The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson

by Frances Brent (New Haven , CT )

7 July 1941

With difficulty Lev Aronson carried his cellos, bows, and cases up the stairs of the main post office. In a notebook, many years later, he wrote: “the typical wide stairs of old Russian government buildings, cold cement and steep steps, hard to handle with two cellos and emotional pain. . . . ” Two Latvian auxiliary police—volunteers dressed in civilian clothes and newly issued brassards— escorted him from behind. Lev shifted his weight up the stairwell. A group of Jewish musicians, jackets over their shoulders in the heat, was already leaving. No one spoke, “but a whole world was expressed in their glances.”

Since Melngalvju nams, the House of Blackheads, was destroyed in German bombing and fires on the evening of June 29, the predominantly non-Jewish radio orchestra had lost its largest instruments and most of its music library. The post office had become its headquarters.  Other Jewish musicians with valuable instruments had been summoned to the radio station. Lists of their names had been obtained from Latvian collaborators. Everyone milled around in a daze in the large postal room. Cases were opened; bows and instruments were lifted off velvet and satin linings. Outside, there was a great deal of commotion: Hundreds of people were in the streets. German cars made their way through the roads while vigilantes crowded the neighborhoods, leading small processions of startled Jews. Inside it was quiet enough to hear the ping of vibrating strings.

Someone hastily pushed Lev forward with his aluminum and leather cases, and the principal cellist of the radio orchestra, a man he knew well, approached. Lev was nearly six feet tall. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as “a man of the world,” but he was disoriented in the unusual setting. The man who was facing him, a well-known musician and a colleague, was not a common criminal like the thugs in the streets. He nodded awkwardly in greeting before Lev reluctantly unlatched and opened the lids of the cases.

When Lev released the instruments from their ties, it was the last time he touched the beautiful spiral, the seahorse tail of the Amati scroll. The cellist, his old colleague, smiled, shifting his gaze to the window. Then, turning his back, “his meaning was clear.”

Something lunatic caused Lev to ask a question. He chose his words in German, the current language of the street, rather than Russian, which would have been used ten days earlier: “Can I have a receipt?” The room filled with laughter. Lev felt a hand clutch the collar of his coat, shoving him backward, down the stairs.


Later in life, when he returned to the story of the confiscation of his instruments, the elements were always the same: the knock on the door, two Latvians wearing armbands, mounting the cement steps of the central post office, his colleague’s averted glance, laughter, a hand on his coat collar, a kick or a push, falling, tumbling down the shaft of the stairwell.

Opposite the post office there was a park with benches. Lev crossed the road in a daze. His trousers were ripped, his cheek and the bridge of his nose were bleeding. He sat in the half-shade under a broad oak. He thought about the Amati. He felt as though he had “forcibly delivered a friend.” After several minutes Lev painfully stood up. There was an odd noise in his ear. Since childhood this was a sound he had heard whenever there was complete silence. He knew he had to get back to the apartment where his parents, his sister, and Chiutan were waiting. It was dangerous to be seen on the streets. Many prominent Jewish intellectuals and civic leaders had already been rounded up, shot on the pavement, or dragged to Zentralka, Central Prison, or the Riga Police Prefecture . Strangely the fear of being arrested bothered Lev less than the humiliation he had felt among the musicians from the Radio Orchestra.

With Dead Expressions

On his way home, Lev passed the Opera House. A group of singers, dancers, and musicians, many old friends and colleagues, were gathered at the stage door. From a distance they seemed to be talking lightheartedly. It felt strange to be without an instrument, but out of habit he approached them anyway. When he came close enough to be noticed, their bodies stiffened, and they looked back at him “with dead expressions.” Some turned their gazes and others stepped aside, hurrying into the building. Only the dancer Osvalds Lēmanis moved forward and offered a handshake: “Have faith, old friend. I’ll do my best to look out for you.” Lev walked on. He understood the need for self-preservation. His relationship to his old colleagues could lead to their interrogation, arrest, or the loss of work. “So why bother?” he asked himself.

Lev’s identity as a Jew was now his main concern, and this was a completely new experience. How should he get back to his apartment? He would use the old city’s indirect routes, avoiding main thoroughfares and extending time until dusk. In darkness Jews and gentiles appeared the same. The old city was crisscrossed with alleyways and narrow passages connecting the buildings to one another. Houses were so close that neighbors could raise their windows, lean out, and talk; they didn’t have to use loud voices. He was able to go a long distance by passing through backyards. Small tunnels and old stone entranceways led to different sections of the old city. The silence was eerie. He could hear the echo of his shoes and an occasional drunkard humming “O Tannenbaum” though it was out of season. Then he was beyond the old city, two-thirds of the way home, past Pulvertornis, Gunpowder Tower. He forced himself to walk with confidence, his back straight, his head high, without a trace of meekness. Revelers passed him, their faces flushed from drinking.

8 July 1941

And so it was odd when they shouted, “Here are your instruments!”

A vehement knock at the door the next morning. Two Latvian collaborators and a German soldier: “All Jewish males will evacuate this building!”

On the street, men gathered from many different apartment buildings, some dressed in summer suits, one with phylacteries on his forehead. They waited for a long time before the strange announcement: “Here are your instruments!” One of the collaborators had buckets, soap, and rags.

Some spectators assembled on the corner as the men were put to work washing the street. A few laughed uncomfortably. Some taunted. The crowd formed a circle and watched as someone was lashed with a leather belt across his naked behind until he was totally covered with blood. The performance continued until people grew bored; even the guards seemed to lose energy. After a while they lined the men up and marched them through the streets.

On their way they encountered Russian prisoners of war, perhaps three hundred of them, in shocking condition. Their hands dangled at their sides and their clothes had been ripped. Some didn’t have shoes. Their feet dragged. Lev was amazed to see how expressionless they were, not responding when the Germans struck them with the butts of their guns to make them move forward.

Both groups were ushered through the gates of a city park. The Russians arrived first and they queued up along a series of long, narrow ditches. It looked like a burial ground, and everyone thought the same thing. Several guards pushed the men up to the edge of the ditches.

A uniformed German officer and several Latvians in civilian clothes stepped forward. The German had the soft face of a cleric. It was round and smooth except for the left cheek, which was scarred. He said: “Russian communists tried to destroy the beauty of these parklands, digging trenches for defense against our German army. Their judgment was wrong. Our army won’t be stopped by archaic tactics. This is the army of the future, led by the wisdom of the Führer. So that you remember, you’ll restore these grounds with bare hands!” The work continued until close to midnight.

9 July 1941

Lev’s hands, so important to the life of a cellist, were being destroyed. The next day he returned to the trenches, digging again without a shovel or gloves. His friend, the Chinese wrestler, Chiutan, had wanted to come along, arguing that he could do the work and save Lev’s hands, but both knew it was impossible.

In the early afternoon, when the task of filling the trenches was complete, Lev returned to the apartment block. German and Latvian officials were operating the elevators. Lev took the stairwell, wondering what would happen next. On the landing he saw a guard standing in front of his apartment. The door was taped, sealed with a large purple sticker, and on it were printed the words: CONFISCATED BY SECURITY POLICE. Lev approached: “I live here. It’s raining. I need a coat.”

The guard answered, “You don’t live in this apartment any longer. Where you’re going you won’t need a coat. Get out!” He pushed him down the stairs, and his body bounced against the railing. On the ground floor, another guard was waiting.

But nobody knew what would happen. Lev found his family and many others crowded into the empty apartment of a neighboring building. People were sitting on the floor or leaning against walls. Lev would think back later, “They already appeared to be mourning the dead.”

After several hours, the same SD man who had been stationed at the door of Lev’s apartment entered with some Latvians. One of them, named Ansons, had been in school with Lev.

“All men, outside!” it was announced.

When they were boys, Ansons’s name had appeared next to Lev’s on the roster, and sometimes Lev had helped him—“saved his neck”—when school assignments weren’t completed.

“Ansons, help my father—not me—he has a leg injury and walks with a cane,” Lev whispered.

Ansons didn’t answer.

There was turmoil and crying. Then a second announcement: “Young men, out of here! Old men stay! The rest will be turned over to Latvian authorities.” Soldiers separated families that clung to one another. But Lev’s father had been spared.

Again, Lev was on the street. About twenty men were lined in rows with Latvian guards stationed at five-foot distances around them. Ansons was in front of Lev, a rifle on his shoulder. Lev began talking to him quietly. “Where are we going? Where are they taking us?” Without turning his head, Ansons whispered, “Zentralka. Don’t ask anything else. Leave me alone. If you ask again, I’ll pretend I don’t know you. You’re on the way to God knows where, and that will be the end of you. I have to go on living. Don’t talk to me; it will only get me in trouble.”

Frances Brent is the co-translator of Beyond the Limit: Poems by Irina Ratushinsakya. Her book of poetry, The Beautiful Lesson of the I, won the 2005 May Swenson Award. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Yale Review, the Denver Quarterly, and New American Writing.  She lives in New Haven , Connecticut .

This excerpt from The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson

  1. Rich

    I’m a former student of Lev’s. I studied cello with him in Dallas, TX when I was 12 years old. The book is “okay” but didn’t truly capture Lev. I truly wish the author would have gotten in touch with students who knew him well.

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