Once upon a time in a faraway land I was a young girl. At 14, I was on the brink of LIFE and I knew it. “What’s OUT there? Whatever it is I want ALL of it. I want adventure, faraway places, love, romance, exotic locales, art, beauty, truth, give me the WHOLE thing! What? I have to come and get it? No? Just meet you halfway? OK, whatever it takes, I’m down with it. What do you mean I don’t have a choice?”
I didn’t listen to that last bit… I also didn’t know that eventually in life we learn how our stories turn out.
Among the goings on in my life when I was 14 were piano lessons. My first teacher was a nice young man who came to our house every Wednesday to teach my brother and me. My second was an elderly and frustrated concert pianist at the prep school I attended. Her fingers were gnarled by arthritis, and no doubt she was in physical and psychological pain. BUT she was too ready to hurt the hands of the child who made mistakes. My fingers were often scraped along the keyboard after a failed arpeggio, or crushed in her sad claw when I made mistakes. When I left the prep school I needed a new teacher. I was also terrified of piano lessons by that point, but (strangely) I had talent for the piano. My mom found Mr. Baer who had a small studio in the back of the music store in the small town where we lived.
.He turned out to be one of my life’s great gifts.
Fast forward a five decades. A few years ago I wrote about Mr. Baer in this blog, a post that I apparently deleted in the Great Post Purge of 2019. But THAT post attracted a German historian at the University of Hamburg who was working on a project collecting the stories, brief biographies, of the many German Jewish musicians and artists who lived in exile in Shanghai during WW II. I didn’t have much help to give her, but I learned some things myself from doing research. Mostly I learned how Mr. Baer, his wife and his mother ended up in Bellevue, Nebraska. Our news is very much about us. The old newspapers reported mostly about the church group that brought him to Omaha.
Last night, after reading Korea in Shanghai on I. J. Khanewala’s blog, I thought of Mr. Baer again. I commented that it would be great if, on one of his trips to Shanghai, Mr. Khanewala could go find the old Jewish neighborhood where my teacher had lived. I then Googled Mr. Baer and found the biography this historian wrote. It is the story Mr. Baer told me so long ago, but more. I was able to learn all of the things he did and was in Germany — Berlin — before Hitler. Among those things was that he fought for Germany in WW I. As I. J. Khanewala commented today, “It must be specially disheartening to fight for your country in a war and then be declared first a lesser citizen, then a non-citizen, and finally an enemy of the country.”
Besides the music of Chopin (which Mr. Baer and I both loved) I heard the story about losing one’s home in a way I never forgot and that engendered in me a particular sympathy for people forced from a homeland they love. I was learning a Mazurka, having learned from my second piano teacher Chopin’s Polonaise Opus 53 (it was my audition piece to be accepted by Mr. Baer. I can’t believe now that I could ever play it but I did…) “A Mazurka is a Polish folkdance,” explained Mr. Baer. “Do you know Chopin’s story?”
“He was forced to leave Poland, his home country, and he was never able to return. He missed it all his life.” Mr. Baer spoke with a very thick German accent.
That evening I learned a little of his story, how his daughter had been killed by Nazis, how he’d refugeed through Italy to Shanghai then to New York and finally to Nebraska. I heard the names of these exotic places and I wondered how it could be for him to live in our small town (fewer than 10k people) in Nebraska.
“Ja, so it looks very much like the countryside in Germany,” he said. “And my wife, she is here and my mother. We must make our home where we are.”
Was Mr. Baer Chopin? I wondered. Yes, of course he was, but?
My dad had been trying to get reassigned by the Defense Department from Nebraska where he worked at SAC (Strategic Air Command) to a posting in Colorado and finally it came through. We were to go to Colorado Springs and dad was going to work for NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). I went to my piano lesson thrilled to be moving back to the mountains. I didn’t count on how that would actually FEEL after it happened, and I had left my friends, my first boyfriend, my school, my forest behind and was living in a bigger city and knew no one.
I wrote Mr. Baer and he answered. His letter said, “Think of the mountains and how much you missed them and how wonderful it is to be there now.”
I had my answer.
But I also saw how a man like this, who had experienced so much LIFE — the horror and the beauty — could still enter into the feelings of a young girl with sympathy, understanding and kindness.
Here’s a link to Mr. Baer’s biography. I didn’t have too many problems reading the German, but I couldn’t get all of it — Google Translate was a good helper. It’s worth reading.
Here’s the Polonaise. Of course I never played it like THIS.