I was in the Battle of the Bulge. (Saul shuffles to a metal folding chair and sits. He motions for me to do the same. It is the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.) I was scared because the German army was better. They had better generals. If they hadn’t gone over to the Russians, America would have lost. I was in the 9th Army and trained as a sharpshooter. I scored 170 out of 200. When I got to France, they handed me a machine gun. I didn’t know how to use it. It still had blood on it. (Saul drapes an arm over his cello. It is one of three he owns. The one he holds belonged to the great Pablo Casals. The one I hold is Saul’s.)
After the Bulge, we had to cross the Rhine. It was March. Cold. We urinated on our guns to thaw them out. Thirteen hours later we were on German soil. It was on our way to Ruhr that we saw the castle. (Saul opens his pocket knife and cuts a loose hair from his bow.) I didn’t want to go in. I thought it might be booby trapped. Down in the cellar there were 1,000 bottles of Rhine wine. We spent a week drunk.
Next we marched to Belsen. You could smell it for mile. Just awful. 15,000 bodies in a pile. Children. The Germans claimed they didn’t know anything about it. But the smell—
That’s when I lost my religion.
The chosen people? Chosen for what?
I got badly injured before the end of the war. I was thankful. I woke up in Brussels. The doctor was an amateur cellist. He brought me a cello to play. If it wasn’t for him, I might never have played again. I think about that.
By the time I got to Le Havre there was a stack of mail for me. It had been following me all around Europe, but I was always one step ahead of it. That’s when I found out I had a daughter. Alice Rose. Your mother. My one truth.
(Saul opens my book of etudes and our lesson begins.)