While bombs burst over Tel Aviv he played on
(Supplement of The Jewish Herald, Rosh Hashana – September 1966)
A moving story by Gita Freedman, now living in Johannesburg, who during the Israel War of Independence was a nurse in Jaffa Military Hospital where she actually witnessed the incident recounted here.
There is great activity going on in this hospital in Jaffa. There is bustle and bustle everywhere. Everything is spotlessly clean in our big dining room. The flowers give off exotic perfumes. There are only a few seats on one side. The audience will not be requiring seats. They will mostly be lying on stretchers. Engineers from Broadcast House are installing microphones in all parts of the hospital. This is a red letter day. Do you know why? I won’t leave you in suspense. Leonard Bernstein is coming to entertain the patients. He is giving them a piano recital.
The excitement is mounting, patients are sprucing up, demanding clean pyjamas. The mobile ones are occupying the bathrooms longer than is necessary. The immobile impatiently waiting on their stretchers, they cannot wait to be carried to the dining room. I can hardly wait to hear him play myself. Not ever day does one hear a performer of Leonard Bernstein’s calibre.
What is going on in the corner bed? Joseph is having an argument with Matron, I should say a fight. She refuses to let him be carried to the dining room as he is too severely injured, he cannot be moved. Joseph demands to go; why should he miss everything that is going on. Matron explains that he will hear ever note that is being played, microphones have been installed. Joseph will not compromise; when he has grandchildren he wants to tell them of the day that he saw and heard the great man. Matron answers that seeing he is only eighteen, he will have ample time to see him in the flesh. She won’t budge.
He threatens to complain to all the newspapers. He will report the bad treatment meted out to him, but to no avail. Joseph knows that he is defeated, he is encased in plaster from head to toe, to move him would be disastrous. He reminds me of a moth whose wings are singed, struggling to get up but unable to do so. I turn away. I am heartbroken.
Leonard Bernstein arrives. The wounded are lying all round the floor of the vast dining room, the mobile ones are sitting on the few chairs, the nurses, doctors, and other personnel standing around the room. You can feel expectation in the air. He begins playing, there are many tears, the girls wipe their eyes now and then. His music touches them. It is good, they haven’t cried for years, maybe now they will feel better.
Leonard Bernstein, I take my hat off to you. Other musicians are afraid of coming to Israel at the height of the war, they are afraid of the bombing and of being killed. You have come. You will never know what joy and happiness you have brought to these lonely, wounded people. You played their requests, you uplifted and gave them hope for the future, you were a friend, you were one of them.
After the recital, you accompanied Matron to the wards, to meet the very severely injured who were unable to meet you. Joseph will now be able to tell his grandchildren.
Leonard Bernstein played to the troops everywhere in Israel. The firing on the front line did not deter him, he played on. I am sure that very few people know how he brought such joy and kindled that little divine spark in the hearts of thousands of souls who had given up the good fight.
A few weeks after his recital at the hospital, I saw him conducting the Israel Orchestra at the Ohel Theatre during a bombing raid on Tel-Aviv. He carried on as if there was nothing happening. His calmness was transmitted to the orchestra and audience, and instead of panic there was serenity.
Even now, whenever I read an article about his compositions and concerts in America and elsewhere, I have a feeling of warmth towards him, I remember his thoughtfulness and selflessness during the War of Independence in 1948/9.