Music of
Another World

Szymon Laks
Translated by Chester A. Kisiel
(Northwestern University Press)
Szymon Laks was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, given number 49,543 --- and survived one concentration camp or another for three years until he was liberated by the allies at the end of WWII. He was director of inmate musicians at Birkenau and was useful to the authorities because of this, and because of his ability to speak German, Polish, and French.

"Ho hum," you think. "Another concentration camp story." But Laks' tale is something else again. Yes, there is the horror --- the cold, the beatings, the random violence, the lack of medical care and food, such that drove many of his fellow prisoners to fling themselves against the wires. But there is a philosophical turn.

    For this is not a book about music. It is a book about music in a Nazi concentration camp. One could also say: about music in a distorting mirror.

His way with words, and, mostly, his balance, is what keeps us going. In truth, his unwillingness to show all Nazis as villains got the book rejected by the post-WWII Polish Ministry of Culture and Art, because "the Germans are presented in an overly favorable light."

It is that dry, fine storytelling ability, the subtle nature of his insights, that get us. For example, his reaction to finding himself in the camp?

    I am not sure whether anyone ... who tasted in full the Auschwitz existence and later wished to describe this first moment "in his own words." Not six but "Millions of Characters in Search of an Author" could be the title of Pirandello's play had he lived in the age of the Hitlerite extermination camps.

And then came the old question, after he was freed: "How is it that you managed to survive Auschwitz?" he was asked again and again.

    I still answer now: "I don't know how it happened. It seems to me that since a small number of survivors returned, someone had to be among them. It turned out that I was one of them. That's all. I see no other explanation."

But he does have another explanation. He tells us that the Germans --- even the brutes --- have a singular madness for music. He calls it "an example of a rarely encountered association...of unbridled criminality and the heights of artistry."

By the end of his second year, he had not only organized a fair orchestra, because of the lack of sheet music, he had composed many pieces that would utilize the musicians and the instruments that he had available to him (three "Polonaises" are included at the back of Music of Another World.)

And, oh! --- the stories! Pery Brod, of his camp, so brutal that he was brought before the War Crimes Tribunal in Frankfurt after the war. But when this same Brod played the accordion,

    Only then did we become aware of what heights the mastery of this artist could reach when he found himself in his element, that is, when he played on an instrument with which he was familiar.

Or the journey made to the woman's section of Birkenau, to a ward for the sick, in which he says, "I would rather not describe the sight that spread out before our eyes or the stink that blew on us when we crossed the threshold." At any rate, he and the other musicians begin a Christmas program, which was greeted with quiet weeping, and then a "generally uncontrolled sobbing that completely drowned out the celestial chords of the carol."

    I didn't know what to do; the musicians looked at me in embarrassment. To play on? Louder? Fortunately the audience itself came to my rescue. From all sides spasmodic cries, ever more numerous, ever shriller --- in Polish which I alone understood --- began to roll in on me: "Enough of this! Stop! Begone! Clear out! Let us croak in peace!"

--- Ignacio Schwartz


Go to a Reading from Music of Another World


Discovering the
Joy of Zen in
Everyday Tasks

Gary Thorp
Look at your refrigerator, look at your radio, look at the ants in your radio. Look at a broom, or a common lightbulb:

    This everyday item has its own special poetry and delightful qualities: the delicacy of its touch, the fine strength of its filaments, the pear-shaped glass that holds the flow, its literal and figurative "lightness."

What next? The wonders of the shower head, the pleasure of the toilet bowl, the delight in the round window of the Whirlpool. All of us who were weaned on peyote or acid in the 60s remember going to the supermarket and being wow! gassed out of our minds by the peaches and bananas, stunned at the cereal section (all those wild pictures crawling off the boxes!) But to wax effusive over a pleasure of fixing a leaking water pipe in the basement may be --- probably is --- taking this ecstasy business one step too far.

Tricycle Magazine was so smitten by Sweeping Changes that they devoted the last page of a recent issue to his paean on the common refrigerator, along with a picture of the particular 'fridge we've been putting up with for the last forty years:

    When we are hungry, we go to the refrigerator. That much, we know. But do we ever give this appliance one moment's thought during any other time of the day or night? Like many things, we take the hardworking refrigerator for granted.

Oh, he can be whimsical: he points out that a refrigerator "possesses its own inner light." But still, to quote from Dogen, Shinkei, and Socho when dwelling in bliss of the leaky old Frigidaire might be zennish consumerism at its worst.

They say that Thorp was ordained by "the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi," and is into mountain lions. Let us hope he lays off the brooms the bulbs and the ants and, in the future, sticks with the growlers in the hills.

--- Elizabeth Wickes


Jamaica Kincaid
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux)
This is a hymn to the creative delight of saving a tomato seed from your most glorious summer plant, watching its tenuous, fragile first leaves emerge from a six-pack on the shelf over your kitchen sink the next spring and eating its fruited sun-filled sweetness in the middle of August.

It is a paean to the lessons, the births and deaths, the blue jays who come and talk to you. It is a recognition of our brothers and sisters --- the bees, the sowbugs, the gophers, the dragonflies, the mice and, yes, even the skunks and opossums for whom you so carefully grow foxglove, pansy and lettuce.

It is May right now. The rhododendron under the apple tree has dropped its blossoms, but the cymbidium orchid, loving the acid needles of the old pine tree, sent up bloom after bloom. I can't tell you the Latin name for it, although Jamaica Kincaid seems to know all the proper names.

Her book of essays, My Garden Book has inspired me to write this love-note. It is not her memory for Latin names that inspired me, though, but her rambling honesty. I myself walk around my little yard and I am never certain which of those charming white flowers is a snow drop and which is a lily-of-the-valley.

Jamaica says she mostly worries when she is out in her garden. I can relate to that! Should I kill the snails or throw them into the little woods on the other side of the fence or use some new kind of godawful ecologically-correct poison that may be kind to the earth but gives the snails six days of agony before they die? Will my guests be astute enough to recognize that those plants I carefully put in the perennial bed are actually weeds? " Plant weeds with a beautiful flower," the garden book says. Weeds with a beautiful flower? Gardener's delight.

Jamaica would probably know which weed I should find. Maybe thungergia gregorii. She teaches at Harvard, after all. In her inimitable style, she might take off on the 'weed' with some excellent, throw-away remarks on the nature of humanity or the enigmas of politics.

She's wonderful. I'd love to scoop her up and transport her into the little, fake greenhouse my love made in order to protect our friend the Schefleria from freezing. It got too big for us to move indoors, so we just built a little plastic house for it. Now the cacti which were perishing from the rain have a dry home, too.

Jamaica, I am half in love with you, even though you said that you don't like orchids. I feel certain that if you just stopped and looked deeply into my cymbidium, you might slide through it into another reality, like Herman Hesse's young hero in "Iris."

Gardening is not just an art form. It is an initiation into empathy with other species. This bromiliad, you think, grows in the branches of trees in the tropics. Then you feel its need for moisture and how its roots search uncertainly for a toehold. You live its needs and joys. If you are very discerning, you may even have conversations with your plants, chewing the fat with your antherium lilies, as it were. And with the ants and other creatures of the grass that make ants look like giants.

This is the art of the gardener, the luxury of stating and enjoying your own idea of how the things in front of you ought to be, to do "what a God would do." From the 1/16-inch seed grows stem and leaf, flowers that sexually lure bees to want to pollinate and perpetuate the species. This minute morsel of being-ness grows tapestries of movement and color, universes of life.

Ultimately, like all experience, gardening encompasses you in the beauty of a cosmos beyond ken and the very intrinsic truths of creation. Jamaica captures it all with words that sing and dance and grow. It's a good book.

--- Elizabeth Gips

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