The Bach Manuscript

Scott Mariani

The Bach Manuscript


Nazi-occupied France

July 16th, 1942

All four family members were at home when they came.

Monsieur and Madame Silbermann, or Abel and Vidette, were in the salon, relaxing in a pair of matching Louis XV armchairs after a modest but excellent lunch prepared by Eliane, the family housekeeper. Vidette was immersed in one of the romantic novels into which she liked to escape. Abel, meanwhile, was frowning at an article in the collaborationist newspaper Le Temps, in which he was reading of much more serious matters. Things in France were growing worse. Just a little over two years since the crushing might of the German Wehrmacht had rolled virtually unopposed into the country, each day seemed to bring a fresh round of new horrors.

Seated at the piano, framed by the bright, warm afternoon light that flooded in through the French windows, their seventeen-year-old daughter Miriam was working through the most difficult arpeggiated right-hand passage of the musical manuscript in front of her, pausing now and then to peer at the handwritten notes, some of which were hard to read on the faded paper.

Though she played the piano with a fine touch, Miriam’s particular talent lay with the violin, at which she excelled. The real pianist of the family was her little brother. At age twelve, Gabriel Silbermann’s ability on the keys was already outstripping that of his teachers, even that of his father. Abel had been a respected professor of music at the Paris Conservatoire for over twenty years until the venerable institution’s director, Henri Rabaud, had helped the Nazi regime to ‘cleanse’ it of all Jewish employees under the Premier Statut des Juifs law, which had come into effect the previous year, 1941.

Since losing his post, Abel Silbermann had managed to get by teaching privately. Things were not what they had been, but he had always convinced himself that the family money, dwindling as it was, would get them through these difficult times. Abel was also the proud owner of a fine collection of historically important musical instruments, some of which he’d inherited from his father, others that he had picked up over the years at specialist auctions in France, Switzerland, and Germany — all before the war, of course. It had nearly broken Abel’s heart when, six months earlier, he’d been forced to sell the 1698 Stradivarius cello, one of the most prized items from his collection, to help make ends meet. He often worried that he might have to sell others.

But Abel Silbermann had far worse things to fear. He didn’t know it yet, but they were literally just around the corner.

Merde, c’est dur,’ Miriam muttered to herself. Complaining how tough the music was to get her fingers around. Gabriel could rattle through the piece with ease. But then, Gabriel was Gabriel.

‘Miriam, language!’ her mother said sharply, jolted from her reading. Her father permitted himself a smile behind his newspaper.

Miriam asked, ‘Father, may I get a pencil and add some fingering notes? I promise I’d do it very lightly, so they could easily be rubbed out afterwards.’

Abel’s smile fell away. ‘Are you mad, girl? That’s an original manuscript, signed by the composer himself. Have you any idea what it’s worth?’

Miriam reddened, realising the foolishness of her idea. ‘Sorry, Father. I wasn’t thinking.’

‘It shouldn’t even be out of its box, let alone being defaced with pencil marks. Please tell your brother to put it back where he found it, in future. These things are precious. This one most of all.’

‘I’m sure Gabriel knows that, Father. He calls it our family treasure.’

‘Indeed it is,’ Abel said, softening. ‘Where is Gabriel, anyway?’

‘In his cubbyhole, I think.’

Things had been hard for Gabriel at school since the Nazis invaded. He hated having to wear the yellow star when he was out of the house. Some of the non-Jewish kids pushed him around and called him names. As a result, he had become a rather solitary child who, when he wasn’t practising his pieces and scales, liked to spend time alone doing his own things. His cubbyhole was the labyrinth of nooks and crawl-spaces that existed behind the panelled walls of the large house, connecting its many rooms in ways that only Gabriel knew. You could sometimes catch him spying from behind a partition through one of his various peepholes, and you’d call out, ‘Oh, Gabriel, stop that nonsense!’ and he’d appear moments later, as if by magic, and disarm everyone with his laughter. Other times he could stay hidden for hours and you’d have no idea where he was. Like a tunnel rat, his father used to say jokingly. Then they’d started hearing the terrible stories coming from Ukraine and Poland, from everywhere, of Jews hiding under floorboards and in sewers while their people were transported away for forced labour, or worse. Abel had stopped talking about tunnel rats.

‘I do wish he’d come out of there,’ Vidette Silbermann said. ‘He spends too much time hiding away like that.’

‘If he’s happy,’ Miriam said with a shrug, ‘what harm can it do? We all need a little bit of happiness in this terrible, cruel world.’

Vidette lowered her book and started going into one of her ‘In my day, children would never have been allowed to do this or that’ diatribes, which they’d all heard a thousand times before. Miriam’s standard response was to humour her mother by ignoring her. She moved away from the piano and picked her violin up from its stand nearby. Her bow flowed like water over the strings and the notes of the Bach piece sang out melodiously.

That was when they heard the growl of approaching vehicles coming up to the house. Brakes grinding, tyres crunching to a halt on the gravel outside, doors slamming. Voices and the trudge of heavy boots.

Miriam stopped playing and looked with wide eyes at her father, who threw down Le Temps and got to his feet just as the loud thumping knocks on the front door resonated all through the house. Vidette sat as though paralysed in her chair. Miriam was the first to voice what they all knew already. ‘Les Boches. They’re here.’

In that moment, whatever shreds of optimism Abel Silbermann had tried to hang onto, his prayers that this day would never come, that everything would be all right, were shattered.

From the window, the dusty column of vehicles seemed to fill the whole courtyard in front of the house. The open-top black Mercedes staff car was flanked by motorcycle outriders, behind them three more heavily armed Wehrmacht sidecar outfits, a pair of Kübelwagens and a transporter truck. Infantry soldiers were pouring from the sides of the truck, clutching rifles, as Abel hurried to the front door. He took a deep breath, then opened it.

You can still talk your way out of this.

The officer in charge stepped from the Mercedes. He was tall and thin, with a chiselled, severe face like a hawk’s. He wore an Iron Cross at his throat, another on his breast. The dreaded double lightning flash insignia was on his right lapel, the sinister Totenkopf death’s head skull badge above the peak of his cap. Just the sight of those was enough to instil terror.

‘Herr Silbermann? I am SS Obersturmbannführer Horst Krebs. You know why I’m here, don’t you?’

Abel tried to speak, but all that came out was a dry croak. When Krebs produced a document from his pocket, a high-pitched ringing began in Abel’s ears. The paper was a long list of many names. It was the nightmare come true. Some Jewish families had fled ahead of the rumoured purges. Abel, choosing to disbelieve that anything quite so abominable could happen in his dear France, had made what he was now realising with a chill was the worst mistake of his life by staying put.

‘You reside here with your wife, Vidette Silbermann, and your children, Gabriel and Miriam Silbermann, correct? I have here an order for your immediate deportation to the Drancy camp. Any resistance, my men are ordered to shoot without hesitation. Understood?’

Drancy was the transit camp six miles north of Paris that the Germans used as a temporary detention centre for Jews awaiting transportation to the death camps. Abel had heard those rumours, too, and refused to believe. Now it was too late. What good would escape have done them, anyway? All fugitives would be picked up long before they reached the Swiss border.

‘Take me. I care little for my own life. But please spare my family.’

‘Please. Do you think I haven’t heard that before?’ Krebs pushed past Abel and strode into the house. His soldiers clustered around the entrance. Abel found himself looking down the muzzles of several rifles. The hallway of his genteel family home was suddenly filling with troops, their boots crashing on the parquet, the smell of their coarse tunics mixed with leather polish and gun oil a harsh and alien presence. The Obersturmbannführer turned to his second-in-command and said sharply, ‘Captain Jundt, seize everyone whose name appears on the list and have them assembled here in the hall. Make it quick.’

The captain snapped his heels. ‘Jawohl, mein Obersturmbannführer!

Jundt relayed the command and soldiers surged into the salon to seize both Miriam and her mother, who was mute with horror and virtually fainting as they half carried, half dragge ...

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