The first scene of the opera Die Walküre, the second of the four operas making up Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, takes place in the house of Hunding, a fierce warlord. The central feature of Hunding's house is a mighty ash tree, its trunk soaring up from the floor, its branches forming a canopy over the roof. Embedded in the massive trunk is a golden sword the god Wotan has left for his son, the hero Siegmund, to find and wield at his hour of need.
In the house where I grew up with my father, my mother, and my brother, there was also an enormous tree growing up through the roof, its great trunk dominating the enclosed space. In many ways we shared a perfectly ordinary family life. My father spoke to my mother. My mother tucked me in at night. My brother and I played with each other, when we weren't fighting.
But none of us ever acknowledged the tree.
The tree wasn't real, of course. But its impact on my family was overwhelming. The effort it required for all of us not to take conscious notice of it was also huge. This enormous presence in our house was the fate of my parents' families--Jews who lived in Germany in the 1930s--and my parents' escape from that fate. Their story, so similar to and yet so different from the six million other stories of that time and place, affected everything these two people did. It was at the root of their lives and grew ever upward as they grew older. And, as in so many other families like ours, it was something we never spoke of.
Not that I was completely unaware of the tree and the shadow it cast on our house. When my friends talked about visiting their grandparents at Thanksgiving or going to the ball game with Uncle Ed, I knew that something from the past had made similar excursions impossible for me. And returning to our house following an afternoon of playing in the neighborhood, I was often conscious of taking off my own real personality, hanging it up in the closet with my jacket, and donning a sort of internal costume that would enable me to blend in with the emotional scenery. But, again, we never spoke of such things.
Let me hasten to say that such talk was never overtly forbidden. By no means was I or my brother ever shushed when we attempted to steer the conversation in certain directions. We simply never made such attempts. As a family we didn't discuss what had happened in Germany for the same reason that we didn't discuss bauxite mining in Peru. They were both subjects that did not exist for us.
Nor do I want to give the impression of a dark and gloomy household where silence reigned. Not at all. Life revolved around my mother's activities as a musician--a violist--first as a member of the St. Louis Symphony and later as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and that meant that there was always music in the house. My parents' friends and colleagues would often come by for after-concert parties, when the house would resound with music and laughter.
But every year the tre grew taller. And as I grew older, I came to be more and more aware of its presence, and of how odd it was that we never spoke of it, since it dominated the landscape. Its leaves turned yellow and drifted to the ground when my mother died in 1984. The tree itself remained, however, casting its prodigious shadow over my relationship with my father. Finally, as we both grew more aware of the ever-quickening passage of time, I decided to do something about it.
In 1992, the year I turned forty, I was traveling in Europe while my father, who was nearly seventy-nine, was also in Europe with his new love, Emily Erwin. We arranged to meet in Oldenburg, my father's hometown. We visited his childhood home, and he told me something of his memories of that long-ago time. He took me to where his father's store had been and told me that Nazi thugs had organized a boycott of the store in April 1933, an action that led to his father's having to sell the family house. He showed me the Pferdemarkt, the Horse Market, where his father had been taken following his arrest in November 1938. Slowly, those shadowy figures, my grandparents, whom I'd never known, began to take on human form. And for the first time, my father and I began to take notice of the huge tree in our house.
It wasn't a fast process, by any means. A year later, while visiting my father in Tucson, I tried to get him to talk more about his youth. He spoke only briefly, however, and quickly moved the conversation on to something else. It was obvious that he found these trips into the past very painful. But I persisted in my efforts to talk to him about those days, believing that coming to terms with them would somehow benefit both him and our relationship. And that visit to Tucson resulted in something extraordinary: he agreed to come to Washington, D. C., and tour with me the newly opened United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A few days before my father's arrival, I happened to mention our plan to Alex Chadwick, a friend at National Public Radio. Alex asked if he could come along with a microphone and record my father's reactions. Both my father and I agreed, and in late January 1994, the three of us visited the museum.
Those hours marked a turning point in my father's life, and in our relationship. At first, I thought I had made a terrible mistake in asking him to come to the museum. To tour the permanent exhibition, you enter an elevator that takes you to the top floor, from which you slowly walk back down to ground level. When we stepped out of the elevator, the first image that met my father's eyes was a huge photograph of General Eisenhower touring a concentration camp after the war, surrounded by the skeletal remains of former prisoners. He gasped and tried to get back into the elevator, but the doors had already closed. Alex and I steadied him and we made our way through the rest of the museum--the names and faces, the piles of shoes and eyeglasses, the cattle car, and an oboe layed by the man who sat right next to my father in the Berlin Jüdische Kulturbund orchestra.
My father took it all in and spoke very little. But the next day he came to NPR and recorded an interview with Alex, trying, he said, to explain the unexplainable. Alex prepared a feature for NPR's Morning Edition, and suddenly people all over America began calling my father to tell him that they had been moved by his story. He, in turn, was moved by their interest. Having lived in silence with his thoughts and his memories for so long, he had come to feel isolated from other people. Now those people were reaching out to him, and the effect was transforming--for both of us.
He now felt more at ease with his past and with me. I had always felt distanced from him, but now I saw him in a different light: less as someone who had deliberately shut me out and more as someone who had heroically overcome the horrors of the Third Reich to establish a normal and rich life in a foreign land. We became good friends.
And we began to talk about his early years in Germany. The more I learned, the more I respected him, and the more I learned about myself as well. I discovered an important source of my feelings for music. It's beautiful and moving, of course, but music also literally saved my parents' lives. Had they not been members of an all-Jewish orchestra, maintained at the pleasure of Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, they would never have made it out of Germany alive. During their years in Berlin, before their escape, my parents frequently risked everything by defying the Nazi curfews so that they could play chamber music with their friends. As I heard my father tell me his story, I came to realize that somehow I had inherited the knowledge that music can not only enrich your life, it is also something worth risking your life for. I came to see that my chosen profession has been no accident. Maybe, in fact, it chose me.
I learned that the tree growing in our house, like the ash tree in the house of Hunding, also contained a golden sword buried deep within its trunk. My parents' story of music and courage and persistence and luck was no weapon, but it has proven to be a source of great strength and inspiration for me. By sharing his life, my father has enabled me to extract and possess a rich treasure of understanding and hope.
Excerpted from Inextinguishable Symphony, John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright 2001 CBS. All rights reserved.
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