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Worldwide Ace » Lieutenant Rhine’s Violin

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Lieutenant Rhine’s Violin

4 October, 2008 (02:37) | Travelogue

It is pure happenstance that I’m sleeping across the way from an old man. Across the aisle, he slips his suitcase beneath the bed and pulls out a bottle of Pilsner.

“Smart man,” I say, smiling and nodding at him. I’m still a little bit buzzed from Oktoberfest.

“Just a few sips before bed,” he says. His German accent is heavy, but his speech is clear. “It helps me sleep.”

His name is Christophe Rhine and he’s an amateur violinist. He’s returning to Berlin from a friend’s 70th birthday party where he played in her honor.

Christophe is 80 years old. He doesn’t look a day past 70. Perhaps it’s good genes. Perhaps it’s a healthy life. Or perhaps, as he contends, it’s the violin.

“Playing with vigor can do a lot,” he says. He doesn’t have to tell me. The evidence seems pretty clear.

Christophe is a beautiful man. His eyes sparkle as he speaks to me. There’s a lightness to his step that I didn’t expect and though he asks if I am tired, I am rapt by his story. I have more questions than I will be allowed to ask. It is already past eleven PM and our train was scheduled to leave on the hour.

Though he is German, he grew up not only in Germany, but in Jerusalem, where his father was an official. There, he took violin lessons from a fellow Berliner 20 years his senior by the name of Wolfgang Schocken. At age ten, he returned to Berlin.

Like every musician, Christophe has stopped playing and picked up his instrument multiple times. He’s never played professionally from what I gather, though perhaps he could have. He was a soldier and a prisoner of war during last days of World War II, when he was still but a child in body.

I want him to elaborate. I want him to tell me what it was like, why he fought. His father was a diplomat and worked for the Nazis. Is that why he did too?

I don’t ask. I want to hear the rest of his story. I caught a glimpse of regret in his eyes when he mentioned he was a soldier. I think he knows the question is on the tip of my tongue.

He’s a good man. At least, my judge of character seems to say so. I can’t tell if it’s an apology for his participation in things, or a matter of pride when he says that there is documentation that his father helped Jews escape during the Holocaust.  I prefer to think it’s the latter. He beams as he mentions it, but it’s a small aside to the story.

“And never did I forget my violin teacher from Jerusalem,” he says with smile. The war, the holocaust, the trials of being a soldier, they are all less important than music, learning and his relationship with his teacher.

Fresno State University, which wasn’t always as prestigious as it is now, hosted Christophe for a year or two as he studied. His English is impeccable. His time in the states certainly shows. There’s so much I want to know, but, above all else, I need to hear the end to this story.

Christophe travels much. He goes to Israel. He leaves. Never does he track down his teacher, though forever is the man in his mind.

When he is 60, he goes to a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic. The violist is divine, and, according to the playbill, from Tel Aviv. Christophe goes backstage, complements the performance and inquires about his teacher. The violinist, one of the best Christophe had ever heard, puts his hand on his shoulder and says, “Wolfgang was my teacher too.”

“Who was the violinist?” I ask, interrupting with my first question.

“I don’t remember. It might’ve been Itzak Perlman. It might’ve been someone else. He was one of the greats, I know that.”

I offer Christophe a seat. He’s been standing this entire time, the train rocking back and forth, his beer in his hand. He tries to decline, but I’m young and strong and won’t take no for an answer. Seeing my interest, Matt offers me his seat. He needs to make his bed, he says. I’m too fascinated to say no with any amount of veracity.

The violinist gets up from his dressing room stool and pulls a book off his shelf. The spine of the book reads (in German of course) “The Elements of Teaching the Violin: An Introduction to Instrumental Pedagogy.” The author is none other than Christophe’s lost mentor, Wolfgang Alexander Schocken. The violinist tells him that Schocken moved to Tel Aviv and taught him. He’s there no longer, having moved to the United States, married a nice Jewish girl in Cambridge and found a good life there. Christoph is overwhelmed by this news. I can see the excitement of the news in his eyes even now.

I want to ask him if he contacted his mentor right away, but I choose not to interrupt. It seems he didn’t. I don’t know why. He doesn’t say. Instead, he jumps ahead.

In the mid nineties, Christophe is contacted by an academic by the name of Barbara Von der Lühe. She is studying at Humboldt in Berlin and working on a paper called “Die Musik war unsere Rettung!: Die deutschsprachigen Gründungsmitglieder des Palestine Orchestra” (“The Music was our Salvation!: The German founding members of the Palestine Orchestra”). He tells her his story, the story of Schocken, his teacher and mentor whom he’s never forgotten. Weeks go by. Unbeknownst to him, this reporter has been talking to Schocken. Out of the blue, a letter arrives.

“Dear Christophe,” it reads. “It is a pleasure to know you remember me so fondly. I, too, have not forgotten the little violinist I taught in Jerusalem.” With those words, the relationship is rekindled.

Over the years, Christophe visited his professor in Boston several times. They became fast friends. Schocken died in the mid 90s (96 or 97 Christophe says), but to this day, he has an impact on Christophe. Though he doesn’t say it, I know Christophe is thinking that Schocken had an impact on everyone Christophe has played for. It’s a beautiful thought that floats in his eyes.

It’s late. The train is moving faster. Christophe’s beer is half gone, though he only intended to drink a few sips. It’s bed time for him.

This story of his, that I never in a million years would’ve heard were it not for circumstance and luck, weighs heavy on me. Tomorrow, I will wake up and ask if I can buy him dinner. And perhaps, if I’m lucky, I can record his story. It’s one worth telling and one I’d give nearly anything to hear in full.

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  • Jess Newman (of the Celts)

    Hey Ben. Sorry it’s been so long… you know the deal, one thing after another. I’ll tell you all about it once you get back. When is that again? Any idea?
    Thanks a lot for the postcards, man. It really means a lot to me, actually. I know I haven’t commented since you left, but I’ve been reading your blog pretty regularly. I just kind of gave up on blogging because I don’t usually find myself with the time to journal (it’s never something I was very much into, if you recall).
    I envy you so much you wouldn’t believe it. I hope that your attitude is better than when you left, but I’m guessing it is by the posts you make. I think you’ve been blessed, if you’ll permit such a word, with the gift of seeing so much of the world, and that the memories you make will last your whole lifetime. You’ll have to show me a slideshow when you get back… I’m assuming that what you post is less than 1/100th of what you have, but even that’s pretty incredible.
    Send me an email, if you have the time.
    Keep having fun on your journey. Can’t wait for you to get back, man.

  • Jess Newman (of the Celts)

    Hey Ben. Sorry it’s been so long… you know the deal, one thing after another. I’ll tell you all about it once you get back. When is that again? Any idea?
    Thanks a lot for the postcards, man. It really means a lot to me, actually. I know I haven’t commented since you left, but I’ve been reading your blog pretty regularly. I just kind of gave up on blogging because I don’t usually find myself with the time to journal (it’s never something I was very much into, if you recall).
    I envy you so much you wouldn’t believe it. I hope that your attitude is better than when you left, but I’m guessing it is by the posts you make. I think you’ve been blessed, if you’ll permit such a word, with the gift of seeing so much of the world, and that the memories you make will last your whole lifetime. You’ll have to show me a slideshow when you get back… I’m assuming that what you post is less than 1/100th of what you have, but even that’s pretty incredible.
    Send me an email, if you have the time.
    Keep having fun on your journey. Can’t wait for you to get back, man.

  • Anonymous

    It’s all good. Blessed is exactly the word I’d choose, however awkward it may sound coming from a devout atheist’s mouth. And I’ll be back toward the middle of November. I’m sure you’ll get a call (or at least a blog post) warning you.

  • It’s all good. Blessed is exactly the word I’d choose, however awkward it may sound coming from a devout atheist’s mouth. And I’ll be back toward the middle of November. I’m sure you’ll get a call (or at least a blog post) warning you.