Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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?