Mrs. Klara Jasinski lived in Apartment #1 of the building in Israel where I grew up. We lived above her, in Apartment #6. She spoke only Polish, walked with an air of regality, and it seemed to my 6-year-old mind that the tight blonde bun atop her head was her crown. Whenever Mrs. Jasinski entered or left her apartment, she would always give me a respectful yet short nod of acknowledgement.
The interior of Mrs. Jasinski’s apartment was a reflection of her majesty. An old mahogany grandfather clock guarded the entrance. Lush golden carpets covered the floors, and antique furniture radiated the sweet smell of yesteryear. Crystals and ornaments filled the corners of the rooms, and romantic colorful paintings lined the walls. This was her palace.
In the spacious living room, beneath an elaborate crystal chandelier, stood an immaculate ebony grand piano. The piano was the focal point of the whole house. Everything else, all the crystal ornaments and lavish carpets, all the antique furniture, was there to complement the grandeur of the piano.
This was my first time, and before I approached the piano, Mrs. Jasinski requested that I wash my hands. Thus began my first piano lesson at age six.
We both sat down on the piano’s black bench. Without speaking, Mrs. Jasinski took my hands and began massaging my fingers. Her delicate hands were as white as snow, her long slender fingers translucent, and her nails polished to perfection – redder each time I recall the memory.
As a young adult, Mrs. Jasinski had been the head pianist of the Warsaw Philharmonic and the owner of a famous conservatory in Poland. Across her living room, there stood at least a dozen framed photographs of her playing in concert halls in Vienna, Paris and Moscow. She once showed me an album of her fan mail and of Polish newspaper clippings describing her European performances. Her eyes sparkled as she thumbed slowly through the albums, subconsciously caressing her favorite memorabilia with nostalgia.
We started our lesson. Mrs. Jasinski tapped on the keyboard slowly and gracefully, finger after finger, right then left, key after key, in perfect sequence. As she played, the sleeves of her silky blouse rode upward. On her arm, I noticed a blue six-digit number stamped on her otherwise flawless skin. The image shocked me. At that moment, I wished that I could speak to her in Polish and let loose the flood of panicked questions that instantly bothered my young mind.
My piano lessons lasted but a few weeks. I could not understand Mrs. Jasinski’s Polish and she could not understand my tactile imprecision.
A few years passed and I began to see Mrs. Jasinski less and less. Janek, her husband, a large but gentle man, left the apartment early each morning and came back from work in the evening, kindly offering me his wife’s signature head nod, but rarely exchanging words with anyone. Their only son, Stephen, was several years older than me. He never joined us neighborhood children playing outside in the street, and when he passed by someone from the building, he quickly turned his head away to avoid acknowledgment.
Mrs. Jasinski’s only sign of life was her piano playing. She would play for hours every day. Her music escaped through the walls of her apartment, floating through the building’s staircase and in and out of its hallways. On summer nights, when everyone’s windows were open, Mrs. Jasinski’s melodious music was the lullaby that put every child into a sweet sleep.
As the years passed, Mrs. Jasinski was no longer an elegant image of refinement and grace. Her hair was loose, her robe was tattered, and her eyes were wide and fear-stricken. She frantically paced the hallways of our building, terrified and aimless. I couldn’t understand what had happened.
Time passed and her condition worsened. She would be found walking up and down the street in front of our building, mumbling incoherently in Polish, begging for attention. Strangers swerved to the sides, trying to avoid eye contact with the distressed woman. Sometimes, she would bitterly cry in Polish: “Janek, Janek, where are you? They are coming! They are coming to get me!”
Her sobbing screams made me shiver. Hiding behind the blinds of our apartment window, I would peek outside, wondering why Janek wasn’t coming to help.
As her panic attacks became increasingly frequent, her husband was forced to lock her inside their apartment when he left for work. Her bitter cries and pleas went unanswered and escalated. She knocked hard on the doors, on the walls, begging to get out, to escape from the demons chasing her for the second time in her life. She knew not where to hide.
Eventually, her son Stephen joined the Army and left home. Janek would come home late each evening. She was locked alone in her apartment for days, weeks, and months at a time.
On rare occasions, when Mrs. Jasinski was at peace for a few hours, the familiar sweet sound of her piano could be heard. She became, briefly, the accomplished pianist from Warsaw once again. But as her inner calm would once again tremble, her strong rousing melodies gave way to melancholic notes until the music completely faded away. It was, sadly, an autobiographical composition in real-time.
A year later, Mrs. Jasinski died. Her husband sold the apartment and moved to another city. Their home was stripped piece by piece. The piano sat outside, lopsided, waiting to be picked up. A young family moved in and Mrs. Jasinski’s apartment was filled with the melodic, cheerful voices of children.
Every person we meet leaves his or her mark upon us. At times, Klara’s music comes back to me and I can hear her melodies in my heart. I used to wonder, am I the only one in the world who remembers her? The answer is, not anymore. This story shall be her living testament.