August 1958

I shall drive myself mad with this damned symphony.

Although symphonies are usually written in four movements, mine insists on being five. While most begin with an allegro, center on an adagio and then a minuet, and end with, well, a bang, mine abandons all of these conventions and veers instead in one (or more precisely, many) all its own.

In addition, it is written for a much smaller group than the usual symphony orchestra: a string quartet, plus a piano, clarinet, and oboe.

It may be presumptuous of me to call this a symphony, but its length precludes any other definition. Perhaps it is operatic in its scope; there is a plot, after all, though there is no libretto to lend it words. The story is told by the music—no, by the instruments—and it is a story that is of necessity fragmented and disjointed, although occasionally two themes intertwine.

It is presumptuous of me to believe that I am capable of accomplishing this. I am trained, after all, as a pianist, not as a composer (though in fairness to myself I must add that I did receive excellent grades in the four sections of composition I was required to study). I have no background in translating a music in my head onto paper without first hearing it played aloud, which is precisely what composition entails. And why a clarinet, and an oboe? Why, for that matter, a string quartet? What do I know of strings, except their particular sound?

And yet I must do this. Yes, I am compelled. Who else will write this symphony? Who else survived? It is one thing for the historians to say: This happened, and then this happened; for the psychologists to create a new nomenclature for the new psychoses. The journalists write of the horrors and the photographers illustrate the grisly toll, but who hears them? Who will sing this dirge?

Of course, as the dying Hamlet says, “The rest is silence.” How to convey such a stunning silence in music? A paradox, that. It is where my lone clarinet comes in, ending, not with a bang but with a diluendo, a slow fade into eternity.

I feel a chill, when I think of this, when I hear that variation’s slide into the infinite.

But enough of that. I must say a word about Alice’s David, who continues to be precocious in unexpected ways (though perhaps precociousness is inherently unexpected?). He is, first of all, very American. By that I mean he is remarkably self-assured for a child of seven (I should qualify that and say a boy of seven). He is, for example, fearless—unafraid of softballs shooting toward him, of leaping across wide creeks when we hike in the Jemez, of the horrific sonic booms made by the jets at the Air Force base. He does not seem at all nonplussed by the air raid drills schoolchildren are required to perform (they sit crosslegged, hands behind necks, in tidy rows against their lockers, so that I picture the aftermath—a still-tidy row of little charred bodies). He laughs when I hesitate to cross a streetcorner because a light is red. (“There’s no cars, Aunt Hana. Why should we wait?”) He questions his superiors with a markd nonchalance (“I write much better than Mrs. Brown,” he says of his teacher). He meets Alice’s parental reason with a clever logic that stops her midway through her words. (“Mom. We don’t have Nazis here.” Of course, he is wrong about this.)

I seek, and never find, signs of my own Pavel within this very different boy. David is already the age that Pavel was when he died, and though he knows Pavel’s story well, it is not his story, a distinction he is quick to point out. Physically, David is dark where Pavel had his father’s more pale coloring, and psychically, David has a stronger faith—in both himself and in others—than Pavel was ever able to develop.

But because I, at nearly forty, will have no other children, I seek to make my mark on this child in some way. I try to interest him in the piano, or, at the very least, in music, though our only connection there seems to be through country western ballads (he loves to listen to Patsy Cline).

The one place where I do seem to touch David is through my stories. How strange that I should choose a child as the repository for this horror, and yet I find that I have masked them in the genre of fairy tales, a genre that after all houses witches and ogres and wicked stepmothers. The difference is that in fairy tales the children live, and triumph over those who intend them evil; in my stories, the children die.

Here is Pavel’s story:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a land called Czechoslovakia, a little boy named Pavel lived with his Mama and his Papa and his little sister Heidi. Pavel lived in a great stone house on a narrow cobblestoned street, and he was very happy there.

But then, one day, the Evil Men came and said that Pavel and his family could no longer live in the great stone house. No, the Evil Men said. Pavel and his family must leave everything that was theirs behind and go to live in another town far away, a town that had been built as a fortress, a town that had been named Terezin, but which the Evil Men now called Theresienstadt, which was in their own language, a language that unlike Czech was full of grunts and gutturals.

Why did the Evil Men say they must leave? Well, because Pavel and his family were Jews. How, you may ask, is a Jew different? Pavel and his family asked the same thing, because they had thought that they were no different.

This was their mistake. A Jew is different in unaccountable ways, in ways a Jew himself cannot see but which others claim to see with great ease. Others will say you can tell a Jew by his shifty little eyes (here David laughs and points out both his and my very large eyes), his huge hooked nose (another laugh, and acknowledgement of our small ones), by his money-grubbing ways, by his duplicitous nature. (“That means two-faced!” David crows, having heard this story before.) A Jew will laugh—yes, like you—and say, “Surely a man who bothers to look will see that those things are not so,” but—and here is the thing—these men did not look.

Who can say why they hated the Jews? Why does any man hate another? Often, it is because he thinks the other man has that which he desires. (“That’s a commandment,” David points out. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass.” Then he giggles.) Or sometimes it is because he thinks that man covets what is his.

What did the Jew have that the Evil Men desired? Perhaps they wanted Pavel’s great stone house. It was a wonderful house, with three stories and many many rooms. Pavel’s room was filled with his toys—lead soldiers and elaborate fortresses and houses that Pavel had built from wooden blocks. There was an electric train set from America, which Pavel never tired of rearranging, and there were models of American cars and aeroplanes as well.

You can understand why the Evil Men might want these things.

But what had they that they might think Pavel would desire? This is a more difficult question. They too had great cities built of stone—but Pavel was quite happy with the one in which he lived. They had fat silly wives and fat silly daughters, but, well, Pavel was a little boy. He had a desire for neither.

Perhaps it was their great rivers they imagined worth coveting, but Pavel’s lovely city had many rivers of its own, rivers crossed by a variety of beautiful and unusual bridges—yes, they are still there for you to see, should you go.

No, this is not an easy question to answer, why the Evil Men hated the Jews. Perhaps the only answer is that Evil Men hate because they hate. They hate because they are Evil, and Evil does not require a reason.

Good, of course, does not require a reason either. But, unlike Evil, it is its own reward. Evil requires more tangible evidence of its success.

But so. Pavel and his family were sent away from their city to the place called Terezín. Here they no longer lived together, but instead boys with boys, girls with girls, men with men, women with women. Still, little boys adapt. Pavel played with his new friends; he went to the secret school where his grandfather taught. And he drew lovely, lovely pictures, which was a difficult thing, not just because he was a little boy, but because the Evil Men did not allow them to have paper, or crayons.

Yes, these Evil Men were very wicked. But there is far worse wickedness to come.

The Evil Men decided it was not enough to move the Jews from their homes. They decided it was not enough to forbid them to live with their families, or to go to school, or even to have paper or crayons.

The Evil Men decided that the Jews should die.

Now at this time there were many, many Jews. And so the Evil Men had to think long and hard about the best way to kill so many people. First, they tried shooting them at the edges of deep pits which they had the Jews dig. When they were shot, the Jews would fall dead, and sometimes not dead, into these pits, and then the Evil Men would bury them.

This took a long time, and, of course, a lot of pits.

So the Evil Men decided to put the Jews into rooms and then fill the rooms with poisonous gas. This was supposed to be a quick and easy death, but sometimes it was not so quick and easy, and when the Evil Men unlocked the doors they would find the dead Jews piled against them, their fingers scraped raw from trying to escape.

It was possible in this way to kill many more Jews, but the problem still remained of what to do with their dead bodies. For this purpose the Evil Men built enormous crematoria, places in which they could stack the dead Jews and burn them, until all that was left was ash. This ash streamed out from tall smokestacks and covered everything for many miles around, houses and trees and fields and people.

It is not easy to erase the evidence of Evil.

Jews were transported to the rooms of gas in railroad cars. Ostentransportes, these were called: caravans east.

Pavel had always liked trains: remember his electric train set, in his room in the great stone house. So when he was told he would be traveling on one, he was very excited.

But it soon became apparent that this was not the train ride he had imagined. Instead of passenger cars with seats, this train had boxcars, many boxcars, each crowded with far too many people. There were no seats, and there were no stops, except the final stop, at Auschwitz, where Pavel was herded with the others in his boxcar who were still living into one of those rooms, which the Evil Men then filled with poisonous gas.

This story does not have a happily ever after, unless you believe that a hereafter offers that opportunity. But true stories are not often like fairy tales, and for that, I am very sorry.

Excerpted from Dissonance © 2001 Lisa Lenard-Cook
University of New Mexico Press (August 2003)
ISBN: 0826330908

Lisa Lenard-Cook lives in Corrales, New Mexico. She has an M.F.A. from Vermont College. Dissonance, her first novel, won the Jim Sagel Prize for the Novel in 2001. Contact Lisa through her website:

Click here to order the book.

back to