hungry as I went to see the Rabbi. Warsaws streets were grey and there
was a smell of rain and damp, I shivered as I huddled as deeply as I could into
my thin coat.
Oh give us peace oh Lord. I
thought, and take this hunger from me, I added although this was
rather a selfish thought with all that was going on. Poland in 1937 was
not a good place to be, particularly if you were Jewish, with anti-Jewish riots
and anti-Jewish laws and the Germans just across the border. And all I did, and
all the other followers of Rav Moshe did, was fast and try to stay
Meanwhile, in my head there was always
music; fragments of symphonies, dances, songs both Jewish and Polish, death
marches, all crowding into my mind wanting to be performed. The sounds
swirled around. I was a student of French literature but music was my true love
and I spent most of my time playing the piano and writing down the melodies in
my head. I was able to use my musicianship to teach the piano to local children
and thus enhance the meagre amount of money which was all that my parents could
Moshe lived above a haberdashery shop which his wife ran with her sister. There
was always a beautiful smell of perfume and incense as I walked in and pushed
aside the curtain. I had noticed the smell six months ago when I first went to
meet him. My fellow student Isaac from the Ghettos benches at
the university told me of this great teacher who told his followers that the
Messiah was imminent and who offered hope. I went more out of curiosity than
any idea that he would be anything more than another charlatan, but to my
surprise I found him to be wise and kind, and perhaps I needed a father figure.
And soon I was going to see him most days of the week; whenever I needed
encouragement or somewhere I could sit in peace.
first time, when I was ushered into his presence, I found him to be a
surprisingly young man; early thirties at a guess so only ten years or so older
than me. I remember him looking at me on that first afternoon; his clothes
bright but old and those eyes turquoise and with a twinkle but which pierced
deep into my soul.
And so Samson, have you come to
defeat the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass? he asked me and then
chuckled. I flexed my muscles surreptitiously in case I was called upon to give
battle. If only life were so simple; if only our enemies could be defeated with
the swing of a jawbone.
young people came in over the course of that first evening; men and women,
mostly young, and there were a couple of gentiles as well, looking rather
furtive and shy, and we all talked quietly whilst Rav. Moshe sat in a corner
looking on and smiling. And then he spoke, telling of the persecution that we
were suffering, but how it was only temporary and how the Messiah would arrive
to defeat our enemies if only we had faith, and did what was necessary.
Cast aside your bodily
appetites he told us, your spirit is imprisoned by your want of
food and sleep, your need for drink and for the carnal. We are spiritual
beings. Fight against this and your saviour will come. And a whiff of
holiness came from him as he spoke; pale and anguished as he clearly
then read from the prophet Jeremiah and ended the evening singing a psalm, and
I went home thinking that my life would never be quite the same again, and for
those six months it was strange and different, I had hope and I had a friend
who I looked up to and admired. Other than my friend Isaac, I rarely saw any of
the Rabbis other followers outside his home, just occasionally in the
library or in the streets near to the university, and I wondered if they felt
liberated or just hungry and tired.
Perhaps if I had had a lover I would not
have been so eager to follow Rav Moshe, but Debra had left Poland a few months
before, she had fled to America with her family, seeing the way that the wind
was changing in Poland and the threat from Germany. After she was gone I was
happy to embrace the life of an ascetic and pin my hopes on the arrival of a
Messiah who would deliver his people. The world, our world was falling apart
and anything that offered hope had to be worth trying. So I walked the streets
of Warsaw, looking at the looted shops and the fearfulness of my people whilst
trying to stay upright, faint from lack of food and sleep.
times it was easy; I could stay up all night writing music and reading the
poetry of the French troubadours and Villon, or walking the dark streets until
daylight tentatively appeared and people started to wake. I imagined all the
followers of the Rav Moshe united in ushering in a new age, praying as our
stomachs craved food and our minds sleep. My parents lived out in the wilds on
their farm so they did not know what their son was up to and were probably too
busy to care.
other times I struggled, falling asleep in lectures and spending my time
obsessing about food; staring into the windows of bakeries and smelling bread
and cake. I started to let myself go; I neglected my appearance, forgetting to
wash and letting my hair grow long and not bothering to shave, perhaps like my
namesake my strength was in my locks, but I had no Delilah to tempt me to have
Moshe told us that he only ate two slices of black bread a day, and slept one
hour in the afternoon before staying awake all night praying and writing, but
then he had had years of practicing, getting right with God. But most days I
could subsist on a large breakfast going through the rest of the day with only
cigarettes to keep me company, and I was down to three or four hours
sleep a night.
friend Isaac talked of going to England. His parents shop had been daubed with
a J and then the following evening all the windows had been
smashed. A cousin of his in a small village in the east had been badly beaten
and left for dead. Politically, after the years of hope following the
liberation of Poland from the Germans and Russians, things were not going well
for us, there was now a right-wing government bringing in increasingly
anti-Jewish laws and there were riots and the fear of a German
You are giving up arent
you? I asked Isaac, as we sat in my room, the smoke from our cheap
cigarettes blurring everything, this is our country, and perhaps the
rabbi is right, perhaps the messiah is at hand.
shrugged; I had always thought of him as a bit of a dilettante; always smartly
dressed and regularly following a new philosophy or craze. I had noticed that
he had not been to see the rabbi as frequently as he had once done, and now he
and his family were fleeing. My lack of food was making me less tolerant than
once I had been.
If we give up, the goyim will have
They always do Samson. He
told me you cannot live on fairy tales from the Bible.
in silence, and my stomach rumbled quietly.
night I walked around Lazienki Park; beautiful during the day, by the evening
it became a haven for prostitutes. I remembered Debra; our nights together, and
I wondered if I would ever be kissed again by someone who loved me
passionately, would give themselves to me without reserve. But she had left me;
Debra so brave and strong, had departed with her family and all their
belongings. She had written to me and said she loved me and wanted me with her.
But I knew I would never see her again. My last memory of her, was of her
laughing in my tiny kitchen. I cannot remember what it was about, just how she
was lost in her mirth and the way she looked at me with love in her eyes. I
doubted that anybody would ever look at me like that again.
so lost in my thoughts that I did not hear the policemen until they were upon
us, coming from all sides hitting people here and there, and dragging away some
of the women. I felt too faint to run, but for some reason nobody seemed to
notice me, as if I had become insubstantial and invisible. I stood amongst the
trees watching the police do their work and then when they had gone, leaving
blood and possessions on the ground, I carried on walking.
smell of womens perfume and sweat remained in the park; since I had met
the rabbi my senses had become stronger, and particularly my sense of smell.
Sometimes walking through the city during the day I was overwhelmed by the
different aromas that surrounded me. Open windows revealed the scent of food,
sweat and sometimes sex. I was like a cat; lithe as I strode through the city;
a different smell on every side.
Encouraged by Rav Moshe, I had started
to go regularly to the synagogue again, something I had neglected since coming
to the city. I attended one close to where I lived and one of the oldest in the
city. I knew that my parents would be pleased as they had worried that I would
become less devout once I moved to Warsaw.
sabbath I prayed as the daily portion of the Torah was read out. The Hebrew
words seem to lose their meaning; I could feel their holiness but it was as if
their sound was more important than what the words actually meant. As I
listened I felt as if I were going into a trance and everything around me felt
unreal, as if it were fading away.
cantor continued to recite from the Torah I felt my spirit leave my body and
float free. I looked down upon the people below me, their heads bowed as
they prayed in this ancient synagogue; these men, mostly old, looked poor and
pushed down by the cares of daily life, more weary even than I was. And then on
the other side of the Mechitza the women in their homely clothes praying
and some talking to each other as the world around them turned into chaos. And
then I drifted higher, above Warsaw and saw the many gardens of our city and
the lakes and then there was the whole of Poland spread out before me; out in
the country my parents were also praying, exhausted from another never-ending
week of toil, like many others in the shtetls and villages. And surrounding my
country the dark mass of our enemies waiting to destroy us all; Jew and
gentile, rich and poor, or perhaps they were just waiting for us to turn upon
each other, and do their job for them.
following night Isaac and I trudged back from visiting Rav Moshe; for the first
time our leader had looked tired and ill. He had talked about the end of
everything. In the past he had offered hope but now he seemed bleak, even his
clothes seemed less colourful and there was no twinkle in his eyes. He had
hugged me as we left, and I felt moisture, and realised that he was quietly
weeping, and I felt indescribably sad.
dark as Isaac and I walked back towards our respective homes, most of the gas
lamps were broken and Warsaw was a city of shadows, and for some reason I
shivered. We were both quiet and sad, both infected by the mood of our leader
and guide. Isaac was usually more optimistic than me, but tonight he seemed
even more gloomy. I puffed on a cigarette and watched the tiny wisp of smoke
engulfed by the mist.
slowly became aware of the sound of running coming closer; a single pair of
steps getting faster, every so often slowing down and then finding an increased
amount of energy; the sound echoed round about us. Isaac had started to talk
about leaving for England; he was going with his family next week, he hoped to
resume his studies in London and had been learning English in preparation. The
footsteps ran past us, a young man silent apart from the clack of his shoes on
the paving stones, and I had a brief glimpse of his eyes scared but determined
as he pushed past us.
then behind us came a group of men in some kind of uniform and armed with
staves and knives. They crashed into us and for a moment we were both caught
helpless in the flickering light of one of the few lamps that were working.
I heard the word Yids and they were upon us. Immediately I
was hit hard upon the head and fell to the ground stunned, and lay helpless,
all my bravery and strength gone as blows rained down upon me, and again I felt
outside of myself, watching myself set upon by these thugs. And then Isaac was
on top of me protecting me from the blows, which never seemed to stop, along
with the sound of wood and fists landing on my friends body.
could feel something wet on my face and realised that it was Isaacs
blood. And then our assailants were gone, and everything was silent.
After a moment I gathered my strength and rolled Isaac off me and he lay still.
I checked frantically for a pulse, I slapped him wanting him to cry out. But
then I saw all the blood all over his neat shirt and jacket, and his pale face
and his eyes staring up at me. I bent over him and gently kissed him on the
lips, Isaac my friend.
stood facing the school orchestra aware of all their eyes trained upon me,
waiting for me to lift my baton, whilst behind me sat their families, alongside
the great and good of St. Albans. Before the interval we had performed
Dvoraks Symphony from the New World to loud applause, but
now we were going to play something less familiar and more ambitious, a
premiere of Scenes from a Shtetl by Samson Leader, me, their music
hall was old and rather grand with stained glass windows all on rather
militaristic themes; St. George and the dragon, Gideon defeating the
Midianites, that sort of thing and, appropriately, on one wall were lists of
pupils who had died in various wars; the Great War, the Boer War and other
colonial adventures and now there was a new plaque commemorating those who had
perished in the last war, the paint almost still wet. The hall was full and
smelt of polish as well as of the rich and comfortable of the provinces. There
was a history here but also the future.
had arrived in England with Isaacs family I had looked for a job.
Isaacs family were kind and said that I could live with them in the small
flat they had rented but I swiftly found rooms and a piano and became a piano
teacher and found other work where I could. For a year I enjoyed myself; yes I
missed Isaac and was devastated by his death and I was worried about my parents
but I was young and I felt myself invincible. And despite the fear of war there
was more freedom about London and I did not feel that sense of being watched
and of being in danger.
not forget Rab Moshe; I had gone to see him once more before I left
You can stay he told me,
we are strong, you are Samson the mighty warrior. If we stand together,
Jew and gentile, we can overcome this wickedness. Perhaps that is the sign of
the coming of the Messiah.
shook my head, I just had the urge to leave and forget everything, the memory
of my closest friend lying dead in my arms would not go, and Isaacs
family had begged me to go with them and escape such evil. Rav Moshe shook his
head and then hugged me. I felt that I had disappointed him and betrayed him.
And when the world discovered what had been done to my family and my people I
realised that I had done.
in England I stopped attending the synagogue and became just another young man
without tradition or history. And then Poland was invaded and England declared
war and I realised that I had forgotten about the Messiah and so I started to
fast again and prayed, and found a synagogue to attend. And then, as soon as I
could, I joined up.
fought in Italy and saw friends and enemies die. Amidst the death and boredom,
in my head I composed music, hearing it all the time drowning out the sounds of
war; bombs, screams and endless talk. I heard the orchestra and the choir;
tunes from my youth; dances, laments and the songs my mother sang as she
prepared for the Sabbath. With this music in my head I did not need to eat; in
fact earthly things just distracted me.
piece, written on manuscript paper, stayed with me once I came back to England
at the end of the war. It remained forgotten in a suitcase with photographs of
my family and friends who had been destroyed by the modern-day Philistines, and
various other bits and pieces from my past life. I looked for work and made
friends. I started to teaching music; first at a small school in London but
then at a more prestigious public school in St. Albans where I stayed. The
pupils were polite and eager to learn and I was given free range with the
school orchestra and choir. My end of year concerts became highly regarded and
started to be reviewed in the various local newspapers.
school had boarders and I lived in the school in very plush rooms, eating my
meals with the staff and students. At first I had forgotten the nameless piece
I had worked on obsessively during the war but looking through my suitcase one
evening I found it and thereafter spent my time when not involved with school
and the orchestra I led in the city, working on it; playing tunes on the piano
and violin and imagining the voices and the music, and it became Scenes from
was the seventh schools concert I had organised, and for the first time I
was nervous; as well as giving my hard work I was giving something of myself. I
looked at the orchestra one last time and behind them the choir all poised for
the performance, and then I raised my baton. The orchestra was good; many of
them I had worked with since I began teaching at the school and I had them well
drilled. Equally the small choir, who I had worked with strenuously, would be a
match for any group of professional singers, but this was a difficult piece of
music and nothing like anything that they had worked on before.
first movement began with a dance I remembered from my youth, played on the
violins and cello, and as it got into its stride other instruments joined in
and it became intertwined with another slower, more stately melody and the two
played against each other before joining together and becoming one, and then a
third more militaristic march came in and the three pieces separated and then
joined once more, to finish together; the two dances in time to an army
marching into the unknown.
middle movement was based on a lament and mixed with a lullaby which I
remembered my mother singing to me when I was very small. And then the choir
came in; the young boys with unbearably beautiful voices singing the song my
mother used to hum whilst preparing the food on Friday afternoon before
sunset. The orchestra playing a minimal accompaniment at first but then
rushing them on to something more frantic before the movement ended with
another simple lullaby sung by the choir over a plaintive clarinet.
then the third movement; the violins playing a dance, something I remembered
hearing at a wedding, and then the rest of the orchestra joined in and the
choir, bringing back in melodies from the first two movements. There was a
vibrancy about the music and an optimism, but as the dance drew to its end the
drums came in; the kettledrums and the snare; at first quietly, unobtrusively
as if part of the dance, and then they became louder and soon drowned out the
dance and the childrens voices, until there was just the sound of drums
and then one loud crash and Scenes from a Shtetl was at an
looked at the orchestra and then the choir. They looked flushed as the piece
ended. It had been demanding and complicated but they had done well; they
perhaps did not realise its significance, were just relieved that it was over
and they had the holidays to look forward to and for many of the students in
front of me there was university or employment to come. In the future would
they remember this concert? Talk about it, or would it just blur with the rest
of their memories of school?
turned and faced the audience as they clapped; I had expected more than this;
either rapturous applause or shocked silence, but this was polite but nothing
more. The reaction to the Dvorak earlier had been far more enthusiastic. There
was a slight air of embarrassment about it, a feeling which continued after I
talked to parents and other member of the audience afterwards.
spoke to the Dean of the Cathedral, who was a strong supporter of the school,
and attended all our events.
That second piece, I am not
familiar with it? Underneath the rather churchy tones was the hint of a
Merseyside accent which he could not quite hide.
Oh something I remembered from my
youth. I told him.
Quite catchy, an eastern feel.
Perhaps a bit modern for us out in the sticks. He laughed and moved away
to talk to the headmaster.
stood in the hall watching the pupils, who shortly before had worked together
producing beautiful music, separate beings now, receiving congratulations from
their parents, I got to thinking of Rav Moshe; what had happened to him? Had he
too fled to England or America? Or had he met his end in the gas chambers his
Messiah no nearer? No matter how welcoming people were in England I was still
an alien; I had heard myself being referred to as The Jew on a few
occasions, or even that foreign gentleman. Perhaps I should have
stayed amongst the mystics and the madmen; praying to a God who had washed his
hands of us and left us to be mocked and then slaughtered in our millions. I
did not belong here, and never would.
You have got to eat the
carer tells me, this is no good Mr Leader. At least it is the kind
one; Charlotte I think her name is. Not like some of the other ones, Sonia in
particular, who is rude and at times abusive.
I am okay, thank you. I tell
her politely and then I push away the plate. Rav Moshe would have been pleased
with me. Even as I come towards the end of my life I still remember his
teaching, and it has become more relevant. I truly do not need food nor sleep
as I wait for salvation and rescue.
been in the Abbeyfield Care Home for almost a year now. I had always tried to
be independent; I like my own company and knew that I could look after myself.
But my neighbour, Mrs Smythe, who was always interfering, became
worried about me, did not think that I could cope on my own and
therefore reported me to social services, a very bossy social worker visited me
and decided that my neighbour was right and thus I found myself
some reason I never married; I had a lady friend for awhile whilst I was a
teacher at the boarding school, but we never talked about marriage or children,
or at least I cannot remember doing so. I am not even sure what happened to
her, presumably she disappeared like so many people do. Funny I remember Debra
back in Poland far better than I do her, I cannot even remember her name, well
not at the moment, although it might come back to me later. After I retired
from the school I stayed in St. Albans, bought a small house and moved my few
possessions in, after all I had no family living and I had made a few friends
in the city.
retirement I taught the piano and violin to various local children and
continued with my other musical activities. I even got involved with the
cathedral, which I had avoided for a long time; something about Christian
triumphalism bothers me, but much of the music in St. Albans is centred around
it. It seemed curiously alien with all the stained-glass windows and statues of
Jesus, weak and alone on the cross.
slowly I became without friends, they all seemed to drift away or die, and now
I have no visitors and just the occasional letter from old pupils and what is
left of Isaacs family, who have always remembered me. The care home is
not great; perhaps if I had family they would have pushed for something better.
Some of the staff are kind, but they all want me to join in with the activities
and socialise with the other residents. So many times I have been interrupted
listening to music in my room, or reading, and made to join in some awful
nonsense as if I were a senile old fool.
is the worst. I was showering the first morning after I first arrived and she
came in without knocking.
Rather tiny isnt it
she pointed at my penis, not that she would pass muster naked I am quite sure;
red faced and over-weight. Come on you need to get a move on, breakfast
is being served.
ignored her and carried on with my ablutions. She waited a while, and then
pushed me hard, come on you Yid, I havent time for you lot.
And then she spat into the shower, viciously.
spoke to one of the other staff about Sonia; I dont know her name but she
wears a different uniform and doesnt appear to do much work, so I assumed
she must be important, but she got cross with me, and spoke to me as if I were
Now dont you go making
trouble for Sonia, Mr Leader she told me sharply. It is just her
way and she is a fine member of staff.
not bother after that. I suppose I could have complained to someone higher up,
but how would I get access to paper and pen? How would I post the letter when
everything is controlled and overseen?
was presumably told about my complaint because she got nastier, often punching
me when we were alone; usually in the groin or in the stomach. She would not
say anything whilst doing it, concentrating all her efforts on hurting me. Once
another carer walked in as she slapped my face, but she just hurriedly left and
Sonia carried on as if we had not been interrupted. Whilst she hit me all I had
was my Scenes from the Shtetl playing in my head. My piece of music had
never been performed again and nobody had ever asked about it, but in my head
it was never far away; the violin, the childrens singing and then in the
end the banging of the kettle drums destroying everything that had come
dining hall always smelt of food whatever the time of the day; it was as if the
endless dinners had permeated into the walls. There were pictures hung up,
bland landscapes and seascapes, not made to be looked at properly, just
something to break up the dull wall paper. In the centre of the hall were two
pillars which dominated the room, sometimes I thought they were holding up the
whole building; the roof and everything else pushing down upon them, stopping
the whole place falling apart. They must have been strong.
Doctor Thomas is going to have to
talk to you Charlotte tells me. You need to eat, and the night
staff say they can hear music in your room late at night.
shrug; night is the only time that I can listen to music without being
interrupted or I can read and pray, or just remember. Not sure why my life is
being so controlled, but I feel powerless at the hands of these people. I know
that I will be dead soon, and perhaps I just need to endure this until I
Thomas is a young man, too young to be a doctor really but he seems friendly
enough. He came to see me and told me about nutrition and getting enough sleep,
I just look at him. I could tell him about Sonia and a couple of the others,
but in the end however kind he and some of the others seem they look after each
other. He puts me on a high protein diet.
So you like music? he asks
Yes, I was a music teacher over at
the boarding school. I cannot play anymore, my fingers are too
I like some of that classical
stuff he says, the Four Seasons, all that, Phantom of
smile in dismissal.
I slowly walk into the dining hall Sonia at my shoulder pushing me and
You had better eat, always causing
pauses to take breath. I hold onto one of the pillars to stay upright. I feel
shattered, I always do when rushed. She moves me on and pushes me into my seat;
there is a nutritional drink besides my plate which is overloaded with meat and
potatoes. The smell makes me feel faint and nauseated.
must have gone on, because she is at my side. Perhaps I was praying.
You have not eaten a thing.
She shouts, for once careless of those around her. She sticks a fork in the
mess of the dinner and tries to shove some of it into my mouth. All around me
the elderly gentiles chomp on their food doing as they are told. I push my arm
backwards into her fat midriff, as hard as I can, it is soft and rather
You bastard Yid she shouts
as she falls backwards.
stand up and push my way to the pillars, I feel strong and happy that I have
managed to fight back. I stand betwixt the two pillars, they are the right
distance apart, and I look at the residents and staff, most of whom have
realised that something is going on.
for strength and in front of me I can see Rav Moshe looking directly at me with
those turquoise eyes, and he is smiling slightly, encouragingly. I summon up
all my powers and push with all my strength. Sonia and the other staff just
stand as I strain, sniggering slightly. For awhile nothing happens and I
realise that I will fail and end up a stupid old man, pathetic and weak, but I
keep pushing and praying. And suddenly I feel a wave of strength and power come
into me; I am young once again and have power and I push once more. And at last
there is a crack and a shudder and then a loud tearing sound from the bowels of
the building. And with an almighty crash both pillars fall apart from each
other and crash to the floor, bringing the roof of the temple down with them,
leaving nothing but dust and ash which drifts upwards into the blue sky above