Fiction | Polonaise

The music of Chopin brings together a mysterious young Hungarian Holocaust survivor and an American music student. But just when romance is in the air, he vanishes.
Black and white photo of piano with sheet music for short story by Rona Arato

Founded in 2000, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2020 stories were judged by Israeli-American author Ruby Namdar. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn more about the contest.

At the Houston Street café where he waited on tables, the patrons anglicized his name from Andor to Andrew and had him repeat their orders so they could listen to his Hungarian accent. He responded to their friendly bantering with a shrug of his shoulders and a shy smile. New York was a good place for a 24-year-old man in the summer of 1960. The café was filled with pretty girls who flirted when he served them coffee, but he was too self-conscious about his broken English and unfashionable clothes to return their attention. Back in the one-room apartment he rented in an aging building off Washington Square, he brooded about his foreignness, lack of confidence and the crippling depression that would descend on him without warning.

I’d noticed Andrew several times since moving in across the hall at the beginning of the school year, but we’d never spoken. Then one rainy afternoon, I was practicing Chopin’s “Polonaise” on my piano and looked up to see him in the open doorway, silhouetted in a wash of yellow light from the hallway. He was standing very still, head tilted to one side, eyes closed. For a moment, I thought he’d come to complain about the noise, but then I sensed the power of his concentration. When he realized I had stopped playing and was watching him, he straightened, nodded and backed away.

I didn’t see him again for several weeks. My music classes, practice for my fall recital and my job at a Greenwich Village bookstore kept me busy, and I didn’t have much time for a social life. I’d come to Manhattan from Rochester on a music scholarship, but the talent that blazed so brightly in upstate New York soon paled in the stiff competition of the big city. At the age of 21, I was struggling to accept that I’d always be a good, rather than a great, musician. Three days before my recital, Andrew knocked on my door and handed me a long-stemmed red rose.

“To thank you for your very wonderful music,” he said, in a halting, formal voice. My cheeks flamed.

He smiled, and his face softened from world-weary man to pleased boy. “I have not heard Chopin for many years.”

I looked at him. He had thick black hair that curled low on his forehead, gray eyes, about five ten with broad shoulders and strong arms. He wore rumpled blue pants, a baggy fisherman’s sweater and scuffed leather shoes.

“I’m Emily Feldman.” I held out my hand. He hesitated and then took it.

“Andrew Weiss.”

When I invited him in, he backed off with a muttered excuse, but several days later, I caught him listening at my door and drew him inside with promises of more music and hot coffee. As I came to know him, he puzzled me. His moods rose and fell like the tide. He spent a great deal of time alone, yet it was obvious that he craved company, so we fell into the habit of meeting in my apartment, beside the piano. Always, it was the same. He’d sit on my sagging sofa, lean back, close his eyes and then drift to another time and place. It was many months before I learned where he went on those journeys.

Andor Weiss was born in Budapest in 1935. His father was a prominent physician, his mother, Esther, a renowned beauty who had died in childbirth. To Dr. Weiss, Andor was the constant reminder of a loss he couldn’t accept. As he grew, Andor chafed at his father’s resentment and endured the ministrations of his stepmother, Marta, a stern woman, devoid of humor or warmth. Marta never accepted that she’d been brought into the elegant Weiss home to tend to Andor and provide a respectable outlet for Dr. Weiss’s sexual needs. She chose instead to believe that she would have been loved, if only Andor hadn’t stood between herself and her husband.

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

In Rochester, I was acutely aware of being Jewish. My parents had immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1932, and I was embarrassed by their accents and their old-fashioned ideas. There were only a few Jewish children in our school, and we all belonged to the same small synagogue, where we celebrated Sabbaths and holidays. But it was Christmas that I coveted, resenting my parents for not having a tree and jumping with joy when my Protestant friend Laurel invited me to help decorate hers.

I loved spending time at Laurel’s house. The Crawfords ate thinly sliced roast beef, pink and moist in the center, soft white bread and fluffy mashed potatoes. My family liked rye bread, cabbage soup and garlicky sausage. And clothes. Laurel dressed in pleated wool skirts and matching sweater sets, while I wore homemade dresses and hand-knit sweaters. Once I was in New York, I was determined to be like Laurel. I tried new foods and spent hours in Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s searching out skirts and sweaters on sale. I hung out with other music students and refused to join Hillel, the Jewish student organization, because it reminded me of the youth group back home. When Andrew discovered that I was Jewish, he bought me a blue enameled mezuzah, a metal tube containing a scroll with the biblical commandment to “write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house.”

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“Because every Jewish home must have one on its doorpost,” he answered in response to my protests. I tried to explain that I didn’t want to announce my religion, and he became angry. “Be grateful you can be who you are,” he almost shouted as he hammered the mezuzah into place.

I stared at him, surprised at his vehemence. “You are lucky, you were born here,” he said in a softer voice. Lifting my hand, he kissed my fingertips, then guided them to the mezuzah; brought my hand back to his lips and kissed it again. “Now your home is kosher.”

In 1940, Hungary joined the axis powers. Dr. Weiss was drafted into the army, leaving four-year-old Andor with Marta. Dr. Weiss was discharged after two years, then six months later, re-drafted, only this time he was sent to a labor camp. After he left, Andor’s life fell into a cheerless routine marked by Marta’s dutiful care. His only joy came each summer when his stepmother took him on a 60-mile train ride east to visit his mother’s family in Szolnok. In June 1943, Marta told Andor that she wasn’t taking him to Szolnok that year and, for the first time in his life, he rebelled. Throwing himself on the floor of his room, he kicked his heels and sobbed, refusing to eat until Marta threw up her hands and shouted that it was worth the discomfort of the trip to be rid of him for two months.

During the two-hour train ride, Andor sat on the hard seat, staring through soot-encrusted windows at the passing countryside and dreaming of the wonderful days ahead. When the train reached Szolnok, he bolted onto the platform and ran into his grandmother’s arms, laughing and chattering with excitement while she covered his face with kisses.

“Let me look at you,” she cried, tears streaming down her wrinkled cheeks. “Such a big boy. But too thin.” She fixed Marta with an accusing gaze. “You don’t feed him.”

“I feed him, when he does me the favor of eating.” Marta handed a battered leather valise to his grandmother, tucked a strand of faded brown hair into the bun at the nape of her neck, and sat on a bench to wait for the train back to Budapest.

Andor’s grandparents lived in a rambling house with his aunt, uncle and four cousins—an emotional brood who shouted when they spoke, laughed often and stuffed him with delicacies like goose liver and apple strudel. Watching his grandmother light the Sabbath candles, her face wreathed in candlelight, sitting beside his grandfather in the synagogue or playing with his cousins in his grandparents’ flower-filled garden, he felt loved and protected. When Marta reappeared in August, he had to be dragged from his grandmother’s arms.

“Why can’t I stay with Bubbe?” he pleaded, as the train rumbled between golden fields of ripened wheat.

“Because your father wants you to go to school in Budapest.” Marta folded her hands in her lap. Andor gazed out the window, resigning himself to another barren year.

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

Andrew and I had become friends these past months, although I was still uncomfortable with his moodiness and awkward mannerisms. He was saving every penny to complete his studies, which had been interrupted in 1956 by the Hungarian Revolution, so we’d meet for walks or he’d drop by my room to see the news on my television. He wanted to be a teacher, he said, to work with young people and help form their lives. So I was stunned when, on the day of my winter recital, he brought me a dozen long-stemmed red roses that must have cost him many meals.
“Why do you bring me roses?” I asked as we walked through Central Park on a gray Sunday afternoon in December. A light dusting of snow frosted the ground, and bare tree branches formed a skeletal canopy over our heads.

“Because music and flowers belong together like one soul.” Andrew stuffed his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the wind.

His hair was powdery with snow, and the tips of his ears and nose glowed red from the cold.

I stopped and faced him. “You’re a romantic, Andrew Weiss. You must have learned it at an early age.” I placed a hand on his arm and, for a moment, I thought he was going to kiss me. I was surprised at the wave of disappointment that washed over me when he didn’t.

Esther Weiss kept fresh roses in a crystal vase on the grand piano in the parlor. After her death, her husband emptied the vase, enshrouded the silent instrument in a yellowing lace shawl and locked the door. One night in March 1944, Andor awoke to loud voices. Slipping from bed, he crept down the hall and crouched outside the parlor. Marta was sitting on the sofa with her sister Agnes, Agnes’s husband Tibor and Tibor’s sister Edith. Edith’s husband Karl sat facing them across a low mahogany table set with the Weiss family’s antique silver tea service. Tibor was speaking.

“You’re not to take the boy to Szolnok. Things are not good in the east. I hear the authorities are putting the Jews into ghettos. It is safer in Budapest.”

“Only until the Germans come.” Marta slammed her fist on the table. “Then we’ll all be in the ghetto.”

Agnes took Marta’s hand. “Marta, my dear. It won’t come to that. In the villages, the Jews live like they’re already in a ghetto. All the police have to do is put a fence around them. In Budapest, we’re Hungarians.” She waved at the sparkling crystal prisms dripping from a chandelier over the piano. “We are a distinguished family with Austrian roots. Tibor and Karl are Christian. Your husband is a doctor. You need not worry, Marta. We will be safe.”

“I don’t look Jewish.” Marta raised her small, pinched nose into the air. “But the boy. The dark hair and skin. And with a boy how can you hide….?” She lowered her eyes and blushed. “The circumcision,” she whispered. “It will give us all away.”

Tibor walked around the table and stood over her. “Marta, stop worrying. Regent Horthy will honor the Axis alliance and keep the Germans out of Hungary. The brown shirts will do their mischief in the villages, and someday this war will end and we will all get on with our lives.”

They continued talking while Andor tiptoed back to his room, crept into bed and pulled the soft eiderdown quilt over his head. Lying on his back, he cupped his hand around his penis, feeling the smooth place where the foreskin had been cut away when he was a tiny baby. At school last week, a group of boys had tormented him, pulling down his pants and calling him a dirty Jew. And now his stepmother said his circumcision would give them all away. Andor wasn’t sure what she meant, but he could tell it was something bad. Curling into a ball, he clamped his hands over the terrible thing between his legs and cried himself to sleep.

Marta had been especially irritable while walking him to school the next morning. The streets were crowded; big trucks filled with soldiers rattled over the cobblestones; people scurried in and out of buildings. In class, his teacher looked frightened and her hand shook as she wrote the date on the blackboard: March 14, 1944. When the final bell rang at three o’clock, she almost pushed the students out the door. Andor waited on the front steps, as he always did, but his stepmother didn’t come, so after an hour he tucked his school books under his arm and walked home alone.

When he reached the apartment, the door was open; the rooms strangely silent. Andor walked down the hall and into the kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink. That was unusual because Marta was an immaculate housekeeper. He called her name, but no one answered. She must be out looking for me, he thought, his heart pounding as he walked towards his stepmother’s bedroom. The doors to her bureau were open and clothes were strewn all over the floor. Andor peered into the wardrobe. Her dresses, shoes and fur coat were gone. So was the leather valise. Andor crossed the hall to his room. The bed hadn’t been made, so he slipped under the quilt and curled up very tight.

“Be grateful you can be who you are,” he almost shouted as he hammered the mezuzah into place.

He awoke to cold darkness and a hollow ache in his stomach. In the kitchen, he found half a loaf of bread hardening on the counter. He stood on a chair to reach it, tore it into pieces and ate the whole thing, then slid down to the floor and sat, his arms wrapped around his legs, chin resting on his knees, staring at the hallway, waiting for someone to come and find him.

By morning, it was obvious that Marta wasn’t coming back. He looked up from where he’d fallen asleep on the floor and saw Mrs. Levy, the Weiss’s neighbor, staring at him from the open doorway. She wore a brown wool dress that made her round body look like a water barrel, and her black hair billowed around her face like a puff of smoke.

“Oy, she left you!” she cried pulling him to his feet and clamping him to her chest. “That brother-in-law, the goy, Karl, he came and she left with him, to escape the Germans.” Andor’s face was pressed into her bosom and he couldn’t breathe. He wriggled out of her grasp.

“Why didn’t she wait for me and take me with her? Is it because of my thing?” he sobbed, pointing to his pants.

Mrs. Levy wrapped him in her arms and led him to her apartment, calling down curses on Marta’s head, while assuring him that his father’s parents would soon come for him. The following morning, German troops stormed the building.

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

During the second semester, andrew increased his hours at the café, and I spent more time preparing for my spring recital, but we still met for coffee once or twice a week. Beth and Carla, my closest friends, called him my sexy Hungarian boyfriend, but the more they questioned our relationship, the more defensive I became.

In March, Andrew took me to see the movie West Side Story for my birthday. Afterward, we came back to my room. I made omelets, we sipped the wine he’d brought and watched the Ed Sullivan Show. Bob Hope was on, and when he told a story about entertaining troops in France during the war, I commented that it must have been very exciting and I wished I’d been there. Andrew’s reaction stunned me.

“How can you be so stupid!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “You think, maybe, the war, it was a picnic? Like this?” He pointed contemptuously at the food spread out on the coffee table.

I lashed back. “People here suffered too. We had rationing. Sometimes we couldn’t get butter or meat,” I said, parroting a comment I’d heard from my parents and their friends. “And my mother had to use makeup on her legs because she couldn’t get stockings.”

“Stockings!” Andrew’s face twisted into an expression of contempt. “You’re like all the rest. You think the war was a John Wayne movie. You ask about Hungary but don’t want to know what really happened and even when you hear the truth, you never understand,” he shouted. Then he turned abruptly and stalked out of the room.

Andor hugged his arms to his chest. It was freezing in the attic. His clothes were the lightweight shirt and pants he’d been wearing that morning, when Mrs. Levy pushed him through the trapdoor in her bedroom ceiling and slammed it shut with a warning to be very quiet and stay hidden, no matter what he heard downstairs. He’d lain on the floor, his ear pinned to a crack in the boards listening to angry voices, shouts, then gunshots and screams. When Mrs. Levy cried out, he crawled toward the opening, wanting to climb down and help her.

Then, recalling her instructions, he backed up, holding his breath lest the sound of his breathing give him away. The sticky threads of a cobweb brushed his face and he gasped, clamping his hand over his mouth to muffle the sound. After a while, it became quiet, but he stayed where he was. To keep up his spirits, he played memory games: recalling the stories his bubbe had told him and writing silent letters to his father, begging him to come home and find him. Hours passed and he fell asleep, waking in terror as something soft and furry scampered over his arm. After that he sat upright, sleepless, peering into the musty darkness, forcing himself not to cry.

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

I didn’t see Andrew for two weeks after our fight. I was furious at him for ruining my birthday and he, in turn, avoided me. Then one evening, I came home to find him in the hallway, slouched against the wall opposite my door.

“Hi.” I gave him a hesitant smile as my resentment evaporated. “The news is almost on.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and studied his shoes. “I’m practicing a new piece. I need someone to listen and tell me how it sounds.” I smiled again, and this time he responded. He followed me inside and sat in his usual corner of the couch while I made coffee. After a few awkward moments, we chatted lightly, as if nothing had happened, but I was careful not to mention the war.

Did someone in your family play the piano?” I was practicing the “Polonaise” in preparation for the spring concert, and my hands ached with the effort. The window was open and the soft May breeze, rich with the spicy aroma of new grass and budding trees, mixed with the city smells of gasoline and garbage. Andrew leaned over my shoulder and gently massaged my fingers. I blushed and pulled my hand away. Andrew gave me a puzzled look, and then he started playing a snippet of the Chopin.

I stared at him in surprise. “I didn’t know you could play.”

He slid beside me on the bench and picked out a few more notes. “My mother played,” he informed me in a gruff voice.

“Did she teach you?”

“She died when I was born.” He looked so sad I ached to hold him.

“Then who played for you, Andrew?”

“A friend.”

“A girlfriend?” I teased.

“No,” he whispered, staring at his hands. “A woman. A good, kind woman.”

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

He stayed in the attic two days until hunger forced him from his hiding place. He waited until night, and then crept through the dark narrow space that housed the pipes that connected the apartments until he found a second trap door leading to his father’s apartment. Marta kept extra food in a pantry beside the kitchen. Rummaging through the shelves, he found salami, crackers and a jar of pickles. He cut off a hunk of the salami and ate it with the crackers. Then, still hungry, he pried open the pickle jar and jumped in terror when it slipped from his hands and crashed to the floor. There were footsteps, the doorknob rattled, then a wedge of light cracked the darkness and he was staring at a woman wrapped in a pink chenille bathrobe. She was about Marta’s age, short and plump with light blue eyes and a hunk of pale blonde hair twisted into a coil on top of her head.

Mein Gott!” The woman’s hands flew to her heart. Andor shrank into the shadows, but she grasped his arm and drew him into the light. Kneeling down, she studied his face. Her eyes were kind and she smelled like flowers. Andor started crying.

Sheet music for short story by Rona Arato

“Shh, I won’t hurt you,” she said in German-accented Hungarian. The compassion in her voice calmed him. “Where have you been hiding?”

Andor pointed to the ceiling. The woman looked up and nodded, then glared at the broken pickle jar. “We must clean this and get you food.” She wiped his tears with a lace handkerchief. “I did not want to live here,” she insisted, as she swept the broken glass into a dustpan. “But the Jews are gone and we were assigned this apartment.” Her voice quavered. “Now you must go back to the attic before my Hans comes home. We will work out a signal between us so you will know when it is safe to come down.”

Her name was Ilsa, and her husband was a German officer. She hid Andor in the attic where he waited until the notes of Chopin’s “Polonaise” signaled him to descend. She warned him that Jews were being rounded up and made him understand that the merest creak of a floorboard could spell his doom. She gave him an old sweater and some blankets and he spent hours wrapped in them, lying absolutely still until his bladder felt like it would explode and his legs went numb. When Ilsa signaled, he’d crawl to the trap door on his hands and knees, and then drop down into the apartment, where she fed him, combed his hair and told him how brave he was.

Then Andor would follow her to the living room and sit beside her at the grand piano. The lace cover was folded back, and his mother’s vase was filled with roses. Ilsa taught him scales and a few simple pieces, and Andor almost believed that life was normal, until the sound of booted feet sent him scurrying back to the attic.

In june, I left for Rochester. i didn’t want to go, but my parents insisted I come home for the summer. Andrew encouraged me, saying that family was the most important thing in life. I’d pieced most of his story together by then, carefully pulling it from him, one fact at a time. His father died in a slave labor camp in Russia, his Weiss grandparents in the Budapest ghetto and the entire Szolnok clan in Auschwitz. Only Marta returned, claiming the apartment and, reluctantly, the stepson she’d abandoned to the Nazis. When the Communists took over Hungary in 1948, the apartment was appropriated by a party official. Marta placed Andor in a high school dormitory and moved in with her sister. I asked about Ilsa and was startled to see his eyes fill with tears. Hans found out that she was hiding him and turned them both over to the Gestapo.

“What happened?” I asked, fear tightening my voice. I watched him and waited for an answer. When he finally spoke, his eyes remained moist but his voice was firm.

“I was sent to the ghetto and never saw Ilsa again.” He cupped my face in his hands and kissed me gently on the forehead. “Go home, Emily. Go to your family and enjoy them.”

Music note divider for short story by Rona Arato

That summer was the first time in my life I questioned my parents about their lives in Europe. They’d grown up in Krakow and immigrated to the United States a year after they were married, leaving both their families behind. When I asked about their relatives, I was met with silence. I asked again and my father took me aside and, in a quavering voice, told me that the entire family had been murdered by the Nazis. “It is only luck that we weren’t with them,” he said, his eyes glistening as he drew me close. A shiver snaked up my spine. I was born in 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland.

“In the villages, the Jews live like they’re already in a ghetto. All the police have to do is put a fence around them. In Budapest, We are Hungarians.”

I spent the long train ride back to Manhattan thinking about my parents and the burden they’d carried all these years. And I thought of Andrew and his terrible, hidden past. I closed my eyes and pictured him sitting next to me on the piano bench, felt my heart pounding as he massaged my fingers and guided my hands over the keys. And suddenly I knew. I loved him and I wanted to be with him. But when I knocked on his door, a young female student answered. Andrew had left and she was subletting the room. No, she didn’t know where he’d gone, only that he’d left in a great hurry.

Andrew and I had exchanged a few postcards over the summer, but he’d never mentioned leaving New York. I was furious that he’d disappeared without a word. What did I expect? I scolded myself. He was inconsiderate and self-centered. By the end of the school year, when my parents came for my final recital, I’d almost convinced myself that Andrew wasn’t worth my heartache.

I’d bought a new dress for the recital, white taffeta with a long skirt that swished around my ankles and a crimson sash that fastened at my waist with a red velvet rose. Music has always been my passion and I immersed myself in it that night. I’d never played better and as I stood to take my bow, I realized the audience knew it too. I searched for my parents but instead, my gaze was drawn to an elderly woman with a thin, wrinkled face and silver hair wound in a coil on top of her head. The dark-haired man sitting beside her smiled awkwardly, and I was engulfed by a wave of dizziness so strong that I had to lean against the piano for support.

There were three performances after mine but I didn’t hear a note. When the house lights finally came on, I pushed through the crowd to where the man and woman were standing. “Andrew.” Forgetting my anger, I threw my arms around him, almost knocking him off balance as he awkwardly returned my embrace. Then I turned to the woman. “Ilsa?”

Ja,” she nodded.

I gave Andrew a questioning look.

“I have been trying to find her since I left Hungary,” he explained, in an apologetic voice. “I had almost given up, and then in August, the Red Cross notified me that she was in a hospital in Hamburg.”

“And you went to Germany to get her. Why didn’t you write?” People stared at me and I lowered my voice. “How could you just disappear like that? Without a word.” I blinked back tears.

“I thought you would not understand.”

“Understand what, Andrew? That you wanted to help the woman who saved your life? Did you think I wouldn’t appreciate what she means to you?”

“No. That helping her had to come first. Before my studies,” he paused, “and, at that time, even before you.”

“And now? What about now, Andrew?”

He took my hand and suddenly I was crying and he was holding me. My head was against his chest, and I felt his heartbeat through the fabric of his shirt.

“I’m sorry, Emily,” he whispered. “You can forgive me?”

“I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t even speak to you.”

“Please, do not be angry with me. I promise I will not disappear again.”

He sounded so contrite, I started laughing.

“In that case, I forgive you.” I glanced over his shoulder. My parents had followed me and were standing in the aisle, watching us while they talked to Ilsa. I was surprised to hear my mother speaking German, amused by the hand gestures she used in place of the words she didn’t know. My father stood beside her, interjecting a phrase here and there, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. Suddenly, I was filled with pride. I looked from my parents to Andrew and a rush of warmth flooded over me.

“Andrew, come and meet my family,” I said, taking his hand.

“I would like that. And then, Emily,” he said, with a fond look at Ilsa, “I will introduce you to mine.”

Rona Arato is an award-winning author of more than 20 children’s books including The Last Train, a Holocaust Story. Her latest book, Anti-Semitism and the MS St. Louis, deals with Canada’s apology for turning away Jewish refugees in July 1939. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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