by Ann. M. Lingg
FOR YEARS SHE HAD TOURED Latin America,
giving piano recitals in half-empty halls,
earning lavish praise but little money.
"You need New York reviews to draw big audiences,"
her manager kept saying.
But a New York appearance was expensive.
So Maryla Jonas kept toiling, pinching pennies, and finally here she was,
on March 30, 1946,
playing in jam-packed Carnegie Hall.
Five weeks earlier
she had played here
before the usual audience accorded an unheralded newcomer—a
handful of critics, mostly second-string, and a few students with passes.
Her superb performance had
stirred enthusiastic notices, and tonight hundreds of music lovers had come
to hear the "new" Polish pianist.
As Maryla Jonas strode to the center of the vast stage,
her face was taut, unsmiling.
She had just learned for certain what she had long feared:
that her husband, her mother and two brothers had perished in Poland
during the war.
But as her blonde head bent over the keyboard,
the stony mask gave way to a flickering smile.
Staring for a moment across the semidarkness of the hall, her eyes,
in sudden surprise, had met those of a famous fellow countryman
sitting tensely in a box.
She saw his pleased, proud expression, his quick nod of approval.
As the brilliance and glory of her playing began to enchant the vast crowd,
he leaned back in deep satisfaction. Artur Rubinstein had good reason.
Seven years before, Maryla Jonas had been living in Poland.
Her father was a well-known Warsaw surgeon, her husband a noted criminologist.
Maryla herself, a onetime child prodigy and pupil of the great Paderewski,
had won the Chopin and Beethoven prizes,
coveted international trophies for young pianists.
Talented and acclaimed, she looked forward to a bright future.
Then the Nazis came. German bombs destroyed her home.
Her husband and brothers joined the underground.
Her father was led away by the Gestapo.
When the conquerors "invited" Maryla to play for them,
she refused and was thrown into prison.
In 1940 she made an almost miraculous escape—and found herself
on a highway outside Warsaw,
greatly weakened and with no possessions other than the clothes she wore.
Half-crazed with fear and desperately conscious of the fact
that each stumbling step led her farther away from her loved ones,
she trudged westward.
Her goal was Rio de Janeiro, where her married sister Bertha lived.
The first step was to reach the Brazilian Embassy in Berlin, 325 miles away.
With bleeding feet, her clothes in rags, her stomach cramped with emptiness,
she walked day and night, snatching a few hours' sleep in ditches and barns,
scrounging for food wherever she could find it. Weeks later, exhausted,
(p.104} she staggered through the door of the Brazilian Embassy.
The Brazilians sheltered her and got her onto a boat bound for Rio.
During the crossing she clung to a straw of hope that some news of her family
might have reached her sister.
When she arrived and found Bertha had had no news, Maryla collapsed.
Friends arranged for her to stay in a private sanitarium,
where she was content to sit in the garden, staring into space.
Days and nights slipped by, interrupted only by terrifying visions
and oppressive dreams. Something, she thought, had happened to her hands.
At the slightest allusion to her piano playing,
her fingers turned stiff and cold.
A guilt complex had begun to torture her—an idea that she had sacrificed
the others by saving herself.
No reasoning could dissuade her from the conviction
that hers would be the blame if they died,
and that it would be a just penalty if she could never again play the piano.
The concert season arrived, but nothing could induce Maryla to listen to music.
Once, however, she showed a flicker of interest when Bertha mentioned
the imminent arrival of the world-famous pianist Artur Rubinstein.
Then and there Bertha began scheming. Rubinstein had heard of Maryla Jonas,
and when Bertha put her case before him he did not hesitate to help.
Rubinstein came to visit Maryla. She recognized him, but did not greet him.
"Maryla," Rubinstein said warmly, "they tell me you have refused to play again.
Is that true?"
"Yes," breathed Maryla.
"Perhaps I can help," said Rubinstein softly.
"No one can help!" cried Maryla.
Rubinstein persisted. "Won't you play for me?
If you're really no good, I'll tell you so."
"But I can't play," said Maryla, "for you or anybody else.
Here, look at my hands—they're dead!" Her voice trailed off.
Rubinstein left quietly.
His name was not mentioned again until the day of his concert,
when Bertha burst into Maryla's room.
"Rubinstein just called," she said excitedly.
"He says he needs you at the theater. To test the acoustics."
Too confused or too indifferent to realize that Rubinstein had given
many concerts in that hall and knew every corner of it, Maryla went.
On the dimly lit stage Rubinstein was testing note after note.
Suddenly he hurried down into the auditorium.
I wonder what it sounds like from here," he called.
"Give me a few chords, please, Maryla."
She went toward the piano, then stopped abruptly.
The keys stared at her, straight and orderly, like rows of German soldiers.
Her hands grew stiff and heavy. She clasped them behind her back.
"But—I—can't—play," she stammered.
"Good heavens! You can play a few chords for me!"
She could not see him in the darkness;
she only heard his voice shouting at her angrily.
Magnified by the emptiness of the hall, it had a hypnotic quality.
Sobbing, she threw herself on the piano stool and hit a few keys, then stopped.
"Go on!" She obeyed as if in a trance.
Anything to prevent that voice from thundering at her again.
"Something soft. A Chopin nocturne."
Slowly the past dissolved in music.
Then—"Do you want to hear a mazurka?" Maryla asked hesitantly.
The voice laughed. It was friendly, encouraging, triumphant. "Play some more!"
Music that had been buried deep in her subconscious flowed back
into Maryla's fingers. Maryla was no longer conscious of what she was playing.
She came to when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"You've got to go now, Maryla. People are coming into the theater."
She looked up and saw that Rubinstein's eyes were filled with tears.
"You've been playing for five hours, my dear.
Promise me you will never give up playing again."
Since that day Maryla Jonas has gone on playing.
After her triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall,
she contracted for her first North American tour,
and the New York Philharmonic Symphony broke its custom
of having no soloist on opening night by inviting her to play
at its first concert that fall.
She won a place, as Olin Downes of the New York Times had said she would,
in the top ranks of the musical profession.