In 1944 the Polish resistance has been crushed. Half a million of Warsaw’s citizens are dead rotting in destroyed building or in plain sight on the street.
The survivors of what was once a vibrant cityscape scurry about like vermin in a living nightmare. They look for any way to survive, but know death is coming for them no matter how hard they struggle. Today, tomorrow, it does not really matter, their birth condemned them to death.
Feliks wears the uniform of the Waffen SS. He is a Polish conscript who never fired his weapon. Even when he was a member of the resistance. He was a shit soldier and is okay with that. He did not ask for war, war asked for him.
His uniform was once pristine grey wool, but now fits his overly thin body in baggy tatters. His face is gaunt. Maybe all fourteen bones can be counted if a person can move past the dark haunted eyes that sit sunken in that now far from human face to count them. His lips are depressions that once covered teeth. His neck, sticking from the frayed collar of his uniform jacket, is rail thin. The hands appearing from the cuffs of his jacket are limber bones attached to each other with visible strands of ligament.
Yet when he lays eyes on the pristine Amberg piano, a light goes off that takes away the war weary shadows and makes him look young again.
He has been hiding from the Soviets for weeks. Going from bombed out apartment to bombed out apartment finding scraps of food, hunting rats, eating bugs. Doing things that in his twenty-one years of existence he never thought he would have to do, yet he needs to survive. For what reason though he has not a clue. Maybe he is just afraid of death. Maybe he does it in memory of his mother. Maybe he does it to honor his father’s name. Maybe he continues to make his lungs suck air and his heart pump blood to insure the Czarodziej lineage lives on.
But the Amberg might be the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. It must have come from one of the apartments further up in the building because now it sits on top of a pile of rubble as if it were built there more than a hundred years before.
Feliks Czarodziej stumbles toward the piano like a man possessed. He climbs the rubble. Loose stones of cement cascade behind him. His climb is far from quiet. The person who moments before secreted himself in this building to avoid a Soviet patrol would be shocked at his blatant disregard for sound discipline.
With his climb to the piano, he is wasting weeks of sneaking around voiding all his attempt to keep living at all costs.
He reaches the pinnacle of the rubble and stands before one of the greatest instruments ever built. Its cherry finish glows even in the low light of the destroyed building.
He runs his hands along its smooth varnish as if it had been blessed by God.
He lifts the lid, which protects the implements capable of producing so much of the music he enjoyed as a child in the audience of the Warsaw Philharmonic.
This instrument, or one of its sisters, was worked under the fingers of the music masters of Poland. People who could make grown men weep.
He places his fingers above the keys and memories drift up from the abyss of his mind. His teachers, old even then, not very patient men who would slap his knuckles with rulers if he erred.
They are all probably dead. Most of them Jewish masters. He witnessed his last teacher being paraded to the train yards just five years ago. Stooped and more grey than he had been at their last lesson. A walking skeleton.
Feliks would be surprised to learn he was not far from a walking skeleton himself. His war is over, but hell was just beginning. He sneaked away when orders for retreat back to Germany were given. He was a conscript. A forced soldier and he did not want to leave his beloved Poland even under threat of Soviet invasion.
He was forced to be a German soldier, but if given a choice he would die a Polish musician.
Before he even realizes he is even doing it, his fingers pound a startling note on the ivory white keys. The sound is powerful as if coming directly from Feliks’ own soul. It has qualities of sadness to it, of regret and death.
Then he is playing the first bars of Mozart’s Requiem and tears come to his eyes blurring out the keys.
He stops to wipe at his eyes.
A sudden clapping startles him.
He turns quickly and is shocked to see six Soviet soldiers standing in the destroyed entryway to the building. The officer is clapping slowly. He has an evil look on his face. A face that has seen more death than a single person should ever see. He is chubby. He has a great bulbous belly while his men are rail thin. Not as emaciated as Feliks, but hungry. They hold bolt action Mosin-Nagant and one has the automatic PPD
“Please, don’t stop on our behalf,” the fat officer chides.
Feliks does not want to oblige. Music is his art. He used to love what his fingers could create. But these men are evil. He can sense it. The rumor was the Soviets waited for the Polish resistance to be destroyed before entering the city to finish the job. They killed more than the Germans did.
“I insist,” he lowers his hand to sit on the pistol tucked in the holster on his belt.
Feliks takes his hands from the keys and puts them in his lap and shakes his head no.
He sits like that for what feels like an eternity, until a pistol fires and the cement below his feet crumbles into chips.
He looks up to see a TT-30 in the fat red hands of the Soviet officer with smoke slowly swirling from the barrel.
“The next bullet finds a soft warm spot in you, and the next and the next then next. Keep playing comrade Polish.” He growls, the sarcastic smile gone from his face.
Feliks raises his hands and hovers them over the keys. He has decided to die today, but will first play one last piece of music. It is his choice, so he will go out with the memory of Mozart playing in his ears.
He again plays the first haunting note and then the second and the third. He strokes the keys lovingly and the sound comes back to him as an embrace. He has never felt more love then he feels in this melody. It is haunting and beautiful and he finishes and lowers his head, spent.
The sudden barrage of gunfire startles him. He looks up to see five of the Soviet soldiers fall. The fat one squirms, he acts as if he wants to roll over and protect himself, his pistol held in a shaking fist. Another barrage by the man holding the automatic rifle stops him cold.
He looks up at Feliks tears dripping from his eyes.
He walks over to his now dead leader and drops his rifle to the ground. He reaches down and replaces it with the officer’s pistol. He puts the weapon under his bone lean chin and in accented Polish says, “Someone who makes music so beautiful should live forever,” and pulls the trigger.
Instantly his skull explodes into tiny bits of blood and brain and he collapses in a heap. His name forever unknown.
Sixty years later to the day, Feliks plays Requiem one last time. He remembers that soldier as he does when he plays any music.
The crowd in Lincoln Center stands and claps vigorously.
Many call for an encore.
Feliks bows. His long life almost over. The nightmare of living in the past almost done.
He feels his heart stammer as it has been doing a lot lately. Death approaches. Good, he thinks, it’s about time.
Music has haunted him. He plays because he was told to play. He was cursed to play until he could no longer play, not under threat of death, but under threat of life.
“Not tonight, my many friends, not tonight; tonight I have no more music to play,” he says standing and moves off stage.
The pain in his chest grows. His heart pounds. His left arm is numb. He thinks of his children. A boy and a girl, both parents now themselves. Happy adjusted, Americans. He thinks of his home in Warsaw. He thinks of the Amberg he has kept in his living room all these decades. He never played it again.
That might be the greatest tragedy of his life to own that piece of art meant for the joy of music to languish unplayed. As he collapses to his knees just on the safety side of his dressing room door he hopes that someone will make joy on that instrument again. He hopes that the music they create will be from their heart and not from the curse of life.