Requiem for a violin – Part 1: Homeland

In the dark alleys of Bogota, there are corners where you could never feel safe. Whoever lives in this city knows that. And yet … Haven’t we all been in danger unnecessarily before in our lives? Haven’t all of us ever told, profoundly relieved, how we just saved ourselves from a life-threatening situation and how we practically have been to death’s door?

Anyone who has never spoken the sentence, “man that could have turned out quite differently,” perhaps wanted to forget this moment, or, he is actually a “happy fool who doesn’t know the danger.” The latter isn’t as funny in real life as it sounds in the comedy “Donna Diana,” because he who doesn’t know any danger, can’t protect himself from it.

Undaunted by death or a Fool?

Maybe that’s why self-endangerment has become an everyday occurrence. Putting oneself in danger alone is not always punishable. Yet, that doesn’t have to be anyway. When it comes bad off, the maximum punishment for self-endangerment in many cases is lethal and often follows swiftly. It is carried out in a matter of seconds and remains irreversible. Grim Reaper always has high season!

A night like any other…?

In February 1978 – one Friday morning shortly after five – in the shade of the rising sun a grey-haired elderly gentleman, early sixty, medium-sized and slim, strolled from the Carrera Sexta down to the grand Carrera septimal, the main avenue of Bogota. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt, and a black bow tie. A loose, white silk scarf dangled around his scrawny neck. Dressed like an orchestral musician from old times on the other side of the Atlantic, going home from an acclaimed performance. Black shoes polished to a shine, of course. He never left home without shiny shoes. That was an old habit, from the time in the “Wehrmacht,” back in Germany. Under his arm, he, the musician, held his old violin in a violin case.

The man now approached the Carrera Septima. On the corner, he crossed the Carrera Septima, walked to the other side of the Avenida, went down towards Quinta, past the Hotel Monaco and lit a cigarette. Alcoholized, certainly not drunk, he stopped for a moment. He looked around, took a long suction at the cigarette, inhaled the grey smoke slowly and deeply into himself, looked further around him and made a happy and content impression. As happy and satisfied as men are when they have just turned their backs on the door of a bordello after a long night of drinking. A few steps further on, just before the Carrera Quinta, directly in front of the Panaderia “El Cometa” – perhaps the most famous bakery in Colombia – two sturdy thugs jumped on the man to rob him. Our friend defended himself vehemently and in doing so dropped the violin case onto the sidewalk. The robbers were young guys – the man over sixty. The three wrestled with each other. The anger in him made the resistance of the old man even more furious. Then one of the robbers reached after the knife. With full force, he blindly rammed it into his victim. Deadly injured, the man slumped down. With his last strength he staggered a little, then his resistance was at an end. Tumbling crashed onto the tarred sidewalk and bled to death on the spot. Unknown and without prey, the robbers fled; the next victim was already waiting at the next corner. Potential victims are many in this infinitely large city.

Chaos on the sidewalk – How rescuers become undertakers

Behind the locked door of the Hotel Monaco, the night porter had observed the scene. It was him who called the police and rescue services. First to arrive was the rescue team. They could only determine the death of the musician. Because the police did not come immediately, neither did the undertakers, the rescuers themselves called the public prosecutor by radio. He also was faster than the police. He stated the death of the victim and released the body for transport. While the police still didn’t show up, the paramedics loaded the dead man with a stretcher into the ambulance, covered his face with the bloodied white silk scarf, looked around one last time, noticed the violin case on the sidewalk, took it with them and drove with the dead man and his violin case to the city morgue to make the cause of death official. As the ambulance took the bend to Avenida and ran off towards Chapinero with howling siren, the police came around the corner with blue lights as the last instance.

Everything is routine – Business as usual

One dead – two unknown murderers – no witnesses. Just a few sleepwalkers. Trash. Drunk – stoned. The prostitutes in the bordello – where the man had spent the whole night – 200 meters away from the crime scene, had waved at him smiling with a kiss on the hand before locking the door. They had noticed nothing of the tragedy. No one could or wanted to have seen anything. The interviewees only spoke of trivial matters. For the police, the case was settled more quickly than for anyone else involved. Even the press took more of their time for this event than the gendarmes. Journalists of “El Tiempo” heard on the police radio what had just happened in the middle of the city. They sent a reporter to see if there was something worth writing a report for. In Bogota, someone is constantly being murdered on the streets. Not always there is something worth reporting. Murders are commonplace daily in this city – more precisely, every night. Only for the law keepers, it remained “Una baja mas al acta” – one more victim just sent to the files. Next, please!

Pockets empty –upper limbs loaded

While it was just a night like any other for the police, yet it got still interesting for the reporters of “El Tiempo.” As it turned out, the dead man wasn’t just any violinist, or even street musician, oh no, and his violin wasn’t just any violin, it was a precious Stradivarius that, had the robbers known it, would have been worth more than one of the coveted brand new imported cars from Europe. The man’s ability of defense and his empty pockets had become his doom. He carried the real jewel visibly and yet completely unrecognized, in front of him.

A Colombian emerald mine owner had once offered him 100,000 U.S. dollars for the violin. He wanted to give the violin to his son. This extravagant gift was intended to awaken in him the desire to learn how to play the violin. The owner of the emerald mine wished for nothing more than a famous violinist in the family. Money played no role here. He really had enough of that. Social recognition, being really respected by those up there. This part of the ascent could only be achieved through an exceptional educational path. As many merits as possible had to be achieved, all on the big stage, to be seen by everyone already from afar. In the father’s mind, the son should help his country and his family to great prestige in the world. South American virtuosos were already in high demand at that time, at the international concert halls. An expensive violin would be the beginning of a great career, the emerald mine owner thought to himself when he made the man his offer. But the man did not want to part with his Stradivarius. Not at that time, neither in that fateful night in Bogota.

Brotherly kiss among equals

The man whose fate all the newspapers in the country reported about the following day was Johannes Schwarz. All known under the name “Johny.” Those who had never heard the name Johny Schwarz in Bogota in the seventies of the last century must have lived lonely and locked up in a house away from the cosmopolitan city, without radio and television, because Johny was the fellow marksman of musicians from head to toe, admired and worshipped by many local musicians. From Club Militar, in the capital, where he entertained generals and statesmen with his orchestra, to the television stations, which at that time almost all still broadcasted their programmes in black and white, he was a welcome guest. Lucho Bermudez, at that time the most famous of all Colombian orchestra leaders, greeted Johny, whenever he met him in the streets, always with a firm embrace and a brotherly kiss among equals, that is how much he respected the musician from Germany.

Johny come home

Who was this Johny Schwarz? What kind of human being revealed himself behind this dazzling figure of man and musician? More than just one life had come to an end when the morning dawned on that unfortunate day. The biography of a Johny Schwarz would have been worth at least five bulging books to any publisher had the author only wanted to write it. But Johny didn’t like “PP,” as he called it, and meant “personal publicity.” Audiences yes, but a highly hyped exuberant blah-blah-blah, outside of any musical achievement – by no means! His motto was, you have to play, play, play, then you get applause. And the more applause he got, the better he could play. Publicity in the form of press, radio, and television outside an artistic performance, that was in his eyes “all chatter.” But he had so much to tell.

I remember when I first met him. It was in May 1971, I had just taken over the leadership of the Anglo-American Club in the old downtown of Bogota, and the first big event I was asked to organize as the club’s leading director was the wedding reception for the daughter of a respected Colombian industrialist. A little over 100 guests were invited. There was lobster and caviar for everyone, a succulent main dish with several courses. Wines and champagne, naturally, and of course the most famous dance band of the capital was engaged for the whole day. I noticed that the orchestra leader – obviously European – spoke with a slight foreign accent when he communicated in Spanish with his musicians. While I wondered from which country in Europe he came, he addressed me immediately with a charming smile in German and stretched out his hand to greet me: “My name is Johny. Johny Schwarz. But for you I am Johny. Forget the Schwarz and the Mr”. Pretty self-assertive, I thought. Surprised I looked at him and couldn’t help but look at him from top to bottom with mustering eyes. His appearance had unsettled me. And although I had no intention of looking at him condescendingly, my uncontrolled appearance left exactly the impression I wanted to avoid. Johny didn’t forgive me for this moment for a long time, and it took years to convince him that I was not a friend of arrogance. The first thing that caught my eye was the shiny polished black shoes and the perfect accurate crease of his black silk trousers over them. Before me stood a man, who belonged to my father’s generation. Without hesitating, I returned his smile, reached for his hand and introduced myself as well: “I am Arthur, forget the Pahl. Nice to meet you”.

This greeting was the somewhat starched beginning of a long friendship with Johny. Moments later the ice thawed between us. The band that played under his direction had a phenomenal rhythm. Simply Salsa: Tumbadora, bongos, timbales, occasionally accompanied by claves and maracas, while accordion, drums, flute transversal, violins and string instruments emphasized the whole thing. In between he, the Johny, with his beloved violin at his chin, in the solo lead. Whenever he touched the strings with the bow, a tender smile came over his face. Johny playing a solo always became an act of love on the open stage. The passionate exchange between the musician and the violin – his violin, actually nothing else as a piece of beautiful fine wood, from which he could elicit sounds that catapulted a lot of hearts into a heavenly joy. What a sound, when all together in the crescendo belt out their joint sound out into the audience. All over the hall, the walls wiggled, and even the hundred-year-old grandmother of the parents-in-law bust a move on the dance floor.

As long as I can remember Johny, there was always a lot of laughing and joking around when we met. Over the years we got to know each other better and told each other things about our lives. So I learned from him that he came from Halle, being the son of a chamber musician. Born in 1917, two years older than my father. He did not reveal much of his childhood. Only that he always wanted to become a musician, just like his father, who gave him a birthday present for his 12th birthday. He took him to Berlin and gave him a ticket to a concert by the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who made his debut under the direction of Bruno Walter in an E major violin concerto by Beethoven and Brahms. This musical sensation only strengthened the young Johny’s desire to become a musician to such an extent that from now on he thought nothing else. At some point, he also wanted to stand on a big stage and enjoy the applause for himself in front of an international audience.

Four years later Hitler seized power in Germany when Johny was already three years before his high school diploma. He could hardly wait to enroll at the Halle Conservatory. In 1936 the time had come. But three years later the war began. Johny was allowed to study music for another two years, then he was drafted.

At first, he was fine. After basic training with the Wehrmacht, he was transferred to an officers’ casino. There he played the violin in the evening, and otherwise, he did on-call duty for officers who wanted to be entertained. One or the other major, captain or general. A birthday party here, a jamboree for a war hero there – and the like. Until the enlisting order came. In 1943 every man was needed. Johny was detached to the center army group. Again he had contact with generals and officers. But at some point, he too could no longer avoid the fighting. In March 1943 he was injured in Belarus during the Battle of Byalistok. From now on the war was over for him. He was sent to a military hospital, behind the front, in northern Bavaria, where he was operated twenty times in one year. Splinters removed from his back. Wounds healed. The temporary paralysis in the legs treated. It took a whole year when the war was almost over until Johny could walk again. He was not yet thirty and had seen more than most eight-year-olds. War, hunger, cruelty, but he was still one of the lucky ones who was not exposed to fighting most of the time, because of his profession, his charm. Johny knew how to make himself popular. But much had broken inside him. In that, he hardly differed from his contemporaries. Both his parents burnt to death in the air-raid shelter of their hometown of Halle on a night of bombing. He had no siblings and had broken off relations with the other relatives since he had moved into the battlefield. When the war was over, the future in Germany had become, at least from one point of view, without an alternative.

During his time in the hospital, he had pondered a lot. The boredom, the disinhibited gossip of his comrades. The whining and bragging. The mutilations. The stench of wounds and ether. Eucodal against torture – the analgesic morphine preparations had long since run out. The conflict. The anger and despair. Hopelessness in this and that, about what fate had in store from now on. In the end, for many, this meant more than a vacuum – in the worst case, total nothingness.

Again, the only ray of hope in his existence was music. But on the battlefield, his violin had gone lost. When he woke up in the field hospital, nobody knew anything about the whereabouts of the instrument. Not being able to play music anymore pulled him down into a depressive black hole. Sometimes, when the paramedic helper organized cheap booze for them, which they then passed around in a yellow glass bottle to escape the daily routine of the sickbay, he was overcome by the longing for his lost violin, which his father had given to him when he was admitted to the conservatory. He imagined that a Russian Cossack was playing the Kasatschók on it somewhere in a soldier’s pub in Berlin, while soldier’s whores were obscenely dancing to it, surrounded by roaring Russians, who circulate bottles of vodka between themselves. It hurt to imagine how his violin was degraded in this way. The violin was from Egerland, no Stradivarius, but certainly not just any fiddle. The loss was a heartache which smoldered deep inside him, carrying with it a touch of home and melancholy and yes, also some longing, for what home once was and could no longer be. “Johny come home,” he hummed quietly to himself. With his mouth closed and his teeth firmly pressed against each other, he cried his sorrow tearlessly into himself. Everything he didn’t want to show to the outside, he merely hummed away, while the booze was passed from hospital bed to hospital bed until the yellow glass bottle was empty.

Sometimes he thought that he would have coped better with not being able to walk more than not playing more violin. It was the first time in his life that he had to spend without his violin. But where would he get a violin in these times of hunger and need?

There he got to know a folk musician from Mittenwald, Sepp, who, when he learned that Johny was a professional concert musician, was so happy that he didn’t want to touch his own instrument anymore, in the evening when they sat together on their bed edges and got into the mood. “Play, Johny, play” they spurred him on, and Johny played for them on the borrowed violin of the Mittenwald Sepp everything that had become a hit in the last decades. “Wie hab’ ich nur leben können ohne Dich “, by Lilian Harvey, “Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb eins “, “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt “, the old sob stuff by Marlene Dietrich. But also Richard Strauss, Hungarian gypsy music and from time to time a classic by Beethoven or Mozart, shortly before the end, as the sweet bedtime lullaby before the lights were turned off. Meanwhile, doctors, nurses, and patients gathered around him from every room of the hospital, listening to the enchanting sounds. With him in the center, they met as an applauding audience.

Sepp accepted Johny so much into his heart, he gave him the violin the day he was released from the sickbay.

“You gotta know somethin’, you Prussian,” he said to him in his thick Bavarian accent, “Me comin’ from Mittenwald. We gotta much wood for makin’ them violins, it’s now yours”. Prussian Johny had tears running down his cheeks when he was given the violin by Sepp from Mittenwald when they said goodbye.

With a Mittenwald violin under his arm, the future for Johny was secured. So he could play on a stage again very soon. Hour zero. Dance evenings. Festival bands. War returnees. War widows. Officer’s casino at the American military base. There were many opportunities to find a job as a professional musician. Johny finally earned his living again. Including barter transactions. Cigarettes. Nylon stockings. Whiskey.

Barely two years after he was wounded he was ready to leave the country. He felt like many other former soldiers when they came back and found nothing but rubble and ruins. They lost confidence in the future. The word home in their own country suddenly had no meaning for them anymore. They wanted nothing but to leave and find another, new home. Where to go, that wasn’t too clear to Johny either. In the United States, he did not want to try it at all in the first place. He had heard that many a former Wehrmacht soldier who was active on the battlefield did not get a visa for the USA. (Years later, when the German scientist and former SS officer Wernher von Braun had become an American citizen and captured the TV screens of the whole world during the moon landing, also Johny saw him at home in Bogota on his TV. Until his death, he was annoyed that the Americans had given the former SS man an American passport. Had he known this, he, who was never a Nazi, would have also daredalso to emigrate to America).

But it was different. Johny thought of the Caribbean, the Netherlands Antilles, he had heard about that and also about the fact that things would be more civilized there than on the other islands of the Caribbean. With the dollars from the Americans, he bought a ticket to Willemstad. In a small suitcase, he had the few belongings he still owned with him. And, of course, his Mittenwald violin, the one from Sepp …

What Johny experienced on his crossing into the new world? How he finally came to Colombia and found his new home there and how the Mittenwald violin became the Stradivarius? Why on the last day of his life did he put himself in such a foreseeable danger? What devil may have ridden him that evening, for older gentlemen with Central European faces attract everyone’s attention, especially in Bogota in broad daylight, someone like that does not stroll at dusk through the morning transition from the darkness of the night to the brightness of the day, unconcerned and half-drunk, towards his murderers. All these coherences already answer a part of the question about the personality of the man and the whole complexity that was hidden behind the actor of the event. That and more, dear readers, you will learn in the second part of this true story in our January 2019 issue, “Family.”

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