The day I first met my husband, we had already been married for seven years.
I remember where I was then. It was a pier in Midtown, part of the New York Ship Passenger Terminal. The place was full of people waiting for arrivals from Europe. Behind us, the traffic on the new West Side Highway was scurrying by. There were so many people there, at the Terminal, excited and worried. They were there to meet loved ones coming from the catastrophe that was left of Europe. Despite the diesel fumes from the ships and tug boats, and the gas from the cars, you could still smell the worry in the sweat of those around me. What would the people coming off the ship be like? Would they be the same people we’d known before?
That last question applied to most of the people there. But not to me. I’d never met Felix Langer. I had no idea what he’d be like. My idea was a simple one. We’d meet and then we’d get divorced; just like so many other wartime couples.
And after that? After that, life would move on.
Of course, that wasn’t how it worked out.
In 1937, when I was 17-years-old, my father was a Professor at Columbia University. He was a Classicist, quite a respectable position in those days. But it was my mother who was truly important. Her father was an industrialist who had extended a multi-generational family fortune through the design and manufacture of electrical motors. She was old money, and lots of it. But my mother’s interest wasn’t Greek or Roman history. It was music. Specifically, she had a love for the violin.
I bring up the year 1937 because that was the year my mother launched her mission. We had been listening to the radio in our living room when a violinist was introduced. Albert Langer was his name and he was from Vienna. I remember that moment so clearly. I can still smell the warm woolen fabric of our carpets and our chairs. And then, despite the challenges of recording a violin in those days, the radio seemed to fill the room with an otherworldly sense of awe.
Albert Langer was a musician like no other.
I enjoyed the radio program and then it faded to the background. It became a pleasant memory. Perhaps at some point, Mr. Langer would perform in New York and I would go to see him. I would like that. I was seventeen and I didn’t really know what was going on in Vienna. But my mother did. She knew that Mr. Langer, a Jew, was in mortal danger as long as he remained in Austria.
So, she did something only the daughter of a powerful industrialist would think to do. She arranged for the City University of New York to offer Mr. Langer a position. He and his family would have a refuge. They could escape the coming hell. People in our circles didn’t exactly love European Jews. Going to such lengths to rescue one was unseemly at best. But she did it anyway, risking herself for a man she’d never met.
She mailed Mr. Langer. And a few months later we got his response. He wrote a letter back to my mother, thanking her profusely. I still remember the exact words he wrote next:
“I apologize, but I feel I should not be treated differently just because I have been blessed with music. As I’m sure you can appreciate, music isn’t just technique, but soul. And to have soul, you must live a life of true sincerity. If I take advantage of my music, leaving my community to suffer without me, I abandon sincerity. And if I abandon sincerity, my music will die.”
And that was it. He turned my mother down.
Well, it seemed like that was it. But a week later, we received another letter. This one was from Albert Langer’s wife, Klara. Her only son Felix was 18-years-old and he too needed to escape. She included a photograph of a handsome young man with a complex smile.
The woman pleaded with my mother to find a solution.
And so, she did.
I was the solution.
I was to marry the boy, without ever meeting him. He’d get a visa, as my spouse, and be welcomed to the United States. I went along with it. The way I figured it, with a father like Albert, Felix was probably a pretty good catch. And even if he wasn’t, I would still be saving a life.
My mother launched on her mission with the fury of a woman who had too much time on her hands. It wasn’t an uncommon condition for women of her class. She had a friend who filed ‘modified’ paperwork. It showed that Felix and I had met and married on a previous trip. A trip Felix had never taken. Then she browbeat another friend in the Diplomatic Corp to get a visa to Felix, as quickly as possible. The US Embassy in Berlin issued the visa and then had a courier deliver it to Vienna. The courier left November 9th, 1938. They arrived November 10th, the day after Kristallnacht.
But that day, neither Felix, nor Albert nor Klara were anywhere to be found.
Soon enough, the war started. A few years later, the embassy closed and Europe went completely dark. My mother was taken during the war years. She died of cancer. I put aside my own suffering though. I knew so many others were suffering so much more. Then, as our troops finally advanced through Europe, news of the camps began to spread. I remember the horror then. I didn’t know the man, but I was consumed with a conviction that Felix was dead.
But I needed to know.
So, on VE Day, May 8th 1945, while nurses were kissing soldiers in the street, I got back to work. Albert and Klara had vanished. But I found Felix at the end of that year. He was freezing in a DP Camp. But he already had a visa and he already had a wife in the US. My family had resources. I had resources. Within a few weeks, I got him out of Europe.
I went to the pier that day, his photograph in my hand. I was hoping to meet my husband and finish the kindness my mother had started.
And then I saw him.
He looked almost as he had in the photograph. At least on the surface. But his face was weathered in a way it hadn’t been before. He’d aged far more than seven years. His eyes were filled with the most remarkable emptiness I’d ever seen; like he was staring into a world of nothingness. When he looked towards me, I almost fell over with the shock of it.
And then he saw me and he somehow realized who I was. And in that moment, I saw something else. Something besides emptiness. In that moment, I felt like I was the only string connecting him to this world. In that moment, I knew he needed me, like no man ever had, or ever would.
I had expected Felix to be a musician. But he was another man, at least by the time the war was over. He changed his name to Frank and took my last name. And almost as soon as he landed, he went into business. He didn’t pick something glamorous though. Instead, he saw enterprises that had once been sustained by war collapsing all around him. With a small loan from my own fortune, he bought a bankrupt uniform-manufacturing factory for pennies on the dollar. His client was the army. It was a business everybody knew would fail. But he was cheap enough, and his investment thrifty enough that he made it work. And while the competition was collapsing, he expanded his offerings to police forces, factories and even the US Postal Service.
His business, through sheer grit, determination and good luck, blossomed.
He made, within a few years, a hundred times what we had put in.
Others were jealous of him, but he was unrelenting. If the powerful pushed into his space, he’d move. But he always found a new wellspring of profits.
Then, in 1949, Felix and I were blessed with two children. Twin boys. With money and power and a young family, we had all the trappings of a great post-war success. People didn’t even know ‘Frank’ was Jewish.
But, despite it all, Felix was not a happy man. He pretended to be. He would take some shallow pleasure from cars and from houses and even from me. He embraced the physical world. But that was all. But I knew, from the emptiness and the need, that there had to be more.
I had expected Felix to be dedicated to his remarkable father and his remarkable music. But he never mentioned his father. And he never listened to music. There was no music in our house. No music was ever played at parties or business meetings. And despite the scientific popularity of Musak as a driver of productivity, none was played in his factories.
I put a concerto on once, just to bring something into our home. But Felix flew into a terrible rage, throwing dishes and smashing a vase in his sudden anger.
Oddly, his violence convinced me of the one thing it was meant to disprove. It convinced me that Felix still had music within him.
He had it within him and he was running from it.
As our children grew older, it became clear how different they were. One of them, Robert, was like his father. He was masterful with money. He could see money, feel it – understand it. But he didn’t run a factory. He went into finance. As he put it once, he loved to hunt money. Building, like Felix had, didn’t interest him. He loved the feeling and freedom of financial conquest, not the attachment of hard assets. He was proud of his father and joyful in his pursuits. He while he had some tough times, Felix eyed him almost jealously. The joy Robert found in money was something to behold. And it was clearly something Felix wanted.
His brother David couldn’t have been more different. David would run from the house, and hide, just so he could listen to what his father prohibited. He became a musician. Felix hated music. He pushed David away. He denied David the fuel he needed to flourish. He wrote David out of his inheritance and he drove David from our home. But David would not be denied.
Sadly, while his technique was phenomenal, he lacked the soul of his grandfather. Somehow I knew he would never meet with the great man’s success.
Then, in 1963, Felix was diagnosed with cancer. There was little to do about it in those days. It was a death sentence. It didn’t help that Felix refused any sort of chemotherapy. He had an incredible fear of chemicals. And so, quickly, he got sicker and sicker. Before long, he was confined to his bed – a rail-thin man who looked like he was once again in the camps.
It was then that his mind began to go. He began to have conversations with me, thinking I was his mother – Klara. And I learned so much then. I learned that his mother had wanted him to leave Vienna. But Felix had agreed with his father. He could not take advantage of his gift. He too had responsibilities. He too should be with his community, not escaping from it.
I watched Felix relive the moment when his mother told him he was to be married. He would have new obligations now, obligations to a wife. Felix had been angry then. He had felt betrayed.
And then, days later, all of them had been taken.
I learned about the horrors of the war, as Felix had lived them. His sleeping nightmares became waking nightmares. His eyes darted around the room in terror. And, in snippets, the story was revealed. His parents had not stayed with their community; they had been murdered within days of Kristallnacht.
But Felix had hung on. Felix had survived. He had lived through the darkest hell mankind could create, and he had survived.
He survived, but he was not undamaged.
It was his father’s sincerity, his soul, that had locked them into the Holocaust. Felix had once believed in that sincerity. He had believed in his father. And they had been given over to a fate worse than death. After 7 years, Felix had learned to hate all of it. Most critically, he learned to hate music, because he had been sacrificed to it.
That was why Felix ran from his father’s music. His father had said that without sincerity there is no soul and without soul there is no music.
As I watched Felix I realized something more. I realized that, at least for Felix, without music there was no life. I had to return his music to him.
So, I did what my mother once did. I falsified documents. I created a fake will, notarized and witnessed by a court, that dedicated all of Felix’s assets to me. It was designated as a repayment for my original loan to him.
And then I left that falsified documents on my husband’s desk. As I planned, it was Robert, the son who loved money, who found it.
He came to Felix then. My husband was dying in his bed, but Robert flew into a rage. He was angry, crying, crazed. And all of it was about the money he thought he had lost. He cried about money to a man who withstood the Holocaust. And then, mourning his loss and awash in his own pity, he left: angry and disappointed and somehow empty.
I watched my husband then, looking for some sign of understanding. I hoped that, on some level, he would see that a life dedicated to money is no life at all. But as I sat there, watching him, nothing happened. Nothing seemed to pierce his failing mind.
And so, I acted on my own. I called David, my musical son. I asked him to come with his violin.
He was uncertain when he arrived. But I told him to play. So he put his bow to his instrument and he began to play. As had always been the case, his technique was remarkable. And as had always been the case, his music lacked soul.
But then I saw, at the corner of Felix’s mouth, the slightest of smiles. And David saw it too. And it seemed to flow from Felix’s face to David’s hands. And David’s music changed. Not the technique, not the sound, but the sincerity. The soul. And in a glorious feedback cycle, the smile spread over Felix’s face and David kept playing. And his soul began to fill the room.
Felix opened his eyes, then, for the first time in days. And I saw, for the first time since I had known him, that there was joy within them.
David saw it too.
He kept playing.
Then I was back in my mother’s salon. The smell of wool was all around me. And the radio was playing Albert Langer’s remarkable solo.
I listened to them both – Albert and David. And I was filled with joy.
I closed my eyes then, feeling everything.
And then, after what seemed like forever, the music stopped.
When I opened my eyes, Felix was gone.
I looked at his lifeless body and I smiled. I smiled because in that final moment before his death, I had finally met the man I had once married.
In the generation that survived the Holocaust, many Jews denied G-d’s existence. But others were angry with Him because of the horrors that had been unleashed. Their ancestors had clung desperately to their Jewish identity, despite the risk. And because of their Jewish identity, they had effectively been offered up to G-d by their fathers’ faith.
We see a parallel to this with the story of Yitzchak (Isaac). When Yitzchak first meets Rivka (Rebecca), we read, in a conventional translation: “And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming.”
But “at the eventide” isn’t exactly a word-for-word translation. Something more literal would be “in the face of twilight.” Twilight is a period of uncertainty – neither dark nor light. The word for meditating also suggests prayer, or thinking profoundly. So, the sentence could poetically be stating “And Yitzchak went out to think profoundly in the face of uncertainty.”
The last time we’d seen him, Yitzchak had been made an offering to G-d. He had then travelled to the place where Hagar’s prayers at been answered. But his prayers had not been answered. He had been sacrificed by his own father. How could the G-d that promised Avraham the future allow that to happen? How can the G-d who promised us the future allow the Holocaust to occur?
The answer is unclear. And so think profoundly in the face of uncertainty.
This uncertainty is the emptiness, and the need, that fills Felix’s face when he arrives in New York. It is the same force that drives him towards the physical, towards the material and towards assimilation.
It motivates Felix just as it motives Yitzchak. Yitzchak was the only farmer among ancient Jewish leaders. He craved the stability of land. Yitzchak named wells, seeking his own foothold the world. Yitzchak, so spiritually fragile, could not leave the land of Israel. And Yitzchak embraced his physical son while rejecting the one who is spiritual.
Of course, life is not simply material. The woman in the story recognizes that Felix needs music. She also knows that music is his only true legacy. And so, like Rivka, she teaches her husband what he refuses to accept. When Esav’s cries over the loss of his inheritance, Yitzchak finally realizes what’s truly important. Only then does he bless Yaacov (Jacob) with the legacy of Avraham.
Only when Robert cries over the loss of his inheritance does Felix somehow accept what really matters: his own father’s gift of music.
In a way, we continue to live out this story. Many Jews are actively abandoning the Jewish people. They are rejecting our unique relationship with G-d. They are cursing their brethren in either an honest embrace of the world’s values or a shallow submission to that same world’s hatreds. But these Jews are not alone. Other Jews have taken on the mantle of Avraham, raising their own children as members of a hated people.
In a way, we are raising our children as Avraham did, despite the risk. In a way, we are sacrificing them to G-d. We know the risks, we have seen them.
But we also know that without music, there is no life.
p.s. This story is dedicated to those Hungarian Shabbat-keepers who chose to die together with Jews even though they had the opportunity to be freed due to their distinct heritage.
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