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Her Name Was Klara Jasinski

Her Name Was Klara Jasinski

My childhood view of a shattered, melodious life.


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.

Her fingers caressed the memorabilia with nostalgia.

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.

Tattered Robe

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.

She would bitterly cry in Polish: "They are coming to get me!"

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.

At times, Klara’s music comes back to me and I can hear her melodies in my heart.

April 14, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 9

(6) Anonymous, April 20, 2012 1:41 PM

Being Normal post -Holocaust is not easy

Ask yourself how did any of the holocaust survivors transition from being terrorized prisoners to freedom and a normal life. They never got psychological help that might have eased their tortured minds. Israelis in particular were not willing to hear about the horrific holocaust stories because they too had suffered under the Turks and the British. Israeli's were not receptive to hearing yiddish spoken because it represented shtetal life; PRE- State of israel.

(5) Anonymous, April 17, 2012 12:48 AM

Very touching article

This article really spoke to me because I have played piano and loved music since I was a child. I once met a woman very similar to Mrs. Jasinski who was a Holocaust survivor and very accomplished pianist who continued playing after the war. The power of music is so strong that it really surpasses this world. Thanks.

(4) Ann, April 16, 2012 4:16 PM

Mrs. Jasinski's sountrack to HaShem

During my mother's years as a geriatric nurse, one of the ladies in her care would scream night after night, reliving the horrors of her time in the camps. She suffered from Alzheimer's and this was what floated to the surface as her mind regressed. Only in death did she find peace, G-d bless her memory. As many have voiced, here, it is very sad that Mrs. Jasinski - and her husband and son - did not get competent, gentle care in her final years. Hers was a terrible journey, but surely others could have made it less so. Let us always be alert to the suffering of others and find ways to be kind toward them - as they need.

(3) Bunny Shuch, April 16, 2012 3:33 AM

How sad!

How sad that it appears that her husband did not seek medical, psychological or psychiatric help for his wife. Locking her in the apartment was a cruel punishment.

(2) hadassa, April 15, 2012 11:29 PM

This is a terrible indictment of the attitude of Israelis to survivors of the Shoah. It seems no-one came to inquire, help or comfort this poor woman who had suffered so much, and was now reliving her terror, panic, and who knows what horrors she had experienced. The son was obviously disturbed by his parents' lack of Hebrew and resulting isolation from the community. I hope he found his way and was able to live a happy life. May the soul of his dear mother rest in peace.

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