CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter One


G.P., age 10

EKATERINOSLAV (now Dnepropetrovsk) had a mild climate, but the air in the steppe seldom stood still. The breeze bent and swayed the grass and rye, which grew high and wild and made the wide plains look like an ocean. I had never seen an ocean, but my father said that the steppe looked like one. It had great power over me. I liked to stand outside in front of the fence and listen to the wind and watch it change the face of the steppe. Inside our peasant-like house I was always in the mood to hear stories about it. Fascinated, I listened to the tales of roaming packs of wild dogs that devoured the cobbler's son Vanya, of tramps and deserters, of hidden springs and mysterious flowers whose scent put men to sleep, never to awaken again.

On the other side of the town flowed the Dnieper River. The stream, which rushed over all obstacles, hitting stones and tearing the banks away, did not frighten me. Nothing frightened me in the presence of Father. He was strong and it was good to do things with him. We plunged into thundering waters and struggled with rapids and we laughed at storms and lightning and we always returned home to the edge of the steppe smiling and happy.

Unlike my mother and my sisters, Nadja and Pauline. I dreaded the family walks into town on holidays. "These parks, boulevards, and monuments are here to remind us of the romantic founders of our city, the Empress Catherine and Potemkin," Father lectured, and spurred us to look at things. None of us acted natural. Even Mother appeared as if the whole world were watching her family parading, but she looked pretty as she walked, holding Father's hand. She was always pretty and calm and she enjoyed those walks. Perhaps Father enjoyed them too, but I knew he preferred our excursions to the river.

One day my older brother, Leonid, Father, and I wandered into the depths of the steppe. The summer day was bright. There were burned patches and wild flowers that looked like weeds. "There must be springs somewhere near," said Father. "We must listen to a bubbling sound deep under the earth." We thought that Father spotted something, and ran toward him. "Be calm," he siad. "There are tramps-four of them," We saw them swaggering toward us from afar. "It looks as if we will have to defend ourselves. Gather all the stones you can find. Fill your pockets; but pretend you are playing." Father spoke fast and low. "Aim well. You are good at that. Jump at their faces with the heels of your shoes. Then get up quickly, run to the side, and throw the rocks. Make a lot of noise the moment I give a signal, and don't be afraid."

The four ruffians approached. "Hands up!" They ignored Leonid and me, and Father let them go through his pockets. Standing with his hands up obediently, it struck me how gentle Father looked next to those rogues. He was not a giant at all, I realized.

The vagabonds collected Father's belongings as suddenly he shouted, "Kill, hit, fry them!" With this command everything went wild. Whether they were drunk or stunned by the fury of our surprise attack, the battle did not last very long. We followed Father's instructions to the letter, and he demonstrated his prowess as a pugilist. Bewildered and bleeding, the tramps limped away.

"Nothing is more degrading than that kind of contact with human flesh," Father said, collecting his scattered belongings. At home, Mother was horrified at our appearance, torn clothes, and Father's swollen face, but I thought he looked beautiful.

I don't know how poor we were, but we were not hungry. One of the few houses I knew besides ours was my grandfather's, on Mother's side. As in our house, there was no running water, and the toilet was in the yard. His name was Amchislavsky, and he was a carpenter. I loved to watch him work and to smell the wood in his workshop. But I disliked one relative, a barber, to whom we were all brought in a group for haircuts. We had to wait for hours until he was finished with his paying customers. Often he would show his resentment by pinching me with his clippers. He smelled of onions and demanded gratitude. I resented both, and while everyone else continued visiting him at regular internals, I refused to join them and made my mother cut my hair.

My grandparents on Father's side lived in the rich section of the town, far from the neighborhood where I was born. Their house was big and unfriendly. In spite of much bulky furniture and ugly paintings in huge frames on the walls, it seemed uninhabited, like a warehouse. There were old commodes, chests, and china closets, and many ancient objects of which one spoke with veneration. But the oldest thing in the house was Grandmother, who was preparing to celebrate her first century. Grandfather was her third or fourth husband. Stumpy and with a square beard, strict and stingy, he seldom came to see us. He had a bookshop, where my father had been employed. They did not approve of one another, and their quarrels weighed heavily on my mother.

I didn't see Grandmother often, but later, thinking of her, I realized how many bad dreams I had because of her, and how aftaid I must have been of her. she moved like a ghost, and I imagined hearing her bones clatter. We called her the Queen of Spades. The news of her death never reached me, and I still sometimes see her in my dreams. To me she is one hundred and fifty now, and still alive.

My mother's mother has completely escaped my memory, as if she had never existed. Mother had two brothers, Matway and Gregory. Gregory was tall and good-looking. I always ran with outstretched arms to greet him, to be picked up, wrestle, or measure the big muscles in his arms. But Matway looked unhealthy and gloomy. Father said that he had contracted some terrible illness, but he would not tell more. I avoided going near him, and ran away when he wanted to give me a hug.

Father had a sister, diminutive Aunt Julia, who had a little limp and who did not resemble my father at all. Her husband, Leo, was flabby and fat and when in a jovial mood he pinched us and gave us wet kisses. I hated his baby talk and I never laughed at his jokes.

Our house bustled with activity. Father practiced his violin at all hours and he was always cheerful and full of the most exciting plans. "Everything will be new and daring," he liked to boast. He spoke to me of the Messiah and Buddha, of Byzantine architecture, of the salmon's mating habits, and, sensing my pride in being chosen to listen, he ignored my inability to understand half of what he said.

One evening, in the middle of a story from the Bible, he said that there would be a new addition-Number Five-to our family. "A new sister or brother will put you smack in the middle," he said, as though offering me a formidable new position.

That evening he took me to the symphony concert, where I saw and heard the cello for the first time. I had never heard or seen anything nearly so beautiful before.

From that night on, armed with two sticks, a long one for the cello and a short one for the bow, I pretended to play the cello. Even the birth of my new brother, Alexander, did not interrupt my make-believe. Those magic sticks lifted me into a world of sound where I could call every mood at will.

Suddenly something at home changed. More frequent visits of neighbors, their faces showing fear, their whispers, and Mother's tears. Even Nadja's occasional laughter did not change the atmosphere of anxiety. "They catch only the fat ones, who can't run," she giggled to Leonid.

"It's not a hide-and-seek game," he said seriously. "Not all are safe who can run. Don't you remember a chicken running in the yard after the butcher cut its head off?"

"Phooey-don't speak of that. Besides, no one cuts anybody's head off. Father said himself that the pogroms are under czar's personal supervision. How far away is the pogrom now?"

"I don't know. Not very far. Are you afraid?"

I was very young, yet I recall our cellar and the faces crowded against each other in the dark. It was there in the cellar that I learned to feel the fear of others. The silence was heavy and long. Someone pressed me against a wall. The wall was cold and moist. I hurt my head. "They are coming!" I heard tramping above my head. The ceiling was shaking and pieces of plaster fell.

The voices were now quite near. "Hey, you dity kikes! Get out!" There were sounds of broken glass and threatening laughter. Inhuman, menacing voices hit my ears savagely.

"Where is Rosie, my Rosie? Let me out! Let me out of here!" cried a woman. Someone must have put a hand over her mouth; her voice sounded suffocated. I tried to ease myself from the wall. "Are you hurt?" a man whispered. "I think they are leaving," he said.

"No goddam rat left alive!" boomed a voice from above. The noise of the swearing mob became fainter and soon silence descended again. No one moved. As if by a miracle, I could now see the cellar and the people. Were my eyes closed before? At the end of the room I saw Father. Leonid stood close to Grandfarther, the carpenter, who with his silvery beard looked like a picture of a prophet I had seen in a book. Nadja's eyes shone like a cat's. They did not blink, and made me afraid. There was unrest in the crowd. Father climbed the ladder to the trap door. "I will see if it's safe to get out."

"It's all right. Don't rush-one at a time," ordered Father. His voice sounded unnaturally loud. when we emerged, our house was a shambles. Only the piano stood in its place untouched. I ran into the yard. People stood in a wide circle. No one spoke. Uncle Gregory wiped tears from his face. "Go away! You should not see," he said.

"They slashed open her stomach. She was pregnant," sobbed someone quietly. "Rosie was raped. Sam is dead. They hanged the teacher-right there-see the fire?" A woman pointed at the street. The blood was everywhere. I reached down to touch it. It was still warm. Some people were stained with it, but none looked like a murderer.

That night we all slept close together on the floor. In the morning a policeman entered the house. "Just going to piss," he said, passing through the room. "It's a nice place for you people," he remarked, buttoning his trousers on the way out.

I recall the spring, the sun melting the crust of ice lying shiny on the snow; and later, the death of Uncle Gregory, and the War Department report that he had died bravely for Russia, his land.

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