The following was originally published in 2012 in my monthly newsletter column for Temple Emanu-El of Edison, New Jersey.
On the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor I’m thinking of my parents…my father because PH would be the springboard to get the U.S., and Dad along with his fellow Ritchie boys, directly involved in WWII. ….. my mother because her mother, my grandmother, would spend this day as her last sentient, conversant one on earth before succumbing to the coma that would take her life ten days later.
Elise Regina Loewy Guthman (“Mutti”) had sickened on the circuitous journey she made with my grandfather through the Caribbean / West Indies in order to escape Nazi-occupied Germany – no small feat in 1941 when the U.S. considered any Germans “enemy aliens” even though Jews all over Europe had been stripped of citizenship; but my mother and aunt campaigned like mad to get their parents here, and they succeeded.. My grandparents reached New York in March and spent their first night in the U.S. at the Empire Hotel, which still stands in Lincoln Center today.
Mutti was a singer and a comedian and took no nonsense from anybody ( Does that sound like anyone you know??). In the old country, before things got too rough, she would attend costume parties with my grandfather – they would dress separately; arrive at the parties separately and then try to pick each other out in the crowd. For each of my grandfather’s birthdays, Mutti would take her girls, “Susl” and “Ursl” (my mother) to visit a local poet, from whom she would commission an opus to my grandfather that was always recited to him by his daughters. My mother remembers Mutti making her own pasta; rolling the super-thin strips of dough out by hand and hanging them over kitchen chairs to dry. Back then, city famlies had staff, but it was Mutti who worked harder than anybody else because, in her estimation, who better to train your employees than the ones who would benefit from their work directly?
Mutti could make you laugh, and she could make you rue the day you were born. When a snobbish neighbor whose daughters were bowlegged made a disparaging remark about Mutti’s daughters having fat legs, Mutti drew herself up to her full five feet and replied, “Well, at least they’re straight.”
Mutti didn’t sing professionally, but she was always involved in community put-togethers. Though a mezzo-soprano, she sang outside the box and could deliver a mean “Un bel di” from *Madama Butterfly*. She played the piano beautifully – like many Jewish families, hers had a Bechstein grand piano in the parlor. And a parlor it was; the voice of a Bechstein was crafted not to sing in a concert hall, but to be enjoyed in the pleasure of one’s home by family and friends. A Bechstein’s voice sounds almost human. A Bechstein was not a piece of furniture; nor merely a musical instrument, but a member of the family. My grandmother’s Bechstein, like all pianos owned by German Jews, had to be left behind when their families escaped, vanished, or were rounded up for deportation to the death camps.
Many such forsaken pianos, their voices forever silenced, their souls stoppered, became firewood for the Nazis in whole or in part; their legs chopped off and replaced by supporting crates. I remember watching *Holocaust*, the TV mini-series first shown in the late 70s, with my parents; my mother cried during a scene showing such a piano. Mom speaks often of the Shoah, but I have never seen her weep over it before or since.
More than twenty years later I visited a piano shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in search of a tuner for the Wurlitzer spinet I’ve had since my I was six. There in the middle of the store stood a Bechstein grand. Its name above the keyboard winked as a banner of survival. The shopkeeper told me that a number of Bechsteins had been found and recovered in barns and in storehouses after the war, and many of these had been salvageable. Their names had been all but scratched out of their surfaces, but their first identifying factor — to experts — had been the degree of the bowed curve of the frame above the keyboard. I sat down to play “Solfegietto”. As the keys sang in chorus, I cried. With ten thousand dollars to spare, I would have adopted this singing survivor there and then on the spot. Someday I still hope to rescue a Bechstein.
But getting back to that other sweet singer, Mutti (German for “Mommy”; she didn’t survive long enough to know her grandchildren): oh how she continues to resonate! My mother and her sister were just 21 and 24 respectively when they lost her to this life. I carry the torch of her musicality and her funnybone. And for some reason, thoughts of Mutti bring tears; unlike remembrances of any of the grandparents I actually knew on earth. I struggle with the raw deal I think she got (she was younger than I am now when she died), until I remember that she had so much life in her years. I get just a bit envious of my mother and aunt having known such a colorful, vibrant person whom I’ll never meet…until I consider that maybe I meet her every day of my life since she is so much a part of me. I feel sad for Mutti’s girls as well…. until I hear the raucous joy with which they continue to tell stories of their mother; a legend in her own world.
Some say that when we lose someone very close at a young age, we become blessed with total recall of that person’s life. I hope for my mother and aunt that this is the case with Mutti’s memory. Mutti will always be on my list of The Five People I’ve Never Met That I’d Most Like To Have Dinner with, along with my father’s father, Jesus, Moses, and Martin Luther King. Together in my dreams, we sing Puccini’s Flower Duet from *Madama Butterfly*… and we take turns singing the parts. Usually I am Suzuki and she is Cio-Cio-San, caught up in the American dream. But sometimes her generous spirit, and our mutual sense of fun, takes over – what else can happen when two mezzo-sopranos share the stage? – and she lets me take the lead in a role neither of us should be singing, but too damn bad. Behind our footlights, anything is possible.