This was begun on April 21, 2018, the eve of Robert Starer’s death seventeen years ago. Each year, the countdown begins: the last meal together (cheeseburgers), his final day of composing music (he completed a song called “The Lake,” which was sung at his funeral,) his last words to me as I was leaving his hospital room (“We still have some more time together.”)
And we do go on together, in our way. This week, Madeline Albright’s new book, Facism: a Warning, brings me a new closeness to Robert the boy
whom I knew only through his stories and later through his autobiography, Continuo, a Life in Music, which begins as follows:
“Victor Ebenstein taught piano at the State Academy for Music in Vienna. I studied with him from the fall of 1937,when I entered the, until academy at the age of thirteen, until the spring of 1938,when soon after the German annexation of Austria, a man in a brown uniform came into the classroom and announced that all Jewish and half-Jewish students had been expelled from the academy and were to leave the building immediately.”
Madeline Albright’s Facism: a Warning begins as follows:
“On the day Facists first altered the direction of my life, I had barely mastered the art of walking. The date was March 15, 1939. Battalions of German storm troopers invaded my native Czechoslovakia, escorted Adolf Hitler to Prague Castle, and pushed Europe to the threshold of a second world war.”
Robert’s parents sent him off on a train to Venice, where he would board a ship to Haifa. He never saw his mother again. In Jerusalem he ran away from his Orthodox guardian, studied music at the conservatory, joined the British Air Force as soon as–well, actually, before–he came of age,and played harp and piano for the British forces stationed in Cairo. After the war the British offered to send him to London, Paris, or New York to continue his music studies. He chose London, but the Royal Academy had no vacancies so he entered Juilliard at age twenty-three.
Madeline’s parents got the family to London after ten days in hiding. Six years later, they returned to a freed Czechoslovakia where her father continued his career in the foreign service until, in 1948, they were driven into exile again by the Communists. At eleven she became an American girl. In high school she started an international relations club and named herself president. Her father became a professor at the University of Denver and wrote books about the perils of tyranny. He wrote that, because Americans were so “very, very free,” he worried they might take democracy for granted.
These are fleers, the nearest word I could find for those people who have to leave.
Refugees and immigrants are what follows. Refugees are on their way to wherever will accept them, like the ones in the Caravan who have reached the American border today. Immigrants are those who have been allowed in.
I also wish there was a good word to describe those people who realize they are going to have to flee, but are still hiding out, like Madeline’s family in Czechoslovakia.
Why do I fret about all this? I’m safe, have always been so sure that we as Americans are “very, very free.” But lately I am afraid that those younger than myself may wake up some morning and realize things have changed.
Facism began, Albright reminds us, early in the twentieth century, “a time of intellectual liveliness.” When Mussolini first came to power, Edison hailed him as “the genius of the modern world,” and Winston Churchill pledged to stand by him against the bestial appetites of Lenin.”
The word Facist was coined in 1919 by a small group of angry followers of Mussolini in Milan. They chose for their emblem the fasces, a bundle of elm rods with an ax that in ancient Rome had stood for the power of a Roman consul.
Mussolini set to work making changes to rid citizens of bureaucracy. He initiated a campaign to drenare la palude (“drain the swamp”) by firing more than 35,000 civil servants.
The forsythia and daffodils are usually over by Robert’s death day. But this year, a week after, they have only just reached their peak.
This was spring 1988. The cats were Felix and Ambrose on the wall.
Now I live with Zeb, the survivor of Waldo.
The last time I saw Robert, he said, as I left his hospital room, “We still have some time together.”
And we do, in a sense, go on together. We exist as after-images.
The outlines remain true. I am sure he would be reading Fascism:a Warning this week.
“Listen to this!” He is saying. “Three guesses who first said ‘drain the swamp.”