Saving Mozart

In memory of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 76 years ago:

Music keeps me going. It’s the only thing I have left.

In a way, Otto Steiner’s act of resistance against the Third Reich was every bit as effective as those performed by the resistance groups throughout Europe. We learn about it in Raphael Jersusalmy’s novel, Saving Mozart, written in the form of Steiner’s diary. It is only in its last few pages that we find out what Steiner did.

Otto Steiner, a former music critic, is now a tubercular patient in a Viennese sanatorium. He has been there for years, first in a private room, then when his funds were depleted in one with a group of near-dead. One by one, they disappear, the place reeks of illness, bad-tempered nurses, and horrible smells.

I went down to the dayroom to have a cup of tea. I don’t go there often. I don’t like seeing the others, the sick. They’re all decrepit. And unshaven. I avoid talking to them. What would we talk about anyway.

Steiner is abandoned by everyone, an outcast, who knows he can’t count on anyone other than himself. Music is his only salvation, as it always was. The Second World War is about to begin, the Nazis have invaded Poland, then Belgium, captured Paris and are battling the Russians on the eastern front.

Parades, public holidays, military balls, walks in the forest. All these things are forbidden me now.

But they have not lost their love of music and begin to exploit the great German composers for their own propaganda ends. They have taken over the annual summer Mozart Festival (Festspiele). Otto is asked by Hans, a friend and former editor, to help write the program notes for the forthcoming occasion.

Even though he is extremely ill, Otto agrees, they go back and forth on the plans and Otto finds himself appalled to learn the program will end with Mozart’s 21st piano Concerto immediately preceded by a rousing Teutonic piece.

Otto asks Hans to precede the piece with a softer interlude. Otto composes the piece, it is performed beautifully, the Nazis are aroused, tapping their feet, all of which Otto finds terribly amusing.

For, in fact, the piece he composed is a variation of an old Jewish folk song. Otto knows his subtle, defiant act of rebellion might cost him his life, but he has made his statement, fooled the Nazis, and doesn’t have much to lose anyway.