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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Introduction
Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing

           A STEAM ENGINE FOR A PIANO

          1943 was drawing to a close. We were beginning to suffer from the harsh winter, not yet having received the required equipment to confront the snow-covered landscape. As expected, our division was sent off towards the Ukraine by the German-Hungarian Command (which had, in the last resort, decided to collaborate). Unfortunately, our corps did not have a single motorized vehicle and the cavalry to which I belonged was supposed to delay the incessant advance of the Red Army towards that part of the front under our responsibility, where the German divisions had been decimated and could no longer put up a worthy resistance to the landslide. We had to ride to their assistance and reinforce their ranks, confronting huge armoured tanks, long-range cannon and, worst of all, the latest flower of Soviet technology: Stalin organs.

          Horses against tanks! A hand-held machine gun and grenades against artillery bombarding us from several miles away. A few Hungarian light aircraft, each with its small machine gun, trying to silence artillery which spat out as many as one hundred and twenty rockets a minute! It needed no great scholar to realize that for Higher Command we were cannon fodder rather than a combat unit. Though the order "conquer or die on the spot" applied to the Germans as much as to us, our Commander, thank God, wanted to limit losses and as far as possible, on his own initiative, used us as decoys or for sabotage work rather than large-scale attacks. He knew the enemy front line was getting nearer by the hour from the rumble of tank regiments preceded by the apocalyptic wail of fire from artillery and other heavy weaponry.

          At each encounter, we expected the final confrontation to occur. Our ranks were gradually thinning out. Not only were men lost in each routine skirmish but every bush or tree was a potential hiding place for a partisan or sniper. With an angelic patience equalled only by their fanatical determination, they would spend days and nights on end crouched in a hollow tree, putting a bullet between the eyes of a reconnoitrer whenever possible. Such had been our lives for several months now.

          Every time the enemy made a foray some ten per cent of us were wiped out by their long-range weapons before we had even had time to spot them. After a time it was all too obvious that we cavalrymen were fighting the wrong war. When our captain asked for volunteers to train for the tank corps, I had no hesitation in accepting. After three months’ training I became a tank driver. It was evident that my life was less at risk than on a horse as I did at least have an efficient means of self-defence at my disposal. Naturally, a direct hit by a shell, a tank trap or a cunningly concealed mine would put an end to me. Our model was a recent one but was already showing signs of wear. Spare parts were so scarce as to oblige us to patch up anything badly worn, praying the repair would last a while. In that respect, I was very lucky. However, it was all too evident that the enemy tanks were far more shell-proof and powerful than ours, which were lighter and more mobile but had to get close up to the T-34s if they were to attempt to dent, let alone pierce, their thick armour. With the bore and length of their carefully focussed barrels they could flatten a Hungarian tank as soon as it appeared on the horizon. Their only weak point was their lack of speed. Thirty-four tons of metal on the move has as much grace as a brontosaurus. Once battery fire supported by long-range cannon had cleared a passage, the T-34s started off in their hundreds towards their target and all we could do was to make ourselves scarce.

          One December day shortly before Christmas, we had beaten a hasty retreat and found ourselves in a completely deserted village. We were to await reinforcements of men and equipment before returning – probably for the last time – to the front. It was, as it so happened, my turn for guard duty on the outskirts of the village that night. I was cleaning my rifle without much enthusiasm before turning in for a few hours’ sleep. In general, one soldier in five was reported missing after a night out of doors. As I tried to calculate my chances of survival, I vaguely watched the others talking loudly, happy to have a few days off guard duty. Suddenly the door opened and a lieutenant came in. He signalled to us not to stand to attention and asked at random, "Can any of you play an instrument well?" "No!" they all answered in unison.

          "What about you?" he said, turning to me, having noticed that I had not answered. I propped my gun against the wall and replied sulkily, "I was a pianist. Once." "Why ‘was’?" he said, coming up to me. "Because I haven’t touched a keyboard for two years." "If that’s the only reason," he said brightly, "then you can make up for lost time this evening. Some high-ranking Wehrmacht officers have just turned up unexpectedly at HQ. They probably want to discuss what they’ve got to offer our friends over the border. These gentlemen have sensitive ears," he continued mockingly, "and would like a little background music while they knock back their schnaps and count their chickens. Since you’re on guard duty tonight, I’d advise you to accept. It’ll be better for your health than hanging about in the snow. The Germans will provide a piano and allow you a little time to warm up."

          I longed to play again but my immediate reaction was to refuse. He insisted, "Think it over carefully. You’re the only one who can do it. What’s more, it will let you off duty until midday tomorrow. You’ll escape six hours’ guard duty in the snow, so how about it?" "OK," I said, more worn down than convinced by the logic of his arguments. "Splendid. I’ll tell the Germans and they’ll come and fetch you to show you the piano. Just before nine this evening it’ll be taken into the mess. You must be there sharp on nine." He went towards the door. On reaching it he turned round, "Forget your tank now and smarten yourself up. Be sure to make a good job of the concert!" "Lucky beggar!" said one of the others. "Try and eat enough for us tonight," he added in a low voice, "and if you can get a little bottle of something from the Kommandant’s cellar we won’t hold it against you."

          I promised to do my best. A Mercedes came to take me to the German camp, where I had a good look at the instrument. To my surprise, it was not the battered upright I was expecting but a very acceptable baby grand. The hour of truth was about to sound. After a two-year break, I had by the irony of Fate two hours to make my hands as supple and accurate as they had once been. I did an hour of double-note scales, scales in fourths, fifths and sixths, etc. Then I decided to take the plunge and began to improvise on a number of themes from Liszt’s Les Préludes and, as things got better and better, went on to a medley of extracts from Wagner: Tristan, Walküre, Meistersinger. The idea was to liven up the atmosphere which, in the presence of our ‘benevolent protectors’ was likely to be pretty chilly. I intended to end with a medley of themes by Johann Strauss with as a finale military marches and folk tunes from my own country as a tribute to the Hungarian Command. It was eight o’clock when I stopped and I went back to clean myself up.

          As soon as I was ready I went into the building indicated by the lieutenant (the village school cum town hall) where a large room served the officers as a place for meetings and receptions. There were about twenty small tables on which stood bottles of wine, beer and cognac, with five or six people seated at each. In the midst was my piano for the night, shiny as a new penny and open ready. A few yellow uniforms stood out against the greyish outfits of the Hungarian officers. Monocles flashed in the eyes of certain Germans weighed down with medals. Each wore an immaculate white cravat loosely tied round his neck and raised his glass to his lips with a gloved hand. One of these ‘supermen’, without deigning to look in my direction, languidly made a sign to me to take my place at the piano. I complied and began to play, ignoring the chatter. As I started on my first piece I vowed to do everything I could to silence the audience and so chose to improvise on Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance. [It is possible that Cziffra's memory is at fault here. 'Gayenah' was not premiered until 1942 and it is unlikely, though not impossible, that he would have heard the Sabre Dance yet.]An embarrassed silence settled over the room at once. I sensed a feeling of disapproval behind me. The spectacular nature of my interpretation turned the atmosphere in my favour. I took advantage of the silence to extemporize on a number of themes from The Ring and then superimposed several. When I had finished I looked up and noted with satisfaction that all conversation had ceased and that every chair was turned towards the piano.

          After a few variations on the inevitable Lili Marlene and some acrobatics based on The Blue Danube, the illustrious audience had even stopped pouring itself drinks. I almost felt as if I was taking an exam as there was no applause between items. They stared at my hands as if I were some kind of freak. After Berlioz’s Hungarian March in the arrangement by Liszt, I arose to my feet amidst a stunned silence as a sign that I needed a short rest. There was a sudden outburst of thunderous applause and officers crowded round to congratulate me. They stood aside almost at once to let a man in full regalia through. Looking up at his adam’s apple I saw the iron Swastika in the open neck of his shirt with two intertwined oak leaves shining on either side. A Major General. He was holding two glasses of champagne and handed one to me, saying, "I’m the General of this unit. May I congratulate you on your playing? I enjoyed it all the more as I am myself a pianist. I studied at the Berlin Academy." "The Devil looks after his own," I thought as I politely thanked him.

          "What I mean is," he went on, "Busoni was probably the greatest virtuoso of his generation yet not even he could have played like that. Whatever is someone like you doing here?" he asked with a perplexed look. I gave a bitter smile: "There’s a war on, General." "Of course," he said, looking at me. "I’m sorry. I didn’t explain myself properly. What I’d like to know is who is the fool who is letting such talent go to waste here and endangering your life quite needlessly on the front." "General," I said, "that is rather an awkward question." "Why’s that?" "Because," I went on, weighing my words with care, "you are a high-ranking officer in the army I happen to be serving in."

          He burst out laughing. "That’s very true," he said jovially, "And that is why I’m going to do something for you. Come into the next room." He shut the door behind us and invited me to take a seat while he stood reflecting. He began to pace up and down before finally coming to a halt before me. "Now," he said, "in less than a week I’ve to be back at Chief HQ in Berlin to report on the general situation and receive further instructions. If you come with me I will present you to Dr Richard Strauss and once he has heard your playing he’s bound to talk to the Führer about it. The war is probably going to last longer than the Führer originally believed but we shall win. I advise you to accept because in the next few days the whole division will be taking part in a large-scale operation intended to halt the advance of the Red hordes. It really would be a pity if you were to be involved in it. What is more, Germany will acknowledge your exceptional talent to the full. So, what do you say?"

          The offer was too good to be true. Comfort in exchange for Hell; Richard Strauss’s protection for the sharpshooters across the border. I started to daydream. He went on, trying to put me at ease, "Look, I’ll give you twenty-four hours to think it over. Now, get along back to camp and have a rest." He took a flat leather-covered bottle from his pocket and held it out to me: "French brandy, as a souvenir of our meeting. You more than deserve it."

          I got to my feet, said goodbye and left. The cold night air did me good. Dazed by all that had happened, I did not feel like sleeping just then and decided to take a stroll. As I walked, I thought over the General’s words.

          Firstly, the possibility of going to Germany. I was fairly certain my playing would attract the interest of the great Strauss. With his help I would able to practice in peace and quiet and later, perhaps, even arrange for my family to join me. Suddenly, I realized that was impossible. Why? Because my wife, though born in Rome, was of Egyptian origin. Our son’s dark complexion and a strong dose of gypsy blood in my own veins meant we could not, with the best will in the world, be considered typical Aryans and permitted to live among Germans undisturbed.

          Secondly, the General had announced a decisive offensive in the next few days. More decisive for us than for the Red Army, that was a sure thing. I did not mind fighting but had no wish to die for a lost cause since at that very moment we future conquerors were virtually encircled by heaven knows how many Soviet troops and thousands of flame-throwing weapons were aimed at us some sixty miles off. Conclusion: if I wanted to see my beautiful motherland again it was advisable not to linger within range of either.

          By this stage in my musings I had reached the station, our only source of supplies and our sole link with the outside world. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and could make out a great black mass quite close to. A jerky puffing and blowing alternated with showers of cinders and sparks. An engine under steam!

          I went nearer. A tender, full to the brim with cheap-looking coal – probably a sort of lignite – was hitched to it. There was a single ancient restaurant car, dating from the 1900s, to complete the convoy. I realized it must have been the train which had brought the General and his retinue. Two sentries stood on guard. I walked swiftly up to them, knowing they were bound to have received orders to shoot on sight at anything suspicious. Luckily, they belonged to my unit and recognized me at once.

          "Ah! It’s the musician! What are you doing here at this hour? Have you finished entertaining the gents?" "Yes," I replied, "but I need to unwind a little so I decided to go for a stroll before going to bed." "Yeah," said the other, "he must have enjoyed himself more than us. We can’t even light up, though this heap of iron is making enough din to attract any deaf partisan in the area." "No need to get angry," I said, showing him the flask I had just been given. "Look what I got from the General ‘for services rendered’. Here you are: it’s yours. I’ve had enough for one day. Go and drink my health. There’s a great pile of wood about a hundred yards off. You can hide behind it so nobody will see you." Their faces lit up when they saw the flask.

          "Can I have a look over the engine while you’re away?" I asked casually. "We aren’t even allowed on it ourselves," came the reply. "But," I went on slyly, "the offence you’ll be committing is even more serious under military law so you can hardly stop me looking over this masterpiece of technology." "Very true," said the thirstier of the two. "Get an eyeful while we’re wetting our whistles," he giggled.

          Off they went into the night, leaving me a torch. I switched it on and climbed up into the driver’s cab. The dials, wheels and copper levers glowed in the half-light. As luck would have it, there was a little enamel plaque under each indicating what it was for. I looked at the pressure dial: just right! To be sure of making a swift getaway, I fed all the coal I could into the boiler then waited about four minutes. The pressure was beginning to cause the engine to judder: I spun the wheel which, according to the plaque, released the brakes. There was an enormous, broomstick-like handle, glinting and shining from the wear of countless hands which had manipulated it over the years. I tugged on it with all my strength. Nothing happened, or at least not what I had hoped for: from the innards of the still immobile engine rose an apocalyptic roar. As a last resort, I pressed the button marked ‘steam’. I must have been psychic: the old locomotive started up so suddenly that it almost skidded on the rails. Before I could touch another control – I did not have time to, thank goodness – we were off at a smart twenty-five miles per hour, gradually gathering speed, in the direction of the enemy lines. It must all have happened very quickly or the sentries would have caught up with me. Probably they were not too steady on their legs after so much brandy. As a precaution, I had crouched down in the cabin but no-one fired in my direction.

          With one eye on the speedometer, I started thinking frantically. The Russians were about fifty miles away, which at 40 mph meant roughly an hour and a quarter journey. It was too late to expect to be welcomed at the next station with streamers and the town band, especially as the track had probably been sabotaged or even mined. I was sure I was right on both counts: the Red Army dismantled and removed sections of track in case we should decide to advance, while my ex-Commander mined it to prevent them advancing. In the meantime I had found the button controlling the headlamps and anxiously surveyed the track, imagining at every instant that I saw a barricade or some other even more dangerous object on the line.

          The engine was now forging ahead at a steady 40 mph over a plain dotted with corpses and doubtless swarming with Partisans. I did not have a watch and so had no idea of the time but the little counter just under the speedometer (which I must have re-set at zero without realizing it) showed I had done fifty miles. My conversation about music with the General two hours earlier seemed years off, as in a dream. I worked out that by now I must be on Red Army territory and started manipulating the controls of the old engine again (almost certainly in just as orthodox a manner as the first time) in an attempt to bring it to a halt. But the boiler, which I had kept on re-stoking, was crammed full of coal. I did not know that the very first thing one should do was to reduce excess pressure and that inertia would act on the engine almost as much as the brakes and eventually bring it to a stop. Another three miles passed as I tried all the levers on the control-panel. Finally, I decided to jump from the moving train. I did manage to reduce speed a little. By now, we were doing barely 25 mph but the boiler was giving out worrying noises. Another idea occurred to me: I released the brakes and put the engine into reverse. All at once, it skidded backwards and with a groan started off in the opposite direction, rapidly gathering speed. Meanwhile, I had taken advantage of a brief moment when it was almost at a standstill to jump out, covering my head with my hands and curling up to cushion the blow. It was as well I did: on the other side of the embankment there was a steep, stony slope covered in brambles, which tore my clothes and ripped my uniform so that I reached the foot of the twenty-five-yard mound with my face covered in dust and blood, my body half-naked and my clothes in shreds. The General would have needed every scrap of his imagination to bring himself to believe that the lively little pianist and the half-stunned human wreck sitting in a muddy puddle somewhere in the Ukraine at three in the morning were one and the same person. So would I.

          I gradually got over my bewilderment and was beginning to think there had been enough events over the last twenty-four hours. There was nothing for it but to surrender to the first soldier to brandish a gun in my face. I got up out of the puddle and started searching in the dark for shelter from the cold. I had had nothing to eat (I had not been offered anything) and my stomach was protesting vehemently as I thought back to the little pies and cold chicken they were all stuffing themselves with at that very moment - unless they were trying to hitch a lift back home. I was beginning to feel sleepy. "At least you’re free now," I thought before dropping off to sleep on a bed of twigs I had made for myself to keep off the frozen ground as far as possible. Free – but not for long.

          At dawn, I half-opened my eyes and thought I was having a nightmare: four men were standing round me, each brandishing a machine gun not a foot from my head. "My God!" I thought, "This is the limit. Four fellows with the Red Star on their fur hats ready to shoot at the least provocation."

          I shut my eyes again for a second, hoping that what I had just seen was all a bad dream. Alas! When I opened them again they were still very much there. "They didn’t take long to find me out," I sighed to myself. True, my arrival in enemy territory was hardly as discreet as that of someone on the run and hoping to save his skin might have wished. So, accepting the situation stoically, I waited in a state of blissful torpor for the merciful bullet to despatch me into the next world, where I could continue my philosophizing. This was not to be: one of the men raised the barrel of his gun slightly as a sign that I was to stand up. I tried to do so quickly but my previous night’s wounds caused me to fall down again. I got up as best I could. I cannot have looked all that dangerous since they then all lowered their weapons while one of them carried out a search on me. Thank heavens I was not carrying so much as a pistol for Partisans would shoot a deserter on the spot. The man found nothing and signalled to me to get moving. One of them led the way with a torch (it was winter and still dark). Two others walked one on either side of me, each carrying a machine gun but they were far less wary than they had been. The fourth brought up the rear and so we walked along for at least two hours.

          At daybreak we suddenly came to a halt on a hillside. Two of them undertook the task of clearing some brushwood placed at the spot as camouflage, after which a third joined them to remove a few boulders. By now they no longer cared about me. In no time at all they had cleared the opening of a small tunnel which could only be entered on all fours. Amazed at their efficiency, I just stood there watching. In any case, the fourth character had just stuck his gun in my back. Although I could not see him, I was quite certain he was all set to shoot. Meanwhile, the three others finished clearing the secret entrance to their hideout. One of them crawled in while the others beckoned to me to follow. After a time, the tunnel grew larger and soon it was possible to stand upright.

          Ahead of us I could make out a faint light shed by little oil lamps hanging on the walls. I realized we were in an abandoned mine. My eyes had by now adjusted to the sepulchral lighting and I was able to make out a whole network of galleries leading into the occasional natural grotto. An incredible number of people, all lying on the ground, were crowded into one of them. We groped our way forward, taking care not to step on anyone. Another armed man came towards us, spoke softly to the Partisans in what I supposed to be a Russia-Slovak dialect and waved me on ahead. I trod carefully among the sleepers, the more fortunate of whom were lying on heaps of clothing or straw. On we went, until the barrel of my companion’s weapon pressed into my back a little harder and I stopped immediately. He pointed to some scraps of rotting straw on which I was to lie. With the help of sign language he indicated that I must get some sleep and that he would be back shortly. I tried to show him I was a deserter by ripping off the remains of my epaulette bearing my unit’s initials, throwing it on the ground and stamping on it. A smile lit up his face for the first time. He shook my hand, pointed to me once again to lie down and went off. I sat on the ground staring blankly ahead. Close by, a man like a grotesque character out of Bosch was looking at me. His face had been horribly disfigured by a war wound. The pale, wavering light accentuated the monstrousness of that face. He whispered to me in German, "Deserter?" I nodded. He patted my shoulder in approval, curled up again and fell asleep. I lay down in my turn and, as I wondered what was likely to happen to me, heard the distant sound of a harmonica playing a tune I seemed to recognize. It was Holy Night. Christmas Eve, 1943 was coming to an end. I fell into a dreamless sleep.

          Days passed, then weeks. Twenty-four hours a day we lived crowded together in the abandoned mine deep in the earth. Unlike some refugees, I was not allowed out. The caves were immense and the galleries stretched for miles. Even so, I was beginning to feel like a soul condemned to Purgatory for its sins – indeed that is what the place might easily have been taken for. The oil lamps burnt night and day, though the flame was lowered for reasons of economy. There was something supernatural about the dim lighting which lent an oddly timeless atmosphere to the interminable galleries and the people in them. The same muted, unchanging monotony began each day as ended it. Difficult to define but ever-present, it turned people little by little into objects, objects without hope or a future. The main symbol of life, in the sense of existence, was our awakening each morning. After a few seemingly interminable hours came the high point of the day: the serving of lunch. After that, all we thought about was going to bed for the night. Although we were so crammed, there was no form of social life: everyone killed time according to his particular mood. Most had nothing to do or say and spend the major part of their time lying or sitting on the very spot where they had passed the night. The people all ended up with the same expression, their faces like blank masks due to such an aimless, meaningless way of life. Whether lying or sitting, they gazed blankly ahead, hardly moving all day, like unplugged robots waiting for the end of time. I did not take part in any form of activity either. All I wanted was to be alone and sat in the shadows away from the crowd, my back against the wall. On special days I smoked a cigarette end made up of a pinch of nauseous, stinking tobacco which a few others shared with me out of pity.

          Our gallery seemed to have been reserved for foreigners – soldiers on the retreat, deserters and some rather undesirable escaped convicts. In others, life was more fun. There were families from neighbouring villages seeking shelter from the German Occupation. They had taken refuge here in the hope of better days to come. During the day, men, women and children talked loudly in some incomprehensible dialect. As they chattered away the women did their laundry, their sleeves rolled up, their faces red with bustling about their work. Then, as their plump fingers wrung out the shirts, they talked even more. That is why their families were always cleanly dressed. They took absolutely no notice of us, even though they lived so close by.

          After that, the youngest women got down to preparing the ingredients for lunch. They cooked for everyone in the mine, themselves as well as us – with one difference: we ate their leftovers. After the meal was over, they did the washing-up, polishing the few tin pots which did for saucepans. Very battered, they had been abandoned by some army or other. They filled in the short period of rest remaining after their exertions by seeing to the young children of the community. Once that was over they began preparing vegetables (mainly ageing potatoes) for the next day’s meal, the only one allowed us. Even so, we considered this single course, however frugal and inadequate, a miracle in view of how scarce food was.

          Like outcasts in an underground ghetto, we never came into contact with ‘those lot up there’. In most of the villages in the area there lived a few peasants who adamantly refused to leave their humble dwellings despite the threat of imminent invasion by pro-German forces, preferring to risk death on their plot of land to losing their only reason for living. They would never have been able to help the Partisans feed the eight hundred odd people crowded into the mine. It must have been sufficient worry for them to get enough to eat for themselves as time went by. Even the feeding just once a day of so many destitute creatures squatting on their heaps of rags, perhaps for ever, was an exploit under the circumstances. Apart from patrols of the sort which had brought me here, it was not in the interest of any of the refugees to go outside even if, unlike us deserters, they were not actually forbidden to do so. The freedom denied us was no good to them either. Where could they have gone?

           

 

 



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