Project Elijah – Part 3

Day 6
Today is the big day. We are bound for Leipzig. For most of us, this will be the climax of our tour. We are to perform at the Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn himself founded and conducted the world-famous Gewandhaus Orchestra. For me, there is an additional reason. This is the city where my own father was born.
Unfortunately, having been forced to spend the night in Dresden, there is going to be very little time for sightseeing in Leipzig, and certainly none to search for the street where my father’s family used to live.
Before leaving for Leipzig, we are taken on a whistle-stop tour of Dresden, the driver pointing out the sights from the bus. At one point, he stops where he should not, to allow us to get out of the bus and take photos. I can understand, therefore, that he is somewhat agitated when the photographers take rather more than two minutes to return to the bus, but one can’t help feeling – under the circumstances – that to shout "Juden, schnell" is, to put it charitably, somewhat lacking in sensitivity…
We don’t reach Leipzig until 11 o’clock. Since we are to attend a welcome party at the local branch of the Gospel Forum at 15:00, and then proceed directly to the Gewandhaus, this leaves scarcely any time at all for sightseeing in Mendelssohn’s own town. I ask Brigitte, our redhaired guide, about Berlinerstrasse and explain that my father’s family lived there. As we are at the Hauptbahnhoff – the main railway station – Berlinerstrasse is, in fact, not far away. However, Brigitte tells me that most of the houses have been torn down and that it is now mainly an industrial area. Furthermore, as soon as she learns that I am the daughter of a Leipziger, she puts an arm around my shoulder, embraces me as a long-lost friend and tells me all about the annual reunion organized by the Leipzig Municipality and how many Jews have come back to visit. I must be sure to tell my father about it, she is sure he would like to come.
Time being so short, she then leads us off at breakneck speed in the direction of Mendelssohn’s house. Obviously, having come here to sing Mendelssohn’s "Elijah", we want to see the great man’s home. On the way, we pass the Gewandhaus and are delighted to see the poster advertising our concert. It is slightly disconcerting that Brigitte, who, as she tells us, is usually well-informed about Gewandhaus events, as any good tour guide should be, had not previously heard about the German-Israeli performance that is to take place this evening.
At the Mendelssohn House, we find the original manuscript of "Elijah". It is open at the start of Part 2 of the oratorio, the soprano aria "Höre Israel" , which I immediately start humming. I am then asked by one of my colleagues from the choir to sing it, while he zooms in on the score with his videocam. The idea catches on and I am obliged to repeat the same few bars over and over again.
In one of the rooms, a cellist and a pianist are playing a piece I do not recognise. But it is a wonderful feeling, to hear music in Mendelssohn’s own home. I am sure he would be pleased.
From the Mendelssohn House, we proceed to the Church of St. Thomas. Nobody with any pretensions to being a music-lover, could possibly come to Leipzig and fail to visit the grave of Johann Sebastian Bach, now could they? So we dutifully trot off to pay our respects to the man who, in 2000, was voted : "The Composer of the Millenium".
Next, it’s off to the local branch of the Gospel Forum for coffee and cakes and a surprise – presents for everyone. Little statuettes representing "Peace on Earth", "Sisters", "Wisdom", etc. A statuette is placed on the table in front of every chair, but we are free to choose any of the statuettes we like. I choose "Peace on Earth". It is rather touching – the more so, because our hosts now explain that their earnest wish is to try to atone for the horrors perpetrated on the Jewish nation by the German People. This is where we come back to what I wrote before, about visiting the sins of the fathers on the children. The thought occurs to me, seeing how very sincere they are, how awful it must be, walking around feeling such a crushing weight of guilt. It is all rather embarrassing, actually. Because I really, truly, do not hold this generation, born after the war, in many cases, to parents born themselves after the war, guilty of the crimes of the Nazis. And yet… maybe I do, deep in my heart.
After the speeches, the coffee and the cakes, we return to the Gewandhaus, for a rehearsal and an early supper. The place is huge, intimidating even – and after rehearsal, we get lost in the endless corridors looking for the artistes’ restaurant.
Then it is time to get dressed up in our formal togs for the concert. While the soloists and – apparently – the orchestra, have changing rooms allocated to them, we are left to fend for ourselves, and make use of any empty space that remains. We are given a pep talk, reminded that the concert is being recorded, with a view to producing a CD, and that we must on no account whisper, cough, sneeze or fidget once "on-stage", as the famed acoustics of the Gewandhaus will make it possible for the microphones to pick up the least noise.
Behind the scenes just before the concert is due to start, we line up in rows. Breathe deeply. Enter the huge auditorium.
The first half does not, to my ear, go well. There are no actual mistakes, but the choir sounds hesitant. There is none of the confidence that characterised the first two concerts. I suspect that the "pep talk" actually had the opposite effect. People are intimidated by the very fact of being here, in this almost hallowed place, where the composer himself conducted the work we are performing tonight. To make matters worse, the fact that the choir sits in a huge gallery above the stage and the conductor is way down below us, with the entire orchestra between us, means that a good deal of the connection between the Maestro and the choir is lost. True, we can still see him as he waves his arms about down there below, but we can no longer catch his facial expressions which, to those of us who know him well, play a big role in the way we react to him. This too, to my way of thinking, contributes to the loss of confidence.
After the interval, Part 2 at first seems to be going better – until the wonderfully dramatic moment when, after Queen Jezebel orders her supporters to arrest Elijah, the choir (representing the Queen’s cohorts) joins in with a magnificent chorus about how Elijah must die (Section 24, for those who know the oratorio in question). Somehow, things start to come apart and the choir and orchestra are no longer together. I don’t know how my fellow choristers react, I only know that I feel a few moments of sheer panic! How he does it, I do not know – but Ronen manages to pull us back together. Can I breathe again? Well, not quite. There are a couple more "near misses" before the end of the evening, but the audience is very sympathetic tonight, and demands an encore before we are allowed to leave the stage/gallery. I think, for most of the choir, this makes up for what went before and I too, heart still pounding wildly, join in the final chorus with a feeling of elation. Come on! We’ve just played the Gewandhaus!
Outside, further disasters await us. One of the buses has broken down again. Since we are to sleep tonight in Halle, some 60 kilometres away, those of us who are not on the broken bus, are sent on our way. Unfortunately, when we arrive at the hotel, it turns out that, in order to save time on arrival at the hotel (which was to have been after midnight, under any circumstances, due to the distance), the rooms have already been allocated and the keys are in the hands of one of the tour organizers – who is still in Leipzig with the other bus!
After what seems an interminable argument with the reception clerk, we are given the duplicate keys.
Can I now get to sleep? Oh, dear me, no! That would be too easy. They have given me a room in a smoking wing. Down again I go, to request a room change. I don’t get to sleep till almost 2AM.
Day 7
After breakfast, we set off for Berlin. On arrival in the capital, we are driven around the city and shown the main sights – the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam Square, the Reichstag building, the Ku’damm etc.
Then it’s straight on to the Berliner Dom for a rehearsal and back to the hotel for supper and a short rest, before it’s time to dress for the final concert of our tour.
On the bus to the Dom, I am asked by one of the members of the German choir, how I feel now towards Germany and Germans. I think for a minute, then ask if it’s okay to be completely honest. "Of course" is the expected reply.
"You tried to get rid of us, but here we are anyway," I say.
He smiles, somewhat sadly I think and says that he can understand that. Suddenly, I feel somewhat guilty. They have been trying so very hard and after all, he can’t be more than about 25. I try to reassure him that of course, I don’t hold his generation responsible. But why am I feeling guilty, for heavens sake?!
The Dom is packed tonight, from wall to wall, including all the galleries. Before we begin, there are speeches and then we sing, a capella, the song "Eli, Eli" by Hanna Senesz, the Hungarian-Palestinian* Jewish parachutist executed by Hungarian Nazis in WW2. At the end, there is dead silence in the huge cathedral.
We perform the Oratorio without an intermission, except a short break (more for the soloists than for the choir, I suspect). All two and a half hours of it – greeted, at the end, by thunderous applause.
And now it’s back to the hotel, for it’s party time. More speeches, gifts, farewells. Tomorrow, our German friends head back to Stuttgart and we have a day and a half to see Berlin.
*In the days of the British Mandate, "Palestinian" meant anyone with a Palestinian passport. The Jews of Palestine mobilised to help the Allied war effort and it was for this purpose that Hanna Senesz was parachuted into occupied Hungary. The Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, did all they could to sabotage the British and Allied war effort.
Day 8
It’s a mistake to try and see a city like Berlin without a proper game plan. This becomes painfully clear as, with 2 friends and their sons, I wander around in the pouring rain. We come unstuck on the U-Bahn. For some reason, although the instructions are clearly given in a variety of European languages, we are unable to purchase the tickets we want at the vending machine. Then we can’t find the site we are looking for and when we do, we decide it wasn’t worth the effort.
We salvage what is left of the day with a visit to the Pergamon Museum. The 10 Euro admission fee seems, at first, rather steep, but it does include a rather good audio-guide, which proves very user-friendly. The museum itself is (to someone used to the dimensions of the British Museum) quite small, but well-laid out and, unlike the British Museum, not easy to get lost in. True, the British Museum contains a great many more artefacts and is, moreover, free (for the most part). However, I would certainly recommend a visit to the Pergamon Museum for a first-time visitor to Berlin (especially on a rainy afternoon, such as this was). The reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar, which occupies the whole of the immense first room, is magnificent. There are also reconstructions of the processional gates of Babylon. All in all – not to be missed.
At the end of the day, we decide to treat ourselves to supper at a good restaurant. After tramping around in the rain, I decide to ask the locals for a recommendation. I choose a couple of what look to be well-heeled Berliners and thus we find ourselves dining at a restaurant, the name of which, alas, I have forgotten, but which, I later discover, is actually a part of the Hilton Hotel complex. The food is excellent – and, frankly, the prices are quite reasonable, all things considered. All in all, a good end to a day which started rather badly.
To be continued…

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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