on September 28, 2011
Artur Rubinstein, an assimilated Polish Jew, is loved by Poles for his spontaneous display of patriotism. He played the Polish National Anthem, at the very first meeting of the United Nations in 1945, in protest of the fact that Poland (that is, the rightful, non-Communist Polish Government, in exile during WWII) had been denied representation in this new international body.
This memoir is about Rubinstein's childhood and early career as a pianist. My review focuses on matters related to life in foreign-ruled Poland. For a time, Rubinstein's love for Poland was not in a patriotic sense. (p. 13). Later, he identified himself explicitly as a Polish patriot in response to the Prussian mistreatment of the Poles. (p. 44). When news came of Poland being in the process of resurrection as an independent state, Rubinstein strove to join the Polish forces. (pp. 433-444).
While a boy, Rubinstein had personally experienced a Russian-made pogrom in Russian-ruled Poland. (p. 12). Later in life, he came to know pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, and denied the claim that Paderewski had been an anti-Semite. (p. 81). While on a concert tour, Rubinstein was avoided by Fritz Mueller, a budding German composer, and Rubinstein suspected anti-Semitism as the motive. In actuality, Mueller was merely afraid of him personally. (pp. 277-278).
Rubinstein had conversations with his fellow Jews, in which the themes centered on Jews as victims and Jews as objects of envy. (pp. 364-365). Earlier, however, he had voiced frank criticism of certain aspects of Jewish conduct. He said: "My point of view was that anti-Semitism, in many ways, was justifiable. `When I see these rich Jews and their wives behaving in public the way they do, showing off their wealth, their jewels, their furs, pushing themselves forward wherever they go, I can understand the indignation of the Gentiles.'" (p. 363).
Rubinstein's contempt towards Orthodox Jews paralleled that of those (e.g., reputed members of Haller's Army) who humiliated them. When reminded by his friend Dr. Goldflam that only a small minority of Jews were wealthy, Rubinstein retorted: "'All right, doctor, all right,' I argued hotly, `but what do we have on the other hand? The ghettos? These masses of meek little men with their beards and side curls, afraid of everything and everybody? Why don't they use their born gifts and intelligence for something better than buying and selling clothes? It infuriates me when anti-Semitic Poles slander us, calling us Jews usurers and thieves. I know that we have, fortunately, a highly cultured elite, too,...but it is too small--it is unable to offset the bad effect of the rest." (p. 363).
Earlier in life, Rubinstein's antagonism had been even stronger: "We had been brought up in the Polish language. We were little concerned about Jewish laws or dogma, although we were always proud of our race. Still, I do remember having been derisively critical of the Polish Orthodox Jews, with their long black coats and their sidelocks and beards and their singsong. My father had taken me, once or twice, to a synagogue, but only for musical reasons--to hear a famous cantor perform--and on these occasions there was a curious mixture of Jewish worshippers and Christians who were enthusiastic about the singer." (pp. 46-47). [Misconduct against Orthodox Jews was hardly limited to some of Haller's men. The informed reader realizes that, even in modern Israel, Orthodox Jews sometimes face humiliations--in this case from fellow Jews.]
Attention is now focused on German-Polish relations. Rubinstein described how the Poles thwarted the harsh Prussian measures: "Being fervent Catholics, they produced many more children than their oppressors or any other European country--the Germans used to call them, derisively, `Polnische Karnickel' (slang for Polish rabbits). But that wasn't all--overnight these carefree, free-spending, light-hearted people turned into first-rate economists. In order to fight the German offensive, clergy, peasants, and landowners pooled their money, opened banks and other organizations of credit, and thus, well-armed, succeeded in buying, often under assumed German names, twice as much land as they had been losing to the settlers. The whole province became divided into two fanatically hostile groups..." (p. 44).
Accounts of WWI German atrocities were not entirely GREUELPROPAGANDA (propaganda of horrors). Rubinstein reports how the Germans had murdered a noted fellow composer, Alberic Magnard, for not being polite enough to them. From then on, Rubinstein swore to avoid Germany in his concert tours. (p. 439).