Harpoon Notes for March 6, 2019

President-Elect Rosemarie Rowney struck the Rotary bell, concluding Allison Pollard’s beautiful piano prelude. “America the Beautiful,” which hadn’t been sung for a while, was given full-throated emphasis by an enthusiastic assembly. Amy Goodman came to the podium and shared a moving, and often funny, Inspiration. “For over three quarters of a century children have been reading Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). I’d like to imagine Dr. Seuss as a Rotarian,” Amy reflected. “He said that he never wrote with a moral in mind, that ‘kids can see a moral coming a mile away.’ [Instead,] he likened his stories to looking at life from the wrong end of a telescope” — zany, full of nonsensical action, but always brimming with a tolerance and inclusiveness — “about truly liking yourself [whether short or tall, with big hair or little], or, like the Lorax, protecting the environment. He valued equity, and enhanced our ability to think outside the box.”

Next, acclaimed tenor Steve Pierce led us through impressive renditions of “Red River Valley” and Club favorite, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Why is it, every time Steve leads the singalong, that your reporter has an ineluctable desire to watch the film “Shane”? Perhaps it’s his ability to evoke the frontier, to convince us “to gaze at the moon til [we] lose our senses.”

Regaining the podium, Rosemarie greeted all Rotarians and guests. “I’m your president-elect, and I’m pinch-hitting for Greg, who’s on vacation out West with Pat.” After noting that there weren’t any visiting Rotarians, Rosemarie described her recent trip to Florida, where “Don and I attended a meeting, at a yacht club. Wow, the lunch was expensive!” She then put the spotlight on Bob Dascola “who’s celebrating the 80th anniversary of his family’s barbershop. You probably saw the write-up in the News.” A wave of applause ensued as everyone in the ballroom looked at Bob, who sat beaming with pride and thanks.

Social Committee chair, Susan Smith, made an important announcement: “Our New Member Welcome Reception will take place March 13th at The Session Room, on Jackson Road, from 5:00-7:00 p.m. Also, on Mother’s Day, May 12th, we’ll have our annual Spring Fling. The venue is the Hudson Car Museum [across from Sidetracks] in Ypsilanti, from 4:00-7:00.” The cost is $30 per adult, and $10 per child under twelve “because we want to celebrate Mother’s Day with our families.” Then, on Sunday, June 23, “there’s a picnic at Gallup Park from 4:00-7:00. We thought that it’s been a long time since we’ve seen our playground. So please come to these Club events!”

Rosemarie then announced a new Rotary resource: “We’re trying to become more technology astute. We have team to help us download Club news, dues, etc., where we can pay dues, or make donations. Be an early adapter. Why not? Rosemarie also mentioned that the DOGS will be working on a cleanup at Leslie Science Center. Date and time to follow soon.

Rob Shiff introduced James Hannah, representative for the Huron Valley affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. “We’re celebrating our affiliate’s 30th anniversary by constructing 20 homes this year. We had the help of 2,820 construction volunteers who completed 20,962 donated hours.” James also highlighted the success of Habitat’s ReStore: “700 tons of waste furniture and household furnishings were saved [from dumps] in Washtenaw County. The furniture is cleaned up and sold.” He also cited the Habitat construction project in Guatemala, where 7-8 volunteers are currently serving, building a projected 17 homes. “And next year we expect to build 20! Please go to the website: h4h.org, if you would like to help out.” When James had finished, Rob came to the mic: “Okay, how do we get involved? Brochures are on the tables. I’ll get a date for a home tour [of completed houses and some still under construction]. Habitat for Humanity has ‘instruction days,’ when you learn how to work on the site.”

Speaker: Dennis Powers introduced our speaker, Dr. Patricia Hall: “This afternoon we will hear about a voice from a vanished world; a voice beyond the grave. The generation that survived the Nazi death camps is rapidly dying off. Soon, no one will know, first hand, what it was like…It was that awareness which motivated Patricia Hall to reconstruct and record the short foxtrot she will speak about today. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Patricia Hall.”

Dr. Hall began by showing a photograph. “This is the main entrance to Auschwitz I, under which prisoners would pass into the camp and out to [slave labor] work sites.” The image was chillingly familiar: a gate with decorative Arts and Crafts-style ironwork, forged by master blacksmith (and prisoner) Jan Liwacz, enclosing the phrase “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” — “work sets you free.” As her audience visually entered the infamous camp, Patricia guided them to a three-story blackened brick building in Block 25 “in Auschwitz II (Birkenau), where the musicians would meet and practice.” Auschwitz was a vast complex comprising three main camps with numerous sub-camps. Auschwitz I was primarily a slave labor facility, while Auschwitz II was the extermination center. The gathering musicians would have been frighteningly aware of their meeting location. “And that’s the building where I worked. They’ve even kept the original floor!”

“There were up to 12 different ensembles working in that space,” Patricia noted, each playing an incongruous assortment of instruments — “a mishmash of strings, brass, and woodwinds…that would have been taken from murdered [new arrivals].” She showed a drawing; it was inky black, as if it had been created from the very dirt of the place, from human ashes: A grim procession of men shuffles off to work under a hopeless sky to the accompaniment of the orchestra, “playing German marching songs.” Behind them, a long chimney-studded building acts as a foil, hemming in the prisoners and denying them even the relief of a horizon. “We know exactly where the orchestra played.” And sure enough, Patricia showed an elevated view of the square. “That walkway is the path the prisoners are taking in the drawing; and there’s the building with the chimneys.” Of the musicians, she observed, “They were a ‘tentative ensemble’ — musicians would commit suicide or be murdered.” Sometimes, sometimes, they would survive. She told the story of musician Antony Gargol — identified from Patricia’s translation of the final notes he penned on a dirty sheet of music. “That’s actually his prisoner number: 5665. Antony was an early prisoner at Auschwitz, arriving in 1940, thus the low number,” she pointed out to the astonishment of her audience. “He survived, being released in 1943. He died in 1975.”

And the music? “It is the viola part for a foxtrot. It was given to the [Auschwitz] archive by his family in ’75. Look at the paper — it’s carefully written out on Beethoven paper.”

Perhaps the most fascinating sheet was by a mystery composer: “There’s no name, but he was a fine draftsman,” noted Patricia. The only clue was a cluster of musical symbols forming a bird shape. “I searched the records and found there had been a pianist named Vogel. Vogel, of course, means ‘bird’ in German.” Her listeners gasped. This was no ordinary Rotary speech. Anxiety — and the excruciating need to know more — was on everyone’s face. “Vogel also survived,” noted Patricia, to the assembly’s exquisite relief. Another musician, a bassoonist named Maximilian Pivat, inscribed both his name and number. He, too, survived.

But one didn’t. “Abraham Vanderstaar had been a professional musician in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski. He was a national treasure. Still, he lost his job during the Depression, and moved eventually back to Europe. Soon after, Stokowski sent him a telegram notifying him that he had an opening and to come back. By then, however, Vanderstaar had taken a job with an orchestra in [the Netherlands].” The sounds of the audience swallowing thudded like falling sash weights. “He survived Auschwitz, but they sent him on a forced march to Dachau. He died there a couple days after arriving.”

Then, the climax. Patricia had painstakingly reconstructed the music written by the various prisoners — a foxtrot, and had it recorded! “We recorded, and filmed, in Duberstadt. All the idiosyncrasies [of the various writers] were maintained in the recording. The U-M orchestra did a superlative job. Many in the audience had attended their concert last year, when the piece was performed. Dennis had said it all — “a voice from a vanished world.”

Many, no doubt, felt they had heard the most moving presentation of their Rotary experience. Patricia ended with a quote from Plato: “Music…gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything.”

Amen.