By Eugene Drucker
Published by Simon & Schuster
July 2007; 1416543295; 224 pages
I used to play for the wounded and dying. The Army sent me; it was supposed to help the war effort.
"Can you play Wiener Blut?"
He shook his head.
"How about 'Es war ein Edelweiss, ein kleines Edelweiss'?" asked the one with the wooden leg.
Before Gottfried Keller could answer, someone behind him shouted, " 'Das Horst Wessel Lied'!" Keller turned just in time to see a baldheaded soldier propelling his wheelchair furiously toward the center of the room with a few swift thrusts of his powerful arms. The soldier spun around to face the violinist, who noticed a jagged line of stitch marks on the man's scalp. Keller had already explained that he couldn't play tunes on request, that he'd prepared a whole program of solo violin music.
The air was stuffy in the abandoned schoolhouse. Judging from the look of things, it had been converted into a hospital only within the last couple of weeks. An outdated map of German conquests, from 1942 or the first half of '43, hung lopsided above a blackboard; desks and chairs were stacked against the wall. The bedridden were arranged along two of the other walls, on either side of him, and in the middle of the room several rows of men fidgeted in their wheelchairs. A few bulbs hanging from the ceiling cast a yellowish light onto their faces. The floors had been mopped with so much ammonia that his nostrils were stinging, but there was another smell in the room that even the ammonia couldn't block out -- the sweet-tinged reek of all those feverish, sweaty bodies packed together in too small a space.
The windows were latched shut. Winter was coming.
Sneers, grimaces -- they didn't care what he had prepared. It didn't help when he told them that the music he wanted to play was more challenging than the tunes they were demanding, which all needed piano accompaniment and would sound incomplete without it, while his music was complete just as he was going to play it. Eyes all around him, peering out from bandaged faces, near-extinguished eyes boring holes in him, all asking the same question: why had he come to bother them with this crap?
He began to play Bach, and the man with the shaven head swung his wheelchair around so that he was facing the wall.
Idiots, he said to himself. He was there to help, to make life a bit less unpleasant for them, to make their recovery easier. And for those who would never recover? Well, to lend some dignity, some meaning to their final days. At least that was the official line, mouthed again and again by the men behind desks who sent him on these fruitless missions.
Keller had barely finished the first phrase when the soldiers started talking -- to one another, or to him, he didn't know which, he was trying so hard to shut out the sounds of their voices. Then whistling, even singing out of tune, pretending to sing along with the melodies he was playing. Making fun of Bach: no matter how tone-deaf they were, he couldn't believe they would sing so badly if they were really trying to trace the shape of the music with their voices.
They weren't singing with him. They were singing against him: he had become the enemy.
"Why aren't you in uniform, Herr Geiger?" asked the ringleader in another ward. There was a stump where his right arm should have been.
He hadn't bothered to learn Keller's name. None of the patients took the trouble to remember it, even when a doctor introduced him before he played. If any of them ever addressed him, it was always as "Fiddler," sometimes with "Herr" before it in a show of mock respect.
"I'm not in the Army."
"Yes, of course, that's obvious. But why not?"
"Yeah," chimed in two or three others. "Why not?"
"A weak heart," Keller replied, barely moving his lips. The soldier cupped his hand behind his left ear and leaned forward, inching closer with his wheelchair. Keller cleared his throat and said again, "A weak heart. I didn't pass the physical."
"Oh, a weak heart," the invalid repeated in a mock-sympathetic tone, staring thoughtfully at Keller's chest. "I see. You mean...you're a weakling."
"A weakling!" echoed the chorus of his followers.
"How touching," added the ringleader, the pain in his face transformed to triumph.
"Well, he's in better shape than we are now," said someone sitting up in a bed in the corner of the room.
The one-armed soldier turned and glared at him.
"Be quiet already!" The bedridden soldier, who seemed to be forcing his voice to rise above a whisper, was in worse shape than the others. His midriff was covered with reddened bandages. His forehead was beaded with sweat, and his eyes were so sunken that Keller couldn't tell whom the man was looking at when he spoke. Or perhaps he was looking at nobody, just staring at the wall. "Let him play," he said wearily. "It's our only break from this damned routine."
"This is worse!" jeered another patient. There was laughter all around, but Keller ignored their mockery. By now he was used to it. He kept looking at the man in the corner; something about the thin frame propped up against those pillows grabbed at his heart. The soldier was biting his lower lip, squinting as if the meager light in there was too much for him.
Clutching his instrument, Keller wondered what the man meant about the routine. Injections? Bedpans? False encouragement when there wasn't much hope? Or was it that they all had to be crammed together every hour of the day? Isolated from the others, this man seemed to have nothing left to buoy his spirits -- no defiance, no swagger, no ability to laugh at another's weakness.
That's how I would look.
"I'll die of boredom if I don't die of this first," rasped Keller's defender, pointing to his belly. Every word he spoke sounded as if it had been pushed through a wall of pain. "Come on, let him play! It might do us all some good."
The effort of raising his voice brought on a coughing fit, and he fell back in his bed. The others had stopped laughing. When the coughing subsided, Keller began to play, wishing he could speak to that man, reach out to him in his loneliness. But after the performance he had to leave right away. His driver was waiting; there were two other hospitals on the schedule for that day. Out in the corridor, he looked back toward the room from which he'd just emerged, thinking to go back in after some of the other patients -- the ones who could move on their own -- had come out. But then he glanced at his wristwatch. It was already half past eleven: there was no time left.
A few weeks later he was driven three hours west to a small town near the front. He tried to stay calm, as always during these rides, but he never knew exactly where he was being taken. He could only hope they wouldn't get too close to any fighting. From experience, he knew better than to attempt a meaningful conversation with the driver -- about music, the wounded soldiers, or the war.
The driver had told him when they started that it would be a long ride. After a while he closed his eyes and tried to doze off, since he hadn't slept well the night before. He wasn't sure he could relax enough to take a nap, but they had smooth roads that day, and he found the steady motion of the car rather soothing. His thoughts wandered back to his days at the Hochschule -- the friends he'd had there, the confidence he used to feel as a player -- and then, despite his efforts to think of something else, to Marietta.
He pictured a small figure hunched over the keyboard in a practice studio, the pale oval of a face turned and uplifted in anticipation of his cue to start the next phrase. He could still feel his arm around her waist, pulling her toward him as they walked through the streets of Cologne that winter, before everything changed. So much time had passed that he couldn't clearly see her. He hardly ever looked anymore at the snapshots he'd taken during one of their strolls along the Rhine embankments. She was bundled up in an overcoat and her face was partly hidden by a scarf. The pictures were faded after all these years, their contrasts ill defined, the lines blurred.
He must have fallen asleep after all; when he opened his eyes, they were winding their way through the cobbled streets of a small town, close to their destination. Keller was relieved to see that all the buildings were intact -- so far, the village had been spared. But the driver told him that the roads and bridges not far to the west and north had been bombed and the flow of supplies choked off. The streets were eerily quiet and empty except for a cluster of hollow-cheeked children, unkempt, dirty, their clothes tattered, pawing through the contents of an overturned garbage can.
Where he lived, things weren't quite so bad, at least not yet. Still, it was months since he'd had a decent cut of meat, and he could barely remember the smell or taste of fresh vegetables. He could only imagine the way they had looked many years before, on display every weekend in the Marktplatz of the small town in Westphalia where he grew up. But recently he'd begun to think about chocolate more than any other food, trying to remember how it felt as he bit off a piece, trying to imagine its stickiness, the rush of pleasure that always used to come with the first few bites as his tongue crushed the bar against the roof of his mouth. He dreamed about chocolate. Sometimes it took an effort to convince himself that the Wehrmacht wasn't going to reward him for his performances one of these days with a box of sweets or a bottle of cognac.
A civilian hospital at the western edge of that town near the front had been taken over by the Army as it retreated eastward. The hospital was a low, blocklike structure of pale brick, bordered on one side by wooded parkland and on the other by a cemetery whose marble headstones glistened in the sun. On the road flanking the graveyard an ambulance sped past Keller's car, its siren wailing. It pulled up next to the emergency entrance. Two medics jumped out, threw open the back doors and unloaded a cargo of four or five wounded soldiers. An arm dangled from one of the stretchers, which tipped perilously from side to side as it was taken out.
Because of the sudden arrival of the new patients, Keller had to wait over an hour before he could start to play. Sitting in the corridor while his driver went out to smoke, he tried to run through some music in his head. A man approached his chair with small, shuffling steps, mumbling to himself. He looked as if he were wearing a mask: there were bandages all over his face and the top of his head, tied in double and triple thicknesses, with small holes for the mouth, nostrils and eyes. To Keller's relief, the man shuffled past as if nobody else was there.
All he wanted was to take out his violin, get it over with and go home. But little was waiting for him there -- meager rations in the cupboard, an empty bed.
His friends were all gone: drafted, sent to the Russian front. Except the few who had fled years earlier, while there was still time -- that is, the ones who'd had sense. And the ones who'd had no choice.
His parents had died within six months of each other, soon after the war began. He hadn't been very close to them for years. They knew little about music and didn't understand much about his hopes for a concertmaster position or a solo career. They had married late; he was their only child. There were some cousins, but he'd lost touch with them. It was just as well: they wouldn't have agreed on what was happening all around them.
A doctor eventually came over to greet him. The man in the mask, still wandering in the hallway, passed within a few inches of them.
"A severe head wound?" Keller asked once the man was out of earshot.
"Yes and no," the doctor replied, smoothing back a strand of copper-colored hair that had strayed over his forehead.
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
For a few seconds the doctor seemed not to have heard him. There were dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. Keller wondered when he'd last had a full night's sleep. With both fronts caving in, there were plenty of casualties these days: he probably had to perform emergency surgery at all hours of the day and night, whenever new patients were rushed in. Between two fingers he held the stub of a cigarette, still lit. His cuticles were bloody and scabby; he seemed to make a habit of chewing at them.
Finally he cleared his throat and explained: "There has been no physical wound to the head. He put those bandages on himself, and insists on keeping them. He doesn't give us much trouble, though -- he's in his own world."
"Well, maybe he's better off than the rest of us," said Keller on an impulse.
The doctor looked at him quizzically for a few seconds. Keller was surprised at himself, surprised that he'd ventured to say something like that to a stranger, but the doctor struck him as a man who knew how things stood. He knew they were losing -- that was obvious from one look at his tired, hopeless face.
The patient disappeared through a doorway, and the doctor tipped his head back, as if to indicate the same door by pointing with his chin. "That's the room where you're supposed to play." He looked back at the violinist, his brow creased, as though he doubted the performance could do any good. "I hope you can achieve some results with them."
Keller approached the door, wondering what distractions, what insults were awaiting him.
Most of the patients in the room were bedridden, attached to intravenous tubes suspended from metal poles standing between their beds. Late afternoon sunlight was pouring through a narrow casement window directly opposite the door. The other windows were shuttered, as though the patients had just awakened from a nap, and much of the room was in shadow. Dust motes floated in the shaft of light. Sitting in a chair that he had pulled into the light just as Keller entered, the man in the mask watched his every move as he took the violin out of its case and tightened the hair of the bow.
"Have you come to heal us?" he asked.
Some of the other patients snickered, but Keller didn't know whether the question was meant to be sarcastic. It was impossible to tell, since there was barely room for the man to move his jaw, and the words came out low and muffled from behind all those layers of bandage.
"Can you make us whole again?"
Keller wasn't sure how to answer him. He wondered what the authorities would expect him to say in a situation like this. But he knew he had to find his own words, had to respond as truthfully as possible without sounding hopeless.
"Music has been known to have a therapeutic effect," he said after a long hesitation. "That's why I'm here. I'm going to play the Chaconne by Bach for you. There is great power in this music -- a spiritual power that..."
"But is there magical power in it?" asked the mask.
"Magical?" Keller repeated.
"You know what I mean. Can it bring back the dead?"Copyright © 2007 Eugene Drucker
Reprinted with permission.
Set during the final weeks of World War II, The Savior is the story of Gottfried Keller, a young German violinist. Exempted from military service, Keller is burdened with the demoralizing task of playing for wounded soldiers in hospitals and makeshift infirmaries.
As he leaves his apartment one morning to pick up a new assignment at headquarters, Keller finds an SS driver waiting for him and is escorted without explanation to a labor camp outside his town. There he is introduced to the camp's Kommandant, who tells Keller that he will spend the next four days performing for the inmates as part of an experiment in reviving hope in those who have lost it completely.
Overwhelmed by fear and compelled by the temptation of using his talent to affect others so powerfully, Keller finds himself playing a series of concerts for the prisoners -- and seeing with his own eyes the horrifying truths within the barbed-wire fence. As he plays the music of Ysaÿe, Hindemith and Bach, most notably the searing Chaconne, Keller's own questionable past unfolds, revealing the loss of his closest friend and the Jewish fiancée from whom he fled in fear of being caught as a Jew-lover. As he bears witness to the camp's atrocities, Keller's horror toward the perpetrators and their crime begins to fade, revealing his own culpability.
Beautifully conceived and gracefully written, The Savior is a complex and illuminating character study of a man severed from his past expectations and an artist struggling with his identity in the face of human catastrophe.
Eugene Drucker is a Violinist with the Emerson String Quartet and a solo artist who has appeared with the orchestras of Montreal, Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Austin, Hartford, Richmond, Toledo and the Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as the American Symphony Orchestra and the Aspen Chamber Symphony.
He is a graduate of Columbia University and the Juilliard School, where he studied with Oscar Shumsky, Mr. Drucker was concertmaster of the Juilliard Orchestra, with which he appeared as soloist several times. He made his New York debut as a Concert Artists Guild winner in the fall of 1976, after having won prizes at the Montreal Competition and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels.
Drucker is a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, and over the pased twenty-five year he has received eight Grammys, the Avery Fisher Prize and three Gramophone Awards. An active solo artist, he has recorded the sonatas and partitas of Bach as well as the violin sonatas and duos of Bartók. He is the author of numerous articles, CD liner notes and concert program notes on string quartet and solo violin music.
In the fall of 2002, he began a teaching affiliation with his Emerson colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.