A World War II Yarn Unravels

Janos Feneketlen stood up. He cleared his throat loudly. Then he spoke.

"I sink...." he said.

From her armchair his grandmother muttered: "Don't shout, Jim. What do you mean - 'sink'?"

"I sink," he said, "zat tonight I, Janos Feneketlen, vill conduct zee Fourth Symphony of Brrrrahms!" And with that he sat down again and stared into the fireplace.

A long silence followed. Even the fire was silent - because it was not lit. Even if the British government had not asked everyone to save fuel - "to help defeat Adolf Hitler" - this house on a London back street had run out of coal anyway.

Ten minutes later, the ancient granny said: "I wish you wouldn't use that there silly accent. What's wrong with the English you was born with?"

"No!" exclaimed her grandson grandly. "Am I not, after all, vun of zee vorld's greatest conductors? I, Janos Feneketlen?"

"That's as maybe. But to me you are plain Jim Brown."

More silence. Then Granny said: "You'll put on your new woolly pullover for the concert. That concert 'all's awful chilly."

"Must I?" grunted the great conductor.

"Yes. It took a lot of knitting."

So, at 6 o'clock that winter evening in 1940, the great Janos (or Jim) took a taxi to the concert hall dressed in black tie and tails, with a long rainbow-colored sweater under his jacket.

* * * *

At exactly the same time, a girl of 12 called Bertha Berkovitsch, her seven-year-old brother Sam, and the headmistress of their new school, Miss Plumtree, took an underground train to exactly the same concert hall.

Bertha loved music. She was already certain she had a wonderful career ahead of her as a violinist. Miss Plumtree was convinced of it.

"My dear girl," she said, "you must practice! You have the makings of a female Paganini." To encourage her, she took her to hundreds of London concerts.

Bertha listened to the music in a dazzly-eyed dream. Never, even at home in Berlin, had she heard so much marvelous music.

After the Nazis had closed down her father's jewelry shop, the family had found it impossible to afford luxuries like concerts. Soon after, they had to escape from Germany.

After frightening adventures, they safely reached England. But now it was unsafe here too, because war - World War II - had been declared. Everyone in Britain was expecting bombs to fall any moment.

Almost every night sirens wailed. Everyone had to huddle in shelters until the "all clear" sounded.

But people like Miss Plumtree, as she said, were "not going to be deprived of essentials like Good Music by a failed painter with a silly moustache." (She meant Hitler.)

And the conductor of the concert to which she took Bertha would have agreed with her. He, too, in spite of his silly pretend accent, and even if he had to wear rainbow-colored pullovers in front of his public, was determined that Londoners would have concerts, bombs or no bombs.

And that night he changed the advertised program and played Brahms's Fourth. "A leetle morrr-ale raiser," he told the audience. (And under his breath, just before raising his baton, he said - in perfect English - "And drown out those dratted knitters too, I hope.")

* * * *

It was Dame Bertha Berkovitsch herself who told me about that concert 54 years ago. (Or would have if she'd ever really existed....) Today, of course, she is world famous. I have long been a fan of hers. Many call her the finest violinist of the era. She is still performing.

"That particular concert," she told me, "was special in at least two ways. First, it was for me a revelation. Never before had I really heard, you know - Brahms. Oh - it was suddenly for me quite glorious! That conductor - Feneketlen - was a showoff, true. But he also had the deepest feeling for Brahms.

"I worked for him later, you know. I liked him. When I first met him, I told him how that concert had meant so very much for me. He looked pleased."

" 'Yes, yes. I reememberr eet. Zat vas good ... but also it vas strange, that concert....' "

"From his eyes I could see something was still puzzling him about it."

Dame Bertha then roared with laughter. "In fact," she said, "I knew what it was. I never told him, though. But ... shall I tell you?"

"Please," I said.

"The concerts bored my brother, Sam. But Miss Plumtree insisted he attend. She was generous - though not rich I think. She took us to the cheaper seats up behind the orchestra."

"Well, at those wartime concerts, the English ladies felt they must continue their war effort even as they enjoyed the music.

"So they came with their knitting! Socks for soldiers. 'Clicky-click' always accompanied the music. Even knitting was a weapon against Hitler.

"That night, Sam sat next to a stout knitting-lady. In the third movement, she dropped her ball of wool down into the orchestra. The ball rolled away and disappeared somewhere in the violin section. At first she didn't notice. Then - because the ball was trapped somewhere - she tugged hard and the wool broke.

"Sam decided to help. He crawled down into the orchestra searching for the lost ball.

"Then - this kept happening - the lights went out! It was the custom for the players to continue. They couldn't see the conductor, but never mind! Well ... Sam was never quite clear how, but he did manage to find the end of the wool.

"Or so he thought. He held it tightly all the way back to his seat. Nudging the lady, he handed it to her. And - still in the dark - with the fourth-movement trombones growling away now - she started again her sock.

"She did not know that the wool she was now knitting into her sock was no longer dull khaki. It was rainbow-colored. It came from the lower hem of the pullover of the renowned conductor. It was unravelling as fast as the lady's sock grew.

"The lights came on. Sam watched the lady finish her sock and start another. She never looked down. She was swept away - as I was - with that music!

"At last the final grand chords sounded - the symphony was over. The great conductor strode out and in, taking his endless bows. The wool unraveled even farther from his pullover. Then it caught round the first violinist's chair, which fell over with a crash. More bowing and striding and, at last, the clump of wool pulled so tight it snapped. The conductor wobbled slightly.

"The knitting-lady was pulling hard on her end, while also trying to clap, and a long strand of rainbow wool suddenly leaped up toward her like a cat.

"Sam was so excited, he couldn't wait to tell me all about it afterward!

"So you see, what it was that the great Feneketlen felt had been 'strange' about that concert must have been his discovery, when he arrived back home, that the back of his new rainbow-colored pullover had completely vanished.

"I fancy his grandmother never believed that he had not deliberately done it.

"And I fancy there was a soldier somewhere - in a prison camp in some Bavarian castle - who, unwrapping his Red Cross parcel one day, found in it a pair of very odd-colored socks. I'm sure he wore them proudly. But I suspect he, too, was a little puzzled...."

"So," I said, "it is to that evening that we owe the beginning of your remarkable interpretations of Brahms?"

"Well, I suppose, yes, that is so."

She smiled. "And, you know what it was that Sam was to become when he grew up?"

I looked at her questioningly.

"He became a wool-importer."

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