Despite the hellish overcrowding and misery in Theresienstadt, stories abound of the humanity and kindness between fellow prisoners. One such record comes from the violinist Thomas Mandl (1926-2007), an aspiring virtuoso violinist. Mandl, also an author and an inventor, became a pupil of my grandfather Hans Neumeyer while in the camp. Following the publication of articles in the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporting journalist Hans Holzhaider’s research on the deported families of Dachau, he wrote some moving recollections of Hans Neumeyer in Theresienstadt for the newspaper Landkreis Dachau, 21/22 July 1984.
The 16-year old Mandl, along with his 17 year-old friend Hans Ries, knew him in Theresienstadt from summer 1942. Ries was the first to meet him, through his camp duties in the ‘Ordnungsdienst’ which included taking food to the sick and those unable to fetch it themselves, and making sure that others did not steal from them.
They met at the camp’s home for the blind: Ries was forever whistling themes from Bach fugues and Mandl guessed that Neumeyer would have noticed him because of that. Ries became his pupil, paying in soup or bread when he had it – but the lessons continued even when none was available. Although blind, Neumeyer survived nearly two years in the camp before his death in May 1944: his teaching work was surely part of that survival strategy.
Music lessons from the “Professor”
Neumeyer’s pupils called him ‘The Professor’. Mandl – an aspiring virtuoso violinist – wanted lessons too but was so continually hungry that he wondered if he would be able to spare the ‘payment’. Fortunately he too got work carrying food, and his parents, also in the camp, encouraged him to take the lessons, though they worried that his carrying the heavy soup cans would damage his hands and impair his ability to play the violin.
At his first lesson Mandl had conflicting feelings. He had never been close to a blind person before, and shuddered at his restless brown eyes moving behind his dark glasses. But he was struck by how Neumeyer received his bowl of vegetable soup gratefully, but without showing the usual excesses of hunger – he reached for his spoon (he always knew where it was) and ate in an ‘aesthetic’ way, unhurriedly but with precision.
Neumeyer’s teaching was very methodical and well targeted, always with an aim in mind. Mandl’s lessons covered basic four-part and eight-part harmony exercises, eight-beat physical exercises, ‘intonation’ and rhythmic exercises. Unusually for the time, he taught harmony and counterpoint together, in parallel rather than as separate disciplines with harmony coming first. They were soon working in different keys, and going onto modulations and contrapuntal exercises.
Mandl did his homework very conscientiously, using his violin. When he brought his work to the lesson he would play each line horizontally in separate parts, then each chord vertically. Mandl was impressed that he had to do this only once. Neumeyer would comment very precisely on individual notes and chords, identifying shortcomings and asking Mandl to suggest how the composition could be improved.
Hans Ries, who had known no music theory before his lessons with Neumeyer, progressed to studying musical style from the Baroque to the Romantic and all branches of 20th-century music, and started to compose systematically, until he was put on a transport away from Theresienstadt in the summer of 1943: Mandl later learned that Ries had survived until the hunger marches shortly before liberation, when he was shot.
Hans Neumeyer gave the impression of a sharp wit and intelligence, and was a very good listener, asking questions that were short and to the point. Gradually Mandl understood that behind his smiling tolerance was a great mental toughness – both were complementary elements in a harmonious personality.
Mandl reflected that while camp life, with its many trials of hunger, terrible accommodation and hard, unfamiliar work, was difficult for himself as a young and healthy person, it must have been even harder for an older and weaker man – but Hans Neumeyer met his fate with acceptance and sometimes even humour. Mandl sometimes glimpsed the strain on his face when he saw his teacher trying to read in crowded conditions before he registered his pupil’s arrival – but then he would always smile, put down his braille book and give him his delicate, sensitive hand.
The camp had a huge library – part of its role as a ‘show camp’ to display to the likes of the Red Cross – and Neumeyer’s braille reading included higher mathematics and Aristotle in the original. Sometimes Mandl visited just to talk: Neumeyer was very well informed about the political as well as the cultural events in the ghetto: plays, concerts, talks and reading.
Once Mandl saw Neumeyer signing a document, and thought that as his handwriting was so childish he must have become blind at a very young age. Towards the end of 1943 Neumeyer became sick with TB and was moved to a small TB section. Mandl visited him in his bed from where he encouraged all his visitors to be strong:
Dear Herr Mandl, the seasons will come again and we shall forever be part of the seasons, but here in Theresienstadt this isn’t happening.
Mandl last saw him in the block washroom, and was shocked at his expression of utter dejection and some sort of strange wild premonition. In May 1944 he heard of his death, and enquired about the day of the funeral. It was a sunny day: three of Neumeyer’s pupils were among those who saw his crudely made coffin placed among the others on a truck and followed it to the barrier on the edge of the camp, which was as far as they were allowed to go. The barrier came down: ‘that was the way our dead left us’.