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By Barbara F. Lefcowitz
I rescued the record just in time. A moment later it would have been drenched by a sudden rainstorm despite its stout cardboard box. The label with my name and address was clear, down to the 9 digit zipcode, but the return address was blurred. I could barely make out the name Daniel Tenenbaum. The postmark indicated it had been shipped to me from Tel Aviv; below it someone had stamped the words fragile and record in both English and Hebrew. I had never ordered any such thing. What to do?
My Uncle Sol, an orthodox Jew who wore a black armband with a little black box attached, said it was a miracle. And I must keep it in a safe place. God, in the disguise of eBay, had sent the record to me on purpose from the Holy Land, in order to honor me as a Jew. The details would unfold soon enough. "Believe me, I have many connections with Israel. And I know from miracles."
As a secular Jew and a card-carrying skeptic, I believe miracles are merely wishful thinking, sometimes alluring but no different from any other myths. At best my last minute rescue of the record was a matter of luck. But I thanked Sol anyway.
When I turned for advice to my friend Susan, a collage artist like myself, she laughed and said probably eBay had mixed me up with someone else. "They delivered that Jewish record to you from its Israeli branch and the Pubica Sisters compilation that you ordered was sent to some religious freak in South Dakota. Try to get your money back. Lots of luck. I myself would just throw the thing away. Forget your uncle's nonsense."
Still I felt uneasy. My neighbor, a psychologist-in- training with the National Institute of Mental Health said because of subconscious infantile wishes for a miracle that would change my humdrum life, I imagined something ordinary, like a box of inkjet cartridges, had some hidden meaning. Sheer fantasy. Get real. The record never existed. And if it did by some miracle, get rid of it.
He was wrong. The box clearly indicated it contained a record. But I simply could not get rid of it. Nor could I even open it to learn what music that fragile record contained in its shellac grooves, lest Uncle Sol spoke even a sliver of truth. Despite Susan's comment about a mistake on the part of eBay, I still felt there might be some hidden purpose, a puzzle I'd been chosen to solve for God knows what reason.
So I clicked into YouTube, entered Jewish Music in the search box. So many videos came up I almost abandoned the search, but then refined it to Old Jewish Music Records Fragile.
After a while I lucked into a channel whose many old songs had been uploaded by someone whose user name was Pierogi 2. He lived in Krakow, according to the brief bio note, and was a professional pianist. Several of his uploads dated from the 1930's and featured a Holocaust survivor named Adam Aston. I learned all that, as well as other facts about Aston's life, from Pierogi 2's notes. Originally trained to be a cantor, before and after the War, Aston became one of Europe's most popular singers. He used a number of names, including Adolf Lewinsohn, A. Winski, and D. Birenbaum.
Apparently a number of Aston's recordings were missing. Among them a rare Syrena recording of a Polish-Jewish Tango for Violin he had sung just prior to the Nazi invasion. There was a rumor, Pierogi 2 added, that the record in question survived somewhere in Israel!
What did it all mean? Why did the record escape from Poland to Israel, how and when? And why was I chosen to be its designated owner in faraway Washington, D.C?
I sent an email to Pierogi 2, asking his advice. He responded quickly:
Dear Andrea, Thanks for the interest. For your first questions I advise you open box to make sure it's genuine Syrena recording. They were Russian company who make Jewish records in Poland before war. Of Aston and others. Play it if you have gramophone. If true, please send record to me. I send you address. It could be rare gem I will pay you. Most sincerely yours, Pierogi 2. My real name Pavel.
I had no gramophone, not even an ordinary record playeronly CDs, an iPod and a few cassettes. And I had a new reason to fear opening the box. What if I accidentally broke this rare gem?
The psychologist neighbor's mother, a Holocaust survivor named Mrs. Koffsky, brushed off her son's comments ("you should hear what he says about me") and said a family had probably smuggled it out on the last refugee ship to leave Odessa for then Palestine. She, too, advised opening the box. Very carefully. Most likely someone from Israel intended it go to the US Holocaust Museum. Was the postal system of the Nation's Capital inefficient as that? She gave me this how-can-you-be-so-naïve look. "It took two weeks for me to get a letter mailed from New York."
Did the Museum receive my Pubica Sisters CD? What a hoot!
The record was brown, the words SYRENA and ELECTRO arranged in an arch, above a mask-like logo and some Hebrew and Polish words. By lifting it more closely to study the label, I could see small English words, a few letters no longer intact but clear enough: POLISH TANGO FOR VIOLIN: ADAM ASTON. So it was indeed the rare Syrena recording Pierogi 2 had mentioned. For a few seconds I thought of Uncle Sol's comment about a miracleuntil I noticed that in the process of lifting it, the 10" record had broken apart.
How could I send it to him now that it was just a heap of fragments? In vain, I tried to push the fragments togethermaybe I could glue them? But in the process I discovered a small piece of tightly folded paper in a corner of the box. Luckily it didn't tear when I unfolded it.
By MAX GORETSKY, Haifa, Israel. 5750, 1990.
The English words were written in slightly smeared blue ink, but the handwriting, clearly European, had an elegant flow:
Once I was a sculptor but now am old man. It is miracle I am alive at all. But time is not at my side.
I bought this record in Warsaw before the war. Aston was my hero, sometimes his name was Lewinsohn or Birenbaum but he change to Aston after he escape ghetto. My dear Zofia and I hear him sing Polish Tango for Violin at ghetto cabaret the night before she disappear. I never see her again.
After Jewish uprising in 1943 the ghetto was burned to the ground. But I was lucky to be living in a flat in Praga section across the river that the Russians control. Until that too became dangerous and someone help me hide in one place after another, sometimes in sewer, sometimes in broom closets.
I had to leave everything behind. My family, my friends, my books, my precious Syrena records, my art. Then war ended. I go back to my old flat but nothing except the walls I recognize. All furniture cheap and ugly. A Polish woman name Danuta was living there with husband.
Danuta reaches into cupboard and bring out a box. Inside was a few books, photos of my family, all dead, mother, father, sisters, everyone. All during war this good woman took care of these things. Like she knew I would come back some day. A miracle, she say. She cook good meals for me and clear a space so I could stay, promise to move out soon as she and husband find a place. Everything was good for a while. But then Russians came back and took over my flat. Second time I lose it. The end of Poland for me . I slip record of Aston singing Polish Tango for Violin in my sack and a few books, photo of Zofia. And left for Palestine.
I suffered much to get there in 1946. Trains to Genoa, shaky boats at night to hide from the British, Cyprus, prison, at last Haifa, again to hide. But all time I have precious record for companion, whose wax holds the spirit of my beloved, my dear Zofia and me dancing tango in cabaret night she disappear. Always I looked to make sure it was whole. Waiting for me to play on gramophone in Palestine. I knew I never see Zofia again even if by miracle she lives. But Aston singing Polish Tango for Violin would never disappear, long as I live.
Finally I married Israeli woman who died. We had two children, Ilan and Ayelet, both serve in Israeli air force. But when I die they will probably throw away the record with rest of my collection. I hope they're smart enough to bring it to a good dealer, like Daniel Tenenbaum in Tel Aviv who sells ghetto music all over world. Probably no one will read this, though on purpose I write in my bad English to increase the chance, fold very small under jacket of Aston record.
I carefully pressed the unfolded paper under a heavy book so it would not fall apart like the record. Surely the United States Holocaust Museum would be interested in what Max Goretsky wrote? Sorry. We have too many statements like that already. How do you know it's authentic? A very minor document. If you want you can make a note of it in our visitor's book. Excuse me, I have an important meeting with Elie Wiesel . . .
Of course, I had to tell Pierogi 2 what happened. His reply was kind on the surface but I could tell he was upset:
A pity. But many times old records break. Do not worry. Maybe the record did not want to go back to Poland (LOL) J))) I thank you for your effort. P.
Still I could not throw away what was left of the record. I tried to put the fragments together but they did not cohere. A jigsaw puzzle with several missing pieces. Had I accidentally lost a few when I removed them from the box? Nothing but dustballs and rusty clips on the floor, shreds of paper from old collage, a fork, pennies, a dried-out ballpoint pen, desiccated garlic clove.
Maybe the fragments could be part of a new collage. Title: Broken Tango. The gaps would represent the steps never caught on the shellac surface of the old disc, never covered with wax to preserve the grooves of music. But it was time to return to my project with a large rendering in gold paper of the Jerusalem temple I'd copied from a book. The record fragments I kept in my junk carton, bits of cloth and metal and wood potentially useful for other collages. Soon they slipped to the bottom of both the carton and my mind.
A few months later two odd things happened. I smiled as I thought about Uncle Sol's comment about miracles. But no, they were puzzling at best. First, I received an email from an Israeli named Ilan Goretsky:
Dear Madame Andrea, The US Holocaust Museum has told me you might have some writings by my late father, Max Goretsky, who escaped from Poland to Haifa after the War. He used to collect old recordings of Jewish songs. I would much appreciate it if you could send to the following address anything you might have. . .
Did he want me to send music or written words? Of course I could not send him that broken Syrena record nor did I want to tell him about its sad fate though it seemed likely he had originally sold it, along with others, to Daniel Tenenbaum of Tel Aviv, the man who had shipped the record to me for some odd reason. But I did send him a xeroxed copy of his father's journal, keeping the original for myself just in case the request was a hoax.
Shortly afterwards, I clicked for no particular reason into Pierogi 2's channel on YouTube. He had just uploaded a new song, Polish Tango for Violin, vocal by Adam Aston. A Syrena recording from 1939.
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For more articles on the Holocaust, see our Holocaust Archives
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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