’s dissident activity in his false surveillance reports — at the expense of his own career.

Of course, it’s only a fiction movie. No sonatas for good men exist in the piano repertoire. And people are stubborn in being themselves, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered: can a sequence of twelve notes liberate the good hidden deep inside the human heart and prompt a hopeless evil-doer to an act of kindness? I believe there exists at least one piece that has this power — Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor.

Chopin actually composed two C# minor nocturnes: the first of opus 27 composed in 1836 and dedicated to Countess d’Appony, and another one written in 1830 and published posthumously 21 years after the composer’s untimely death. I’m talking about the second one, which in the absence of an opus number is often referred to as Lento con gran espressione from the tempo marking on one of the two original manuscripts. As befits a Romantic nocturne of the 19th century, it’s a single-movement character piece with a cantabile melody in the right hand, and an arpeggiated accompaniment in the left. The C#-minor nocturne was the opening music of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist based on the autobiography of Władysław Szpilman.

Szpilman (or Spielmann in German spelling) was a prominent Polish pianist and composer (in fact, can someone with such a surname be anything else?) Educated by several of the most celebrated musicians of his time, he himself quickly became a celebrity in Poland. Since 1935, he has been regularly playing for the Polish Radio as a featured soloist. There, in Warsaw, he was playing a Chopin recital on September 23, 1939, when a bomb from the advancing German army destroyed the radio power supply, silencing the broadcasts until the end of the war. The last piece that Szpilman performed in its entirety was… well, of course, the C#-minor nocturne.

Warsaw fell a week later, and Poland was divided between Germany and USSR, as provisioned by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Władysław Szpilman, otherwise a virtuous man, had a little stain on his reputation: he was not exactly of Aryan blood. He soon found himself confined to the Warsaw ghetto with a six-pointed star on his shoulder. He managed to provide for his family by playing the piano in cafes, until in 1942 they were all herded to the ghetto Umschlagplatz and loaded onto a train. Destination: Treblinka. At the last moment, one of the guards recognized the famous pianist and pulled him from the line. It was the last time Szpilman saw his family.

The pianist managed to escape from the ghetto and saw its uprising and the very expected destruction from the other side of the wall. He survived thanks to the aid of his fellow musicians, several times avoiding capture and death. In November 1944, he was hiding in the attic of an abandoned building. While raiding the kitchen, he was surprised by a German officer, who walked in unnoticed and asked loudly in German: what are you doing here?

With the certainty of a sleepwalker, Szpilman suddenly felt that his strength would fail him if he tried to escape. He sat on the chair by the larder door groaning and gazing dully at the officer. After some time, he stammered: Do what you like to me. I’m not moving from here. The German officer, Hauptmann Wilm Hosenfeld, asked for his occupation, and Szpilman replied that he was a pianist. Hosenfeld then led him to a piano in the next room and instructed him to play. Here is how Szpilman himself describes the scene in his book:

When I placed my fingers on the keyboard they shook. So this time, for a change, I had to buy my life by playing the piano! I hadn’t practised for two and a half years, my fingers were stiff and covered with a thick layer of dirt, and I had not cut my nails since the fire in the building where I was hiding. Moreover, the piano was in a room without any window panes, so its action was swollen by the damp and resisted the pressure of the keys. I played Chopin’s Nocturne in C#-minor. The glassy, tinkling sound of the untuned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway, floated through the ruins of the villa on the other side of the street, and returned as a muted, melancholy echo. When I had finished, the silence seemed even gloomier and eerier than before.

This picture of the echo of Chopin’s sounds in the desolate devastated city reminds me for some reason of Alexander Blok’s earlier depiction of the unstoppable march of twelve Bolshevik soldiers through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd:

Трах-тах-тах! – И только эхо
Откликается в домах…
Только вьюга долгим смехом
Заливается в снегах…
Трах-тах-тах! Трах-тах-тах…
Rat-a-tat-tat! Only the echo
Bounces round the buildings there…
Only the blizzard, laughing, laughing,
Roaring with laughter in the snows…
Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat…

In Polanski’s film, Szpilman plays for Hosenfeld a portion from Chopin’s G-minor ballade. I think this is a rather poor choice, not only because it sins against reality, but also because it is rather unimaginable that the pianist would have played such a technically challenging piece on a half-broken untuned instrument.

In any case, not only didn’t Hosenfeld do any harm to Szpilman, but he helped him find a better hiding place in the house and brought him water, food, and encouraging news of the rapidly advancing Soviet troops.

The melody of Chopin’s nocturne conveys the mood that Szpilman must have had when he accepted to play — grief and resignation, but solemnly noble, with his head held high. Even in front of what the pianist believed was his imminent death.

My grandfather once told me that when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, his mother was pleading her father on her knees to leave everything behind and flee to evacuation. He was a stubborn opinionated man, and told her: “Germans? What nonsense are you telling! I remember them from 1918 — educated folks, very ordered. They stayed for some time, paid for everything.” Poor old man! He was among the first to die when the SS took them to the adjacent forest — the way he lived, with his head raised high. One of the soldiers pushed or hit his wife, and that couldn’t pass unanswered, even in front of a machine gun. But before that, he somehow managed to smuggle a boy instructing him: “Now you watch carefully and then tell those who survive what happened here.” The boy stayed alive hiding for weeks in the forest and then re-emerged to tell the story. My grandfather fled with his family. He recollected that, with his sister and little brother, they had to take cover under the wagons when Luftwaffe bombed their train that was steaming full speed away from the frontlines.

Chopin’s C#-minor nocturne saved the life of another Jewish pianist, Natalia Weissman (better known after the war as Natalia Karp.) She was sent to the infamous Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp commanded at that time by Amon Göth. The Austrian officer was too cruel even by the SS standards — to the extent that he was eventually relieved of his position as the camp commandant. Göth used to tell new inmates “I am your god” (probably because he liked the pun of Ich bin dein Gott on his last name); his daily hobby was to show off his marksmanship by shooting prisoners from his office windows. On his 35th birthday in 1943, Göth ordered Weissman to play the piano for him. Weissman chose to play the C#-minor nocturne, knowing that the prize in that performance was her life. Be it the poignant music, or just the cruel Nazi’s good mood, but Göth was so pleased by the little concert that he magnanimously allowed both Natalia and her sister to live. In 1946, the sharp-eyed music aficionado was hanged for war crimes not very far from the site of his lager — he was probably the first among a handful of Nazis to be directly indicted with murder.

I will never forget a testimony I’ve heard from an old lady with a wrinkled face and sad eyes. I was in elementary school and she came to tell us her story on the Holocaust Memorial Day. As a young Polish Jewish girl, she faked her real age and was deported to Treblinka I — the forced labor camp. The rest of her family perished in the ditches of Treblinka II. She told that very shortly she was exhausted by the continuous starvation and impossible work conditions but kept going as she knew that not being able to work was equal to death. One day, she fell attempting to carry a cart loaded with heavy boulders and didn’t have the forces to rise on her feet. A German officer — perhaps, also one of those who liked to play gods, slowly approached her, put a pistol barrel to her forehead and asked in German: “do you want to die?” Driven to that desperate state of existence where death seems a relief, she replied: “yes.” Much to her disbelief, the officer spared her life and just ordered her to continue her work. She survived the war, but every night hence, in her dreams, she says “no” and the soldier pulls the trigger. I think her story will continue to haunt me until the end of my days. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good idea to tell such stories to children…

The events of WWII caused many people to ask themselves what monster a person must be to be capable of such atrocities. This question certainly bothered Dr. Douglas Kelley, a 33-year old officer in the United States Army Medical Corps. In his capacity of Nuremberg Prison’s chief psychiatrist, Kelley administered thematic apperception, Rorschach inkblot tests, and other nonsense to the 22 members of the surviving Nazi hierarchy to ascertain their competency evaluation (so they could be legally hanged). Fresh from the grad school, Kelley secretly hoped that his tests would open a window into the minds of the Nazi prisoners and identify character traits or mental disorders that they held in common — a “Nazi personality” that could help saving humanity from future malefactors.

To his surprise, the young doctor didn’t find any particular aberrations among his patients (except Rudolph Hess, whom he deemed mentally ill.) No paranoid, schizoid, or neurotic personalities. Those who commanded and orchestrated the most horrible atrocities in the history of human civilization weren’t monsters. No, they were faithful husbands and loving fathers; they enjoyed listening to Wagner’s operas and Beethoven’s symphonies, read Göthe and Heine (pardon, during the Nazi regime the Jewish poet was better recognizable as Unknown Author), smelled the roses, and fed sunflower kernels to squirrels from their bare red-stained hands… no, it wasn’t blood — just strawberry juice.

Not abominations, but common people like you and me. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt will put it later.

Against the opinions of many of his learned colleagues, Kelley was a vocal supporter of the claim that his Nazi patients were sane. To make things worse, he befriended the second-highest-ranking Nazi in the flock, Herman Göring. The American doctor seemed to be fascinated by the German’s personality and felt an incredible intellectual and emotional affinity to him. In his Californian home, he later kept many of Göring’s personal effects that somehow passed into his hands after the Nazi swallowed potassium cyanide the night before his scheduled execution.

The Nuremberg experience must have been world-shattering for Dr. Kelley. After his discharge from the military, he switched fields to criminology and continued to ponder the unbearable banality and his own capacity of evil, eventually spiraling into depression and suicide thirteen years later. Kelley admired Herman Göring’s control over his own death and killed himself with the same cyanide capsule that he had most likely received from his German friend in Nuremberg prison.

I am convinced that it’s not the evil, however banal, that determines humans’ greatest crimes. It’s not those 5% agreeing to pull the trigger out of obedience and sense of duty, as it is sweet and fitting to die (and, when necessary, kill) for the fatherland. Neither is it the 5% prepared to bet everything they value, their lives included, to remain human beings. It is that 90% that remain indifferent. Those who would continue with their business as usual. As Hayim Nahman Bialik poignantly wrote it in his The City of Slaughter:

The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny weather. הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ זָרְחָה, הַשִּׁטָּה פָּרְחָה וְהַשּׁוֹחֵט שָׁחַט

I always wondered what people I know and esteem would do when put into the situation of, say, WWII. What would I myself do? And the unsettling answer is: I’m already doing it — nothing. I cannot be totally sure, of course, but a 90% confidence interval is considered statistically significant. I only hope to never live in such circumstances that will have to prove this claim.

It is quite understandable why the realization of the banality of evil shook the very foundations of Dr. Kelley’s worldview and drove him to self-destruction. I prefer not to think about it, as it is likely to shatter my trust in humanity too. So many pages have already been written about the banality of evil… I rather prefer to write about the banality of good.

Many years ago I saw one of the last interviews that Giorgio Perlasca gave in the 90’s telling his story. An Italian businessman and diplomat and a former fascist, Giorgio “Jorge” Perlasca, under a fake identity of the Spanish consul general to Hungary, saved single-handedly some five thousand Jews from deportation to certain death in Eastern Europe. When the Ambassador fled Budapest, Perlasca falsified the papers appointing himself as the Spanish representative in Hungary. Skilfully imposing as the plenipotentiary, he operated mainly using diplomacy and bureaucracy. However, in December 1944 Perlasca went in person to a freight station to see if he could save anyone from the trains boarding people to the Nazi extermination camps. He pulled two twin boys out of the line only to be confronted by an SS lieutenant colonel. In front of the gun barrels pointed at him, he flashed his fake Spanish consul identity and reminded of his diplomatic immunity and extraterritoriality. The German officer (who, as Perlasca later learned, was Adolf Eichmann) desisted and the boys were spared.

What struck me in particular was that, when asked whether he was scared, Perlasca replied: “of course, I was frightened to death.” Protesting being called a “hero”, he said “I believe I did something normal, because I think in my situation anyone would have done the same. I cannot imagine that there would be another person, in my place, who would have refused to do it. You — what would you do?” There was nothing heroic, indeed, in that old man’s traits or voice. Good, as evil, are equally banal.

Chopin’s C#-minor nocturne ends in the dying-away light of pianissimissimo, but an instant before the sounds fade out completely, a C#-major third suddenly appears. A Picardy cadence, as musicians would call it. The final harmony of the piece. Has there been any music capable of better expressing redemption and hope amidst desolation and despair? We will never know what was happening in the souls of pianist Szpilman and Hauptmann Hosenfeld when the echo of a dead city carried away those last sounds.

Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld was taken prisoner by the Red Army, sentenced to 25 years of hard labor for alleged war crimes, and died in Soviet captivity in 1952. And Władysław Szpilman returned to play for the Polish Radio. In his first broadcast, he resumed from where the war had stopped him for six long years — he poignantly played, once again, the C#-minor nocturne. The pianist then dedicated fifty years of his life to afford recognition to the good man whom the out-of-tune Chopin’s notes prompted to a banal act of kindness.

One day, when my children grow up a little, I’ll take them to Yad vaShem — the Holocaust Museum in Israel. I haven’t been there for nearly twenty years. But we won’t go to the museum — why to show atrocities to little people who still trust us, grown-ups? We’ll rather go to the adjacent grove overlooking Jerusalem’s hills. There, each tree has a name, commemorating those who risked (and, sometimes, lost) their lives to remain human. An undying symbol of the banality of good. My hope in the human race. Among the thousands of trees, we’ll look for Captain Hosenfeld’s name. I don’t know who planted that tree, but in my imagination, it was Detlev Hosenfeld, Wilm’s son, and Andrzej Szpilman. The Pianist himself didn’t live to see it — he died nine years before, in reborn Warsaw, aged 88.

2 replies to “Nocturne for a good man”:

  1. Suryansh Kumar says:

    Thank you.

  2. Yoed Tsur says:

    Amazing article, thank you

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