Playing For Time


Henry Hudson

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.

Levi Esser listened to the ever-approaching thump and rumble of the Russian artillery. Rumor had it that they were only days away. He lay on his bunk in the darkness surrounded by a cacophony of coughing and retching. Disease was rampant throughout the camp and ran neck-and-neck with the gas chambers in a race to exterminate the inmates. Levi thought that as the Russians closed in the Nazis would take to their heels but instead they threw themselves into their gruesome work with even greater energy and efficiency. With the crematoria no longer able to cope they had taken to burning the bodies in long, open trenches. Dante would have been hard pressed to describe the hell in which Levi Esser found himself and yet, in spite of all, he clung to the hope that his plan would work. The book was the key, that wonderful hymn to life he read and re-read long before Hitler had plunged the world into misery and despair.

Esser passed the time mentally lining up the facts of his own situation with omens and coincidences in the book. It was an exercise he had undertaken many times. First. He had a son named Rene, Bloom had a son named Rudi and both of them had died. Second. Bloom met a young man named Stephen and he met a young man named Shimon. Third. Bloom rescued Stephen from the guards in Nighttown and got him safely away. Yes. Yes. Daybreak couldn’t come fast enough for Levi Esser. As he waited he comforted himself by fingering her gently, tracing her curves and hollows and feeling the smooth texture of her skin. His violin was both his love and his lifeline because the Nazis seldom included the camp orchestras in their dreaded 'selection' parades.

Later, as he walked in the purple lush of daybreak, he tested himself to see just how much of the book he could remember. It too had begun at morning. In a tower by a snotgreen sea. He stopped to think. The sea? He closed his eyes and remembered walking along a deserted beach where the only sound was the lap and slide of waves as they caressed the shoreline. That was the time he felt closest to god but now, it felt as if god had abandoned him, that god had abandoned the world. He walked again and sent his mind back to the book.

What was next? Ah, yes! Bloom cooks breakfast. A pork kidney, peppered and fried in butter. A shiver ran from the soles of his feet to the nape of his neck, teased his taste buds then slithered down his spine again. He knew it was wrong to entertain such thoughts never mind to eat the flesh of a pig, but he had, and many times at that! He stopped and groped inside his jacket for his violin. Like the woman in the book he was dying for a touch.

He became so preoccupied with thoughts of the book that he became careless. He drifted round a corner and almost collided with the back of a black-booted guard who held a dog loosely on a chain. The guard drew deeply on a cigarette while the dog bent in a quivering hoop trying to defecate. Esser froze but the guard was too relaxed and the dog too intent to notice him. He eased back around the corner and gave silent thanks because ordered to attack, that animal would have eaten both his kidneys for breakfast without bothering to pepper or fry them first.

Away from danger, Esser returned to the book and its disgusting description of men chomping through food. Bloom in a restaurant called, The Brewston? No. A name like that. It started with a 'B' in any case. In the camp too, slop-swallowing men slurped their way through their food. Food? Like the sea it was so long since Esser had seen the genuine article. Again craving comfort, he mentally summoned up Paris before the war when it was a city of fine food, wine and foreigners. He remembered cafes crammed with painters, poets and poseurs not to mention sex sellers representing both sides of the equation. He had to admit that, as with pork kidneys, he had often sampled those forbidden delights. Oh, shameful behavior for a married, middle-aged man but then another blinding flash of coincidence stopped him in his tracks. Bloom was married, he was middle-aged and he too had a liaison, admittedly it was by post but it was still a liaison! With? What was her name? Mary? No! Martha! Yes! Martha! And the name of the prostitute Esser used to visit was… Maria! Yes! Maria! Martha! Martha! Maria! Rene! Rudi! Rudi! Rene! Yes! Yes! Yes! When Levi Esser smiled and walked on, omen and coincidence smiled and walked on with him.

After the morning roll call he went searching for Shimon. He found him wheeling a cartload of shoes towards a store house. Esser watched his chance and fell in beside him.
"Well?" he whispered.
The young man kept his eyes front and his mouth shut.
"Please” Esser begged, “Please!”
Shimon kept the cart moving.
"It’ll never work. I am young and in the sonderkommando. You are old and you play in the orchestra. We’re sure to be caught and then… we’ll both be shot!"
Esser wrung his hands in anguish.
"But we won't be caught. It's all in the book. I'll be Bloom, you'll be Stephen... and she...“, he tapped the violin under his jacket, "will be Molly! It’s all in the book!”

The young man had no idea what book Esser was referring to and he knew no one called Bloom, Molly or Stephen for that matter. He stopped the cart and looked Esser straight in the eye.
“Listen, no one in the sonderkommando will leave this place alive, but there’s some hope for the orchestras! So save yourself, Levi Esser. Play on! Play on… and live!”
He began to push the cart again but Esser stepped in front of it. He took the violin from under his jacket.
"When I play, this instrument generations of my family play it too! I draw the bow across the strings and they are all around me! Five generations of Esser’s! Rene, was to be the sixth”

The young man threw his hands up in despair.
“What do you want, Levi Esser? Your son died fighting the Nazis and nothing can ever bring him back!”
“But that’s where you’re wrong!” Esser exclaimed, “Through you! Through the music… he can live on! We, the Esser’s, can live on! Please! Do this for him! For me!”
The young man buried his head in his hands.
"It’s all too much! I can’t think! I need more time!"
"There is no time!" Esser pushed, "Molly is your… our only hope”
He trembled as he waited for Shimon’s reply.
"Midnight” the young man whispered, “At the back of the latrines"

The daylight hours dragged each other towards darkness and more than once the leader of the orchestra glared at Esser as he fluffed or indeed, missed notes altogether. Wagner, Beethoven, Wagner, Beethoven the pieces were called and called again but Esser’s mind was elsewhere, wandering endlessly through the pages of the book. Wasn't there a newspaper office? What was it called? The Freeman’s... Freeman’s Press? No, that sounded suspect. He tried again. The Freeman’s... Freeman’s Journal! Then there was Mulligan, the one who claimed that Stephen had proved by algebra that a son could be the ghost of his own father! So why couldn't a father be the ghost of his own son! Esser missed another note but it didn't matter. The omens were everywhere.

Midnight, and Esser waited by the back of the stinking latrines. Perhaps Shimon wouldn’t come. No! In the face of adversity the greatest sin was that of despair. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the young man was standing in front of him.
“Well, Levi Esser, do you still want to go through with this?”
Esser nodded. Yes! All life, all time, reduced to a few brief moments. He heard himself gasp as in a series of deft movements Shimon stripped naked and stood moon mauve in front of him. Rene. Rudi. Proving by algebra that he could be the...
"Hurry" the young man pleaded, “For the love of god!”
Esser began to undress. An embarrassed moon hid its face behind a cloud. The business between them was swift and when they'd finished, Molly had a new master.

Five a.m. and the sonderkommando hut was as quiet as the grave and as dark as the lanes of Nighttown. Esser, who was drifting on the edge of sleep, groped in the void for comfort. Then with a sigh he remembered that he was a cuckold now that Molly shared his bunk with another. Then suddenly the world turned upside down and the shouts and curses of guards were chorused by the snap and snarl of unleashed dogs. As he was tumbled onto the floor, Esser knew that his time was up. He was soon outdoors and being kicked and punched into a ragged line whose destination was the treed-off area in the far corner of the camp. From there the acrid stench of burning flesh drifted towards them across the sinless, stainless snow. It was accompanied by the strains of the camp orchestra playing yet another piece by Wagner. To the Nazi mind, slaughter on a classic scale required a classic score to match.

Esser heard the music and prayed yet again that the plan had worked. If so, Shimon would be with the other players. As they approached the bandstand the final bars of the piece faded quietly into the night. Esser’s group trudged on in snow and silence. He strained his neck to see. Was he? Was he? Yes! There! Cradling Molly in his arms. But just as Esser passed a guard hauled him from the line.
"You! You’re not in the sonderkommando! You're not part of this group!"
Esser's heart pounded. He screamed silently and heavenward.
“Please! Dear God! Please!”
A gloved fist smashed his teeth into his jaw as the guard demanded a name. Esser remained silent until his hair was reefed backwards then through a wash of blood and bone he gave the guard an answer.
“My… my name… is Bloom! Leopold Bloom!”
The guard’s spit whistled past his face.
“Bah! Who cares who you are! Let them shoot you! Let them shoot all you Jewish bastards!”
With that he kicked Esser back into the line but Esser didn’t feel a thing. His mind was far away in a Dublin pub where a quiet, middle-aged Jew took a stand against hatred and oppression. He too had been reviled and spit had whistled past his head but in the end he was assumed, glorious and triumphant, into the light! The book! The book truly was the key!

Shimon Levine watched from the bandstand as his savior was punched, kicked, spat at and then finally, marched away. But then he heard him cry loudly through the darkness, “Play on! Play on… and live!"The young man blinked away his tears, raised Levi Esser’s violin and then softly and slowly he began to play. The other musicians froze in terror for they had not been told to begin and worse, this young stranger was playing the 1812 overture! If the Nazis realized he was playing Tchaikovsky, there’d be hell to pay but the young man showed no fear. Bar by bar he played on, daring the others to follow. His playing was so beautiful and passionate that it felt as if generations of musicians were playing along with him. The effect was irresistible and soon the whole orchestra was in full flight, loudly challenging the darkness that surrounded them. With Russian cannons as percussion, Molly led them charging across the strings. The rousing finale lifted their hearts, their souls and their minds. It also lifted their eyes to the horizon where the faintest tinge of purple oozed from under the pitch black skirts of the night. It was an omen, an omen that foretold of the coming of daylight.