Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2277661-The-Holocaust-Piano
Rated: E · Short Story · Dark · #2277661
A forgotten piano comes to life.


East Cary Street, in Richmond Virginia, is known for its historical cobblestone streets, its many abandoned warehouses aching for someone to breathe life into them, and the train trestles suspended above the street in a sort of chaotic snake-like dance. As the trains go by, they cause the warehouses to rumble, as if an earthquake were happening every fifteen to twenty minutes. The abandoned warehouses compose about a half a mile strip near the end of the Cary Street.

It’s an early Saturday morning when I drove to this section of town in a sleep-deprived fog from the previous day of work and I am barely aware of my surroundings that have become so familiar to me. I pull up in front of an old, derilect, three story, brick warehouse, with its ominous paint-flecked iron shutters that have cracked and peeled from decades of decay and neglect.

I stepped out of my car and looked around, the feeling of complete isolation felt eerily unsettling, as there is not a single soul to be seen nor sound to be heard at that early hour. I will be completely alone this morning, trying to finish up my project for the Virginia Holocaust Museum. As I stand before the entrance, smoking a cigarette, a train passes by on the elevated tracks across the street. Right on time, there's that rumbling and shaking going throughout my body.

I have spent the majority of my waking hours inside of this dilapidated warehouse that is being restored to house the Virginia Holocaust Museum. I was a volunteer at the museum, and usually my main projects entailed researching and writing for the archives. Just recently though, the Director of the museum, awarded me with the project of refurbishing a baby grand piano that was salvaged from a nearby synagogue because he trusted that I would put my heart and soul into making sure it was finished on time for the fundraising drive to be held at the musuem.

Once I saw it, I was almost overwhelmed. Time was short, and I had never refurbished anything that was this monumental of a task! The piano was caked with several layers of the most hideous greenish-yellow paint, as well as many coats of polyurethane. It was the weekend before our September 11th fundraising drive in which this piano would be used. I felt immediately distraught and defeated. I had a week. I'll say that again. One week to refurbish a salvaged piano from a synagogue in Richmond by someone whos largest refurbishing work had been a small desk. I won't say how that turned out.

This was one of the most terrifying projects I had ever been assigned. I shook the feeling and told myself that it was not going to be issue. I started to plan my strategy the moment I was given the task. I knew my weekend would be filled with just trying to strip layers of different coats of paint from the piano before I could begin even trying to tackle the rest of it. I was going to bring it back to the life. Once again, it would be pure and beautiful. It had to be. It was going to be used as an integral part of the fundraiser. There could be no failure whatsoever!


After putting out my cigarette I knew I had no time to waste. I unlocked the door to the building and turned off the security alarm.

I stood there in the shadowy, narrow hallway with just a small flashlight to see by. It was deathly quiet. The pungent smell of old wood gripped my senses. I shook off the initial foreboding reaction, I swore quickly to myself to weave my way through all of the different areas of construction, which were already being built up so that tours could come through, as fast as possible. My heart had started beating faster and I was only in the hallway with a flashlight. The piano was on the second floor, but I could not bear the darkness that was engulfing the 1st floor. I had to turn on all of these lights. There was no way I was coming to get anything I needed to work with without the first floor practically glowing with blinding light to the very recesses!

'Get to the end of the hall and switch the one switch on the right. Just do it!'

I did it! Parts of the downstairs were now at least lit up some. The problem was; I had to make it to all of them downstairs. That meant, I had to go to the gas chamber exhibit, another exhibit where my Director, who survived the holocaust, had to stay in a hidden celler in Poland to survive, the heinous exhibit of Auschwitz and Birkenau prison camps, as well as many others. The one exhibit that frightened me so horribly and disturbed me for hours was when I HAD to turn on the light in which there was a path running through an actual boxcar that was used to haul people to the concentration camps. The way that it was set up; there was no other way to go. You HAD to walk through it!

I froze as soon as I got to the pitch black darkness of the boxcar. I shined the light on all the sections, thoughts came to me out of nowhere and battered my mind.

Oh God, I can see them and hear them in there! STOP THINKING...STOP THINKING!!

Faceless, desperate, tortured souls were reaching out to me and begging for help. By now, I'm so scared I just want to race to my car and go home. Alas, I knew I could not do that. There was a project that HAD to be done.

'Okay, shine the flashlight on just the floor and go. Go damn it! Go! Go you idiot there's no one there! Just run like hell and hit the switch on the other side! One...two......three....run, run, run!!!!!!'

I ran as if I was running for my life and turned on the last switch. My heart was threatening to explode in my chest by this time. I'm thinking that I am going to leave them all on and just tell the director that I forgot to turn off every the light downstairs. There's no way I could have gone through that again.

I head upstairs to tackle the piano and turn on music to settle my nerves. The piano seemed even larger than when I had looked at it before and I immediately lost confidence. Did I have the ability to finish this gigantic job? I barely knew where to start. I told myself that I could not fail; the stakes were too high. The fundraiser had to go off without a hitch!

I grabbed the paint stripper, my scraper, and the radio out of the tool room and set up for the long day ahead. Happily, the stripper that I had applied the day before was now ready to scrape off. Before I knew it, I had been scraping rhythmically for two hours and my George Jones CD had long stopped playing. My hands were severely aching as I finished a section that I had been working on and I reluctantly put down my tools. I sat back and stared for some time at the piano. My arms felt like they were falling off and my hands were so numb that the putty knife I was using fell to the floor with a loud clank and dust rising from the warehouse floor.

I knew that the piano would not have that beautiful mahogany stain, nor the gloss finish put on it by September the 11th: I only had five more twelve-hours days to get done as much as I possibly could. In fact, I might not even get the piano stripped and sanded down to its natural wood before my time was up. There was no questioning the fact that I was giving my all to this harrowing project, but I was worried that I would not be able to completely refurbish the piano in the time set. I sat back and sighed; worried and anxious about this fact.


I listened to the hum of only the air conditioner and the sound of the windows rattling every moment that a train went by. In my immense anxiety, a thought crossed my mind, and I wondered what would have happened to me if I was in a death camp in Nazi Germany and had been given this task to complete on time.

Would I have been able to finish the piano under these timely conditions, knowing that it would be life or death? The truth was that I was not sure if I could have completed it or not. Maybe knowing that I would be put to death would have pushed me finish it before my time ran out in some concentration camp. There would never be an answer to that pernicious question for me. I doubt I would have existed much longer in that case. I would have been another person in a boxcar going to my death, and knowing it. I would have been one of the faceless people I had imagined were in the boxcar downstairs, begging someone for help.

All I knew was that, in the present, I would not be able to complete this in the time frame given.

The thoughts of torture and death consumed me, but I continued to stare at the piano and pondered various versions of my predicament. A prisoner presenting an unfinished duty during the Holocaust was inevitably subjected to sickening and ghastly torture, or immediate death. Which would I be subjected to? I had studied a plethora of genocides in undergraduate school and knew the systematic means of dealing with people who do not 'please' the perpetrators of these human rights atrocities. Even if you do try to appease them; it is usually a useless cause, as, invaritably you cannot please a person or group who think through 'mass mentality', brainwashing and their own propoganda. They take no responsibility for their own actions. They deem their insidious actions to be part of the group. They could savagely kill without remorse. The thoughts inundated me and fear like no other found me in the stillness of my surroundings, praying that I could return home. That, unfortunately, was not an option. I shook my head and headed outside for some kind of relief from the ghosts that swirled within the museum and into my head.

I sat down on the stairs leaning up to the museum and lit my cigarette. I leaned back against the brick building and surveyed my surroundings. I relished my Marlboro and the taste of my Mountain Dew as I watched the trains go by.

The Amtrak trains caught my attention. As they passed through at a slower speed, I could make out shadows of people and unknown objects through the windows. Did they see me? Did they see the sign for the Virginia Holocaust Museum and find it eerily ironic, as I did, that their train had passed slowly by this building? Or did they not even glance over at me or the museum at all while they drank cocktails, read their books, laughed with one another, ate in the dining car, and just enjoyed a vacation with their family? I would bet my life on the fact that they did not notice, and if they did, it would only be to see a grimy, filthy, paint flecked man sitting in front of a warehouse. I, and the museum, were doubtlessly a mere blur to them; an undesirable. I imagine that the view of the shimmering canal and its boats on the other side of the track was considerably more pleasant to gaze at.

These disturbing thoughts haunted me for the rest of the day as I toiled away with even more vigor and determination than before. I wanted to stand on the roof of the building and shout to somehow make the whole world notice and remember the Holocaust and other nefarious crimes against humanity. I wanted to open their eyes to this inhumanity that seeps and crawls into our world to rip apart humankind. I wanted to unveil this demon and show those who were not aware of the truth, and that there has been no ‘Never Again’! Genocide did not end with the Holocaust. It is still showing it's gnashing teeth and ghoulish face in todays world. There is no use in looking the other way. Genocide is not to be seen as something that only happens when wars break out. They can happen at any time, in any place, just through the hatred of certain groups of people. It can happen right there. Right where you are. Right where you live.


After ten hours of grueling work, I had the piano’s main surfaces stripped down. The intricate details of it would have to wait until tomorrow. It would be difficult to complete the stripping, as I had to be extremely cautious not to dig into the wood in the small crevices. The endeavor would be tedious and take an immense amount of time. I proceeded to leave the lights on and headed home to wash the dust and grime off off of my body.

For the rest of the week, I spent at least twelve hours a day trying to get it completely stripped, sanded, and stained to perfection. On the last day before our event, I had stripped the whole piano and had it thoroughly sanded down to its natural wood. Although the Director had told me that I had done an amazing job, I felt like I had failed, and thought again about what would happen to me in Nazi Germany for this failing. It was such a disturbing thought that it would not let me rest. There was no beautiful mahogany finish on it as was planned. This salvaged piece of history had crushed my hopes. I felt so incredibly small and vulnerable. I had not saved a thing. It was uncovered though. The piano tuner also told me he had never seen one refurbished to this magnitude by an amateur. Even then, I couldn't take happiness from that. I felt like I had let millions and millions of people down.

When I arrived at the benefit, I stood in the back to let others who were guests sit, and got ready for the piano's musical debut. Seeing it in the spotlight, with the lights shining on it, gave me an alternative perspective which surprised me. Yes, I had not completed what everyone at the museum had hoped. Even so, I had breathed life again into this piano, and it shone with its pure, naked truth! I had uncovered the overt ugliness that existed into something that was going to be cherished, to survive, and I felt a sense of worthiness in my small fight against genocide in the world. It was also wonderful that others there admired what I had done and how beautiful the music coming out of it filled their ears, hearts, and minds. After many people had come up to me with their admiration, I began to feel as if I HAD done something that was quite meaningful, especially when they wanted to come back and see that mahogany finish and polish on it. There are times we don't realize how we can affect others with just a small piece of sweet rememberance and honor for their struggles. Letting them know, letting everyone on earth know, that you care deeply and truly will never stop working to make a dent into something that is so much larger than ourselves.

Today, I still work on these domestic and foreign struggles concerning genocide through writing and research. I may be one person, but I have a great deal of passion and try to educate and bring the truth to any genocide that may be occurring. There are many others in the international community who focus on these studies and work tirelessly to prevent these sickening manifestations from happening. Whatever your passion may be, don't hide it. Do what makes you feel whole in this world. By doing that you also touch others in ways you will never know. I thought I had changed nothing by refurbishing that piano, but I realized that that one miniscule task, had changed and brightened everyone's perspective and their hearts. The people in attendance then shared the story of our fundraiser; and many came back to see the finished piano. It gave them great joy to see that it had been 'rescued'. My story was heard through that piano, as I also had one to tell. What will yours be?

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

Albert Einstein

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