An Encounter with a Polish Holocaust Survivor

    April 2012          
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Her Name Was Klara Jasinski

By Leah Cohen

Mrs. Klara Jasinski lived in apartment number one at the building where I grew up, and we lived above her, in apartment number six. She spoke only Polish, walked with an air of regality, and it seemed to my six-year-old mind that her tight blond bun atop her head was her crown. In the first years after the Jasinski family moved into our small building, I frequently spotted Mrs. Jasinski leaving or entering her apartment. She would always give me a very respectful yet short nod of acknowledgement.

The interior of Mrs. Jasinski's was a perfect reflection of her majestic image. An old mahogany grandfather clock guarded the entrance. Lush golden carpets covered the floors, and antique furniture radiated the sweet smell of yesteryear. Crystals and ornaments filled the corners of the rooms, and romantic colorful paintings lined the walls. This was her palace.

When I walked in for the first time I automatically felt an aura of holiness around me. I went in carefully and respectfully, lowering my voice and speaking softly. In the spacious living room, beneath an elaborate crystal chandelier stood an immaculate ebony grand piano. The piano was the focal point of the whole house. Everything else, all the crystal ornaments and lavish carpets, all the antique furniture was there for the sake of the piano, to complement its grandeur. Before we approached the piano, Mrs. Jasinski requested that I wash my hands. Thus began my first piano lesson with my neighbor, Klara Jasinski.

We both sat down on the piano's black bench. I was six years old. Without speaking, Mrs. Jasinski took both my hands and began massaging my fingers. The delicate hands of Mrs. Jasinski were as white as snow, her long slender fingers translucent, and her nails polished to perfection -- redder each time I recall the memory.

As a young adult, Mrs. Jasinski the head pianist of the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony and the owner of a famous conservatory in Poland. Across her living room, there stood at least a dozen framed photographs of her playing in concert halls in Vienna, Paris and Moscow. She once showed me an album of her fan mail and of Polish newspaper clippings describing her European performances. Her eyes sparkled as she thumbed slowly through the albums, and sometimes, without her realizing, her fingers caressed her favorite memorabilia with nostalgia.

We started our lesson. Mrs. Jasinski tapped on the keyboard slowly and gracefully, finger after finger, right then left, key after key, in perfect sequence. And I tried my best to do the same and imitate her movements exactly the way she did. Note followed note, and each sound echoed loudly in the room before it faded away.

As she played, the sleeves of her silky blouse rode upward. On her arm, I noticed a blue six-digit number stamped on her otherwise flawless skin. The image shocked me. The tattoo ruptured the perfection of her white delicate skin in an appalling contrast. At that moment, I wished that I could speak Polish and let loose the flood of panicked questions that instantly bothered my young mind.

My piano lessons only lasted a few weeks. I could not understand her Polish and she could not understand my tactile imprecision.

A few years passed, and I began to see Mrs. Jasinski less and less. Janek her husband, a large but gentle man, left the apartment early every morning and came back from work each evening, kindly offering me his wife's signature head nod, but rarely exchanging words with anyone. Their only son, Stephen, was several years older than me. He never joined us neighborhood children playing outside in the street, and when he passed by someone from the building, he quickly turned his head away to avoid acknowledgment.

Mrs. Jasinski's only sign of life was her piano playing. She would play for hours every day. Her music escaped through the walls of her apartment, floating down the building's staircase and in and out of its hallways. On summer nights, when everyone's windows were wide open, the mesmerizing music filled each individual apartment. Every child in the building doubtlessly remembers the sweetness of falling asleep to Mrs. Jasinski's melodious lullabies.

Another year or two passed by, and Mrs. Jasinski began to show herself once more. She was no longer an elegant image of refinement and grace. Her hair was loose, her robe was tattered, and her eyes were wide and fear-stricken. She frantically paced the hallways of our building, terrified and aimless. I couldn't understand what had happened.

More time passed and her condition worsened. I remember a few times when she left her apartment dressed only in her nightgown, her wrinkled skin exposed. Walking up and down the street in front of our building, she mumbled incoherently in Polish trying to communicate with passers-by, begging for attention. Strangers swerved to the sides trying to avoid making eye contact with the distressed woman. Sometimes, she would bitterly cry in Polish: "Janek, Janek, where are you? They are coming, they are coming to get me!"

Her sobbing screams made me shiver. Hiding behind the blinds of our apartment window, I used to peek outside at her. I wondered why Janek wasn't coming to help her.

Her panic attacks became increasingly frequent, so her husband was forced to lock her inside their apartment when he left for work. Her bitter cries and pleas went unanswered and escalated. She knocked hard on the doors, on the walls, begging to get out, to escape from the enemies chasing her for the second time in her life. She didn't know where to hide.

Eventually, Stephen, Klara's son, joined the Army and left home. Janek would come home late each evening. She was locked alone in her apartment for days, weeks, and months at a time.

On rare occasions, when Mrs. Jasinski was at peace for a few hours, the familiar sweet sound of her piano could be heard. Mrs. Jasinski briefly the accomplished pianist from Warsaw again. But as her inner calm began to tremble, her strong rousing melodies gave way to melancholic notes, slowly spreading around – an autobiographical composition in real-time, until the music faded away completely.

A year later, Mrs. Jasinski died. Her husband sold their apartment and moved to another city. Their home was stripped of its beauty piece by piece. The piano sat outside, lopsided, waiting to be picked up. A young family moved in and the cheerful voices of little children could be heard from Mrs. Jasinski's apartment.


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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