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Day 334: "Sie Soll Leben"

Beautiful day.

I had the privilege of being invited to play the piano for a music club group that meets at a lovely retirement condominium on the waterfront downtown this morning.

I decided to play two rather short, slow, contemplative pieces that I could play without much work and that moved my soul.  They were "Nocturne in c sharp minor (opus posthumous) by Chopin and "Bethena" by Scott Joplin.

Last night after teaching all day, I did not have much energy left to practice for this mornings performance. But the people in the club do enjoy hearing a bit of talk beforehand about the composers and music being played, so I did some research on the internet and got chills.

This is what I said before I played today:

" Music is not just entertainment. Sometimes it can save a life. Sometimes it can bring beauty out of a period of grief and mourning.  The two pieces I am playing today were composed by two different people, over a century apart.

The first one, "Nocturne in c sharp minor" was composed by Frederic Chopin in 1830. He dedicated it to his sister. But it was not published until after his death.  But it saved the life of a young woman during the Holocaust. In a concentration camp in Poland. 

Her name was Natalia Karp.  She had been taken to a concentration camp with her sister, Helena. They suffered and expected to die in the camp. When she was 32 years old, she was summoned to play for the Commandant Aman Goeth's birthday. She played the Nocturne I am about to play with such feeling from her soul and her fingers stiffened from life in the camp, that Commandant Goeth said, "Sie soll leben" (She shall live!)

Apparently Natalia was bold enough to say only if her sister Helena, too would live.

The next piece is by Scott Joplin. He struggled in life for many reasons. Being black in the South. Being poor.  Also his second wife, Freddie, whom he loved dearly, died 10 weeks after their wedding of pneumonia.

He did not publish any music for a year after her death. The first one he published was "Bethena" which I will play for you. I did not know the background of this piece until last night. Scott Joplin has been beloved by me since I was a young teenager. The only "nonclassical" music my very strict father would allow me to play in the 70's which was going through a "ragtime revival" because of the movie the Sting.  I always honored Scott Joplin's instructions: "Do not play fast. Ragtime is not meant to be fast."

But this piece is very unique. It is actually a "ragtime waltz". It sounds more classical than his other works. And now that I know the state of his soul during the time he wrote it, the haunting melody makes sense to me."

Here is an account from the (
"Summoned the day she arrived, expecting to be shot, Natalia, then a beautiful 32-year-old, played Chopin's haunting and melancholic Nocturne in C sharp minor. When she had finished, Amon Goeth, the commandant, declared: Sie soll leben (She shall live).
"I was taken to his villa where there was a party with many guests eating, drinking and dressed in white jackets," she recalled. "After a while, Goeth turned to me and barked: 'Now. Sarah. Play now'." (The Nazis called all Jewish women "Sarah").
At the time she had not touched a piano since the oubreak of war, and her fingers were almost stiff.
When Goeth, who was chillingly depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler's List (1993), told Natalia that she would live, the pianist stood her ground, insisting that her sister Helena should also be spared. She was subsequently ordered to play for Goeth and other senior Nazis on several occasions.
But her ordeal was not over. After 10 months she was sent to Auschwitz, where she fully expected to die.
"My sister and I clung to each other. We scavenged for any food we could find. Every day we thought could be our last."
Her identity number - A27407 - was branded on to her forearm, and never disappeared. Many years later it was spotted by a guest at a reception in London who tactlessly asked: "What have you put here - your telephone number?"
Natalia was released from imprisonment the day after VE Day, and returned to Krakow with her sister, a ballerina.
When she gave her first post-war performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1, with its triumphant opening chords, she recalled thinking: "I wanted to show the Nazis that I was not beaten."

 Today was a bit of a revelation for me.  I have been playing the piano for over 50 years. Sight reading comes easily to me. So I can be rather shallow. I do feel music on a deep level, but I think it is also important to honor the people who created this music and played it before. It gives it deeper meaning and keeps their memories alive.

Natalia Karp died in 2007. She was 96 years old. The last of the Holocaust victims are leaving our planet. Hopefully they will rest peacefully in eternity. But I hope by stories like these, we can keep their memories alive.


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