|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
IT was my first night in the Tiergarten. It was cold and rainy, that kind of drizzle that would last for days, but it passed uneventfully and wasn't nearly as bad as I had thought it would be. Daylight came abruptly. I got up from the bench and stretched, picked up my bundle and started toward the Zoo Station. A policeman called to me.
He had seen me sleeping on the bench, he said. Together we walked out of the park. "Last night here a man stabbed a woman. Some bastards can't make up their minds whether to make love or to kill. Some do both in this park." He asked me to have a cup of coffee with him and said I could tell him my hard-luck story. But I didn't have that opportunity because the good-natured fellow did all the talking. He told me that there was a whore stand in the Tiergarten and that the bench I slept on was their place of business, and a prosperous one at that. "They even charge queers for watching from the bushes. Last night I chased them away."
I saw the policeman a few times more. Once he brought me a blanket for the night, but warned that he would not tolerate my vagrancy any longer. He did not believe that I had no place to go and warned that I had better do something before I got in serious trouble. I promised he would not see me again in the park.
Leaving the Tiergarten, I visited a public washroom and a library, and, to kill time, I went to an automobile exhibition. At the lunch hour I set off for Zakin's. He was not home, but I conversed with the landlady and smelled her food from the kitchen. It made me so hungry that I considered paying a visit to my former teacher of German, Herr Bruchenweiser, but I did not know his address.
It was late at night when I knocked at the door of Alexander Cores, a young Russian violinist with whom I had become friends in Warsaw. He stood at the door in his pajamas. "What happened to you? You look like someone from the wilderness," he said.
"I guess too much outdoor life."
"I haven't seen you for ages. Where do you live?"
"In Charlottenburg. I forgot my key. Can I stay here overnight?"
"There is only one bed."
"I will be all right on this chair." He insisted upon sharing his bed. In the morning I saw Cores spread on the floor. He said that I kicked him out of bed, that I snored, and that all around he never had a worse night. I apologized but could not hide my pleasure at the prospect of a hot bath and breakfast. He told me that our mutual briend Boris Koutzen, the violinist from the Bolshoi Theater, had been asking about me. He gave me his address.
Boris was at home. After affectionate greetings he said that he wanted to discuss with me a matter of urgency. "I have been here only a short while, but Berlin is not Moscow, that much I know," he said. "Here we are not the big shots we were there. We must start from the bottom. Listen-Mr. Skript, an old man who owns the Cafe Ruscho on the Ansbacherstrasse, wants a trio ensemble. I knew you were somewhere around and I spoke of you. Madame Davidowska will be the pianist. Skript will pay well and the work will not be too hard-from four to six, and from seven-thirty to twelve-thirty. Let's go and see him."
At the Ruscho we came to an agreement quickly, but I had to tell Mr. Skript that my cello was being held by the Kulasches, and I asked him for an advance.
With money in my pockets I went straight to see Herr and Frau Kulasch. "Was ist das?" Herr Kulasch exclaimed, counting the money. "Is it a joke?" Don't you know what you owe us? The lease says you must upholster the furniture and dry-clean the rug, in addition to your rent. And what about the table you burned with your cigarettes? There was something else-wait." While he studied the list of damages, Mrs. Kulasch said that they were missing my music.
I returned to the Ruscho without the cello and without a receipt for the money. Mr. Skript said that it was a known practice of some landlords to take advantage of foreigners. Legal action would be of no help, but he knew a Russian immigrant who was an expert in situations like this, a truly remarkable man whom he could produce in practically no time. Soon the expert appeared. He was sportily dressed and had a cheerful voice. His name was Tols.
"From the little I heard from Mr. Skript, you don't need to tell me a thing about your landlords. Bastards! But they soon will meet their match, the great crusader for nonpaying but honest lodgers. They will smell me," he gesticulated boastfully as we set out for Charlottenburg. "I am not bashful. I might as well tell you about myself-in brief, of course. Here is the picture. My parents were rich in Russia. They died impoverished and I, with no profession, fine appetite and a lot of pluck, came here. One of my first brilliant acts was to marry a woman whose only sport was to run after me with a knife-I guess to show her devotion. The lovely thing only once reached her mark, and slashed a tendon in my right hand.. That solved at least one problem-my playing the piano, which anyway was lousy. Is it still far to go?"
"We will be there soon."
"Speaking of my wife," he continued, "you should see her when she is herself. She is tops. But I must tell you, if on occasion a woman is not ready to kill you, she does not really care for you. That wife of mine is a scream. In our luggage she carries a rope-not to hang herself with, mind you, but when our bill for lodgings arrives she fastens our suitcases to it and lowers them through the window. It's our best investment."
We stopped in front of the Kulasch house. "What will you tell them?" I asked.
"Leave that to me. You will have your cello, but I must take my time-perhaps half an hour. Wait for me here."
Nearby was a bakery where I used to buy bread. To pass the time, I asked the saleswoman if she knew of a furnished room for rent in the neighborhood. She said there was one around the corner-Number 12, Apartment 2 on the first floor. I found the house, but on the first floor were two apartments with no numbers. I rang the one on my left. The door opened and I was asked to enter. "Nice to see you," said a man in black jacket and striped trousers whom I followed into the library. There was a lady of about fifty, and a young man who was introduced as a cousin from Hamburg. "Bitte setzen Sie sich." The room was large and the walls were filled to the ceiling with books. The three people looked at me and I knew that something was wrong. "What was your name again?"
"Oh, from my geology class at the university?"
"No, I came to inquire about a furnished room."
"Furnished room? We never had rooms to let. Who sent you here?"
"The bakery," I said.
"Unglaublich! Who are you?" When I said I was a musician and was in the city alone, they consulted in whispers and suggested that I see their guest room. "It will be nice to have a young musician with us." The gentleman said he was Professor Michaelis and the lady was Frau Professor. The room they showed me had a writing table, comfortable chairs, and a large bed.
"It's unbelievably marvelous," I said. They said I could move in whenever I liked, and pay what I could afford. Scarcely believing my stroke of luck, I thanked them and left to meet Tols. He was waiting for me with my cello and suitcases.
"Where shall we take your household?"
"I just found a room."
Tols was impressed by the house and my room. "It's high-class," he said approvingly. "Probably not sturmfrei."
"What is 'sturmfrei'?"
"It means you can bring women to your place."
"Did Herr Kulasch make things difficult?"
"Not at all. I identified myself as a special investigator of the protection squad and said it's a criminal offense to withhold a tool of one's livelihood. They said the whole thing was a misunderstanding."
Mr. Skript and his patrons, mostly foreigners and black-market speculators, were pleased with the Ruscho Trio. No one, not even the loudest nowveau riche, disturbed me as much as the presence of musicians, actors, and writers. And when such virtuosi as Emanuel Feuermann and Max Rostal sat at the nearest table, sipping their coffee and listening to us as we played trash, my discomfort was acute. Still, it was good to feel the strings under my fingers again, and it was fun to watch the good, innocent Boris trying to match old hands in the trade like Madame Davidowska and myself.
The galloping inflation made money almost worthless, and we could barely manage to have one good meal a day. Mr. Skript augmented our salaries frequently, and cakes and sweets were offered free, a diet for which I developed distaste.
After less than four months in the noisy, smoke-filled cafe, Madame Davidowska had to leave and Koutzen received his visa for the United States. Skript engaged Liopold Mittman, an extraordinary pianist, but, having no violinist, we faced a problem with the repertoire. Just the same, it did not prevent us from playing operas, symphonies, overtures, and of course sonatas, solo pieces, popular songs, and something resembling jazz.
Among the musicians who came to the cafe was Geza de Kresz, the violinist of the Pozniak Trio. Subsequently he and Bronislaw von Pozniak invited me to join the ensemble. We rehearsed for the forthcoming concert tour and made arrangements to leave for Breslau, where our headquarters would be.
I went across the street to the Russian restaurant Medwejd to say good-by to my friend Joseph Schuster, who played the cello there. On account of the good food I had envied his job for a long time. I admitted this to him frankly and once had suggested swapping jobs for a while, but, not being too fond of pastries, he had categorically refused, preferring to remain with his borsch, cutlets, adn pirogki. I did not blame him.