Leonora's Lament

 


Photo: Michael Hofmann

Leonora's Lament

By Barbara Baer


 

Dalia Rosen lay under a steam tent on Pearl Street, two blocks up from the Pacific Ocean. When she coughed, she made a heavy thick sound that confirmed her mother Amalie’s decision to keep her daughter home from school that day. Dalia had been born a fragile premature baby of parents under extreme duress. She was growing stronger, Amalie and her husband Stefan agreed. They’d been fortunate to have found the warm climate of Laguna Beach, a paradise of fragrant blooming trees, oranges and avocadoes.
 
Their third year in southern California, Amalie and Stefan Rosen had been driven from Los Angeles by Stefan’s accompanist, Theodore. At the main beach, a broad swath of white sand, Stefan and Amalie stood in awe before the open sea. As children growing up in Vienna, their families had vacationed beside Alpine lakes, but they’d never seen layers of white-cresting waves stretching to the horizon.
 
The September sun seemed warm enough for Amalie to remove Dalia’s outer clothing until she was down to a green bathing suit that made her look like a spindly plant. Under their umbrella on a blanket they watched fearless children riding their small boards into waves. “One day,” said Stefan, “you’ll be with those children riding waves.”
 
“Oh Papa, I hope so,” answered Dalia.
 
They ate fried clams from paper baskets and bought Dalia a snow cone with blue syrup. Only ten feet away, Amalie saw the actor she recognized from the Tarzan movie that had been playing in Hollywood. “Look, there’s Tarzan!” She tugged Stefan’s hand and pointed to Dalia the bronzed man carrying the beautiful movie Jane on his shoulders. Stefan and Theodore, who scored films and saw many movie actors working before the cameras, barely paid attention.
 
Theodore said he had a friend with a beach cottage used only in summer. “He’s always traveling,” Theodore said. “He might be willing to rent to you. Let’s visit.”
 
The conductor, a large man with a mane of silver hair, made Turkish coffee and offered his cottage until the following summer. “Jews from Europe,” he sighed, “we help each other. How many geniuses were saved, how many were lost. Here I leave you my beloved piano, but first, let’s play a little for old times’ sake.” The conductor sat on the bench and began a Viennese waltz. Dalia whirled around the room until she began coughing and drank her lemonade.
 
“It’s time Dalia had real lessons,” Stefan said. “My wife has been teaching a little vocal but now we need to find someone to guide her more. She’s gifted, like her mother.” He placed his arms around them both. “Thank you so much,” he said to the conductor. “I think this is where we’ll make our first real home.”
 
During the week, Stefan slept on Theodore’s couch in Culver City because the commute back and forth took two hours on the bus and he didn’t yet drive. He left Friday afternoon, caught the bus, and was with his wife and daughter for the Sabbath.
 
Even when Dalia stayed home, Amalie washed and ironed all day. She wiped condensation from the windows, folded and wrapped the ironed shirts, labeled and tied them up in plastic for each customer. She placed each bill under the strings of the parcels. Amalie didn’t worry that her customers wouldn’t pay because they always did, and often with extra, but since Stefan’s name had appeared in the Laguna Reporter as one of the Hollywood people called before a congressional committee investigating communists in the movie business, her women came to their doors with laundry ready to go. Before, they had chatted, sometimes wanting to know about her life in Europe, but now they closed their doors as soon as the exchange was made, as if she were contagious. After the Anschluss when the Germans took over, Amalie had stopped going out for fear of being shamed, even spat on. Here it had been different, at least until Stefan’s name had appeared. There was no use telling these women, as there had been no way to defend her honor in Vienna, that she had been born in a house with maids and a laundress, that any of them who knew the nineteenth district of the city would know she’d never had to lift a finger, nor would she ever be a communist. She had rolled her hoop in the Prater, wearing her English boiled wool coat with red piping and fur hat to match. Amalie was grateful to America, to the kind people who had helped them, and to the wonderful warm outdoors she now lived in. She didn’t complain that her hands were rough from the hot water and detergents, but she hated being misunderstood.
 
After she delivered the laundry, Amalie returned home, listened to Dalia’s, chest and decided they’d both go out for the hour before sunset. She bundled her daughter into a sweater, jacket, cap, and gloves and, hand in hand, they walked down Pearl Street to the Coast Highway. They waited until they saw no cars coming in either direction, and scampered across the two lanes to the top of a long flight of steps above Wood’s Cove.
 
“What will the sisters sing today?” Dalia squeezed her mother’s hand.
 
“Let’s get to our front row seats.”
 
They sat halfway down the wooden staircase to the beach.
 
“There they are! I see them.” Dalia clapped her hands.
 
Two head bobbed above the breaking waves. Soon they heard the voices that rose from the water, sounding as near as if they were on a stage not far away:

 
“My wife I hold her in my arms.                        
 
“My husband I hold him in my arms.
 
“We thank you Lord for this great bliss.”
 
“Fidelio,” whispered Amelie. “It’s the moment when Leonora and Florestan are reunited and the tyrant is overthrown. Your father was first violin at the Staatsoper for the production. I sang in the chorus. It was a beautiful night. The conductor bowed to your father to show his appreciation. This was not long before they took Papa away.”
 
“But he came back, didn’t he? Tell me again, Mama, what happened.”
 
Amalie held her daughter’s hand. “It was a miracle, that’s what it was.”
 
 
Shortly after the 1938 Anschluss, and just as Austria’s anti-Jewish laws were being codified, Stefan Albrecht Rosen was picked up by the SS as he left the conservatory where he gave lessons. When he didn’t come home in time for supper and to change for the theater, Amalie was desperate. Six months pregnant, all alone, she went to the secretary of the Staatsoper. Phone calls later, Herr Director told her that Stefan had been sent to Mauthausen, a camp near Linz, where political suspects and radicals were being imprisoned on the orders of the Reich. Amalie shook. “Why, why?” she sobbed. “He has performances he must play this week.”
 
“Stefan signed a petition…”
 
“He’s not a political man,” protested Amalie. “He’s just trusting. He signs anything.”
 
“They’re going to imprison all of us before long, but I’ll try my best to get him out. Don’t call us, we will call you. It’s safer that way.”
 
When the phone rang, a voice she didn’t recognize told her that Stefan was being transported back to Vienna to appear for one night with a world famous conductor flown in from London for the performance of Don Giovanni. She would not be allowed to see him; she must go to the theater but stay outside in a cab. “Dress as if for a party,” the voice said. “Jewelry, furs, all to take with you. Don’t pack a suitcase, have all on your person.”
 
Before the conductor had finished lengthy bows and taken the microphone to deliver a speech in stuttering German, Stefan Rosen was bundled into a car flying the British consul’s flag. Amalie, who had been sitting in a taxi a block away, told her driver to follow the official car that drove to a landing field behind a small airport. When Stefan got out, Amalie paid her driver and joined her husband at a gate where guards were checking papers. She was blond, pretty, and obviously pregnant under her fur coat. “Hüubche junge frau,” said a guard who let her through, but her fear of being stopped and caught never went away. Dalia was born two months early in London, delicate from birth. For the war years in the damp British climate, with constant bombing and the air full of dust from debris, the child’s hold on life seemed touch and go, a constant night vigil beside a steam kettle. The invitation arranged by a colleague of Stefan’s to work for the movies in Hollywood had saved Dalia’s life.
 
 
The sisters’ voices rose to the balcony steps, calming Amalie’s racing heart. Stefan had known Magda and Olga Horvath in Vienna. They’d been famous for being so fat and having rich contraltos. Die Zuckerlich Schwestern, he called them, the Sugary Sisters.
 
“Oh what boundless happiness,” they sang, “my husband in my arms.”
 
Amalie applauded, and so did Dalia when the sisters stopped singing and emerged onto the beach, their shiny suits like black petals clinging to them. In the water, their size gave them grace but onshore they lumbered like sea lions toward the steps.
 
At home, Amalie made the steak tartare that their doctor said would give Dalia the needed iron, scraping the raw beef with a small silver fork Stefan had found in a flea market. On the plate, she made a hollow for a raw egg. The yellow yolk in the middle of the red meat, with a pickle and capers on the side looked so healthy. The avocados that she’d discovered in the local market were as smooth as butter.
 
They ate their early supper together and then Amalie put on her coat and told Dalia she’d be back in a few hours. She took her bicycle from the garage, checked that her back reflecting light and headlamp worked, and began pedaling toward the Aliso School where Dalia had been enrolled in the second grade after they’d moved to South Laguna. It was the Thursday night when parents were invited to sit in their children’s desks and listen to the homeroom teacher talk about what the students were learning. Most seats were occupied by couples, mothers and fathers, but Amalie went alone because Stefan was in Los Angeles.
 
Dalia’s homeroom teacher, Miss Myers, spoke to them and circled the classroom for a few private words. At Dalia’s desk, where Amalie sat, Miss Myers said what a sweet and bright child her daughter was. She realized Dalia missed classes because of her health.
 
“She asked me to bring home the work she missed today,” Amalie said.
 
“Of course. She always makes up the work. She’s a trooper, Mrs. Rosen.” The middle-aged woman with a perm that Amalie thought unflattering for her round colorless face asked her to wait until other parents had gone to another classroom. “So we can talk.”
 
Amelie felt uncomfortable singled out from the rest as she waited.
 
“I watch out for her.” Miss Myers leaned forward. “There are some girls whose parents are ignorant, who don’t know what they’re repeating from home. So hurtful at this age. I’m sorry if Dalia feels left out. Do you think that what these girls say to her might be affecting her health and making her wish to stay home?”
 
Amalie shook her head. “She doesn’t complain about other children, but she hasn’t found a friend. Our daughter has had weak lungs since she was born. As you know, we came from Europe, and after the war, even in England, there was hardly enough for her to eat.”
 
Amalie herself missed her friends, the girls she’d gone through school with, and then her conservatory classmates, but to think of them now, to think of Mutti and Pappi… No, no, she said to herself, it is beenden, finished, closed she could not think of them. 
 
“Speaking frankly between us,” Miss Myers continued, “I sent coats and shoes to the Soviet Union during the war. The people needed them, the Russian people who fought on our side against the Nazis. I’m sure you understand how I felt as a human being, as a Jew myself.” These last words Miss Myers whispered, even  though they were alone.
 
Amalie felt chills ran up her spine. She didn’t want this woman’s confidences, but once she’d begun, Miss Myers wouldn’t stop talking. 
 
“I’m being harassed myself for doing nothing more than sending my coats. I get unsigned letters. Some folks here have a party phone line where there’s plenty of gossip that I hear second or third hand. Really, these people are afraid they’re going to be eaten alive by the communists. It’s irrational, but so has been much else that is worse.” Mrs. Myers gave Amalie a look. “I’ll look out for your girl, don’t you worry.”

“Thank you.” Amalie left the evening conference determined not to mention to Stefan the conversation with Miss Myers, for fear of reviving an argument she’d had with him when the subject came up about the list of artists, many from Europe, who had signed a petition.   
 
“Wasn’t it politics that got you in trouble before?” she’d asked him. “We have been given a chance that so many did not have. Play, write music, but don’t get drawn into what you don’t understand.”
 
“This is not Vienna. That time, thank God, is past and far away.”
 
“You must say you were never a Communist. That’s the truth. You didn’t care for the Reds. You were afraid your violin would be broken in riots.”
 
“It’s not as simple as signing a paper. They demand names of others I cannot name.”
 
“Why can’t you? Are they family?”
 
“We must live with honor, liebchen, or we are not living.”     
                
 
Not minutes after she arrived home from the school conference, Dalia, who had stayed up, went to the window and called, “Poppa is coming.”
 
“No, darling. It’s only Thursday, he won’t be here until tomorrow.”
 
Amalie had a feeling of foreboding. If Stefan had been fired, if they had no security… But then the door opened and her husband took off his hat, looking as calm and handsome as ever. He lifted Dalia into his arms, “Puppchen,” he said, twirling her around.
 
Before Amalie could ask, Stefan said, “Tomorrow is Good Friday, before Easter on Sunday. No one will be working, so I got a late bus. We have a long weekend to ourselves.”
 
“Papa, we heard the Sugar Sisters today. They were singing opera.”
 
“What was it?” he asked.
 
“Mama said Fidelio.”
 
“That wonderful work about courage. You know, Ama, we might ask the sisters if they would give our little one voice lessons? It would strengthen her lungs.”
 
“They can sing really loudly, but they’re so fat,” said Dalia.
 
Amalie was relieved the conversation had turned to music. Stefan and Dalia sat at the piano, where he played the first notes and she picked up the next bars of “Fur Elise.”
 
“You see, Ama, she only needs lessons,” he said. “She has the ear.”
 
They played Chopin on the Victrola and drank hot chocolate, staying up late, their own holiday. After Dalia was asleep, they made love quietly in the dark.
 
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, they awoke to the smell of smoke. Amalie got into her robe and went to look out the front window.
 
“Stefan, get up. I see a fire.”
 
Together they saw a cross burning in their small front yard, where chips of gravel and abalone abutted the street. They watched, clinging to the curtains, as the fire consumed the wood, until only two burned sticks remained.
 
“Stefan, what does this mean? You must call the police.”
 
He sighed. “Liebchen, the fire is going out and there’s no danger. You see it’s gone now. Please come to bed. We don’t want to frighten Dalia. It’s best to not to worry her.”
 
“Stefan, it is because of the committee and the lists. You see what you’ve done.”
 
“Amalie, we were not spared in order to live in fear. That is not living.”
 
“But I am afraid. I am afraid. What if they take you away again and I’m left…?”
 
“I’m sorry you are afraid, but no one will take me away.”
 
“I almost died the night you were taken.”
 
“I remember you in your fur coat, wearing the pearls I gave you. You didn’t show fear until the plane soared into the air.”
 
Stefan pulled her back from the window, closed the drapes, and took Amalie onto his lap. In his tenor voice, his breath warm against her ear, he sang softly “Darling, my darling, real love is not afraid. Real love is not afraid.’

         

 
Copyright © Barbara L. Baer 2021

Barbara L. Baer has lived, traveled, and taught in India and the former USSR before settling in rural northern California, where she continued to teach and write. She has four novels in print, the most recent (2020) The Ice Palace Waltz, a Jewish family story spanning centuries. Her journalism, essays, reviews and stories have appeared in various publications from The Nation to Redbook. She started Floreant Press to publish local women writers and ended up publishing a Russian, Dr. Gregory Levin, whose Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist's Exile from Eden has readers worldwide. 


 

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