While the Music Played: A Remarkable Story of Courage and Friendship in WWII

While the Music Played: A Remarkable Story of Courage and Friendship in WWII

by Nathaniel Lande


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“We were the dreamers of dreams, the singers of songs. We were the music makers. We would not hear nor play nor love without each other. This is a prelude to our experience, an overture to who we were and how we arrived on the shores of friendship.”

Beginning in 1939 prewar Prague, While the Music Played focuses on the story of young Max Mueller, a curious bright romantic—a budding musician, piano tuner, and nascent journalist. Max is on the cusp of adolescence when the Nazi influence invades Prague’s tolerant spirit with alarming speed as he struggles to understand the changing world around him. When his father, noted German conductor Viktor Mueller, is conscripted into the German army and finds himself increasingly promoting the Nazi message, Viktor’s best friend, noted Czech composer Hans Krása, protests the occupation in every way he can.

As everyone Max loves is compromised by intolerable conditions, he becomes increasingly isolated, and is forced to find his own way. With each step, Max’s journey grows more conflicted. Music is the one constant connecting him to both the lost childhood he cherishes and the man he still hopes to become. But will it be enough to sustain him against the relentless Nazi threat?

With a seamless blend of historical and fictional characters, told from multiple points of view, and sweeping across the capitals of Prague, London, and Berlin as World War II ravages Europe, this meticulously researched book is unique with its diverse and interweaving narratives, threaded with news accounts, and encompassing some of the most triumphant and devastating moments of the war—from the opera houses of Berlin to the music halls of London and the making of the famous children’s opera Brundibár.

While the Music Played is a lyrical, absorbing, and heartbreaking story of love and courage from the widely revered and bestselling author Nathaniel Lande.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982632335
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Sales rank: 341,261
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Nathaniel Lande is a journalist, filmmaker, and the author of twelve books, including Cricket and Dispatches from the Front: A History of the American War Correspondent. A full listing of his works can be found at www.NathanielLande.com. He was creative director for the Magazine Group at Time, Inc.; director of Time World News Service; director of Time-Life Films, where his documentaries won over ten international awards; and executive producer at CBS and NBC Television. Lande was educated at Oxford University; earned his doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, where he was a Distinguished Scholar; and held appointments as professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Read an Excerpt




Prague 1938

"Let's face it, Max; you need to open up. I'm incredibly smart and charming, of course, but" — David snapped his fingers — "you need a girlfriend!"

I rolled my eyes. I should try to be more like David. As usual, his black hair desperately needed cutting. But he pulled it off, managing to look like a young reporter should, always breathless, always in search of the next story. Right now, the next story was my romantic life.

David laughed. "I'm all you need in terms of a friend, but have you ever thought about having an actual girlfriend?"

"I'm perfectly okay with Poppy and Hans," I said. Even as I said it, I realized I sounded stupid. I was twelve years old racing to become fourteen, skipping over as many years as possible. But was I okay with just David and my father and his best friend as my social circle? Brilliant musicians they might be, but David was right. I should want a girlfriend. But I dreaded the sweaty palms and stammering that overcame me whenever I tried to talk to a girl.

David snapped his fingers again. "The written word, Max. That's your answer. It so often is."

David acknowledged that I was, as usual, not quite as quick as him: "Letters, my friend, letters! That's it! Boys our age have pen pals, Max. At least consider it. I may not always be around, and I can't teach you everything. Well, most things, but not everything. And she'll never know you're nervous." He paused and grinned. "As long as you're not actually shaking while you write. You'll be fine. You'll be a hit."




"I promise."

I sighed. I was still struggling to make sense of the world. David was always a step ahead to know things, to understand. Unlike me, David was always sure of himself. His powers of persuasion were impossible to resist. He could even convince himself of anything. I remember the first time he told me about it all on the way to school a few months earlier. We were crossing a square and he stopped me in my tracks. "Look around you, Max. What do you see?" I shrugged. He pointed from person to person. "Stories, my friend. Everyone has a story, and I am curious to know them all. Max, it's perfectly clear. I'm going to be a writer, a journalist. I'm going to tell people the truth. And you know how I know? Because I looked at myself in the mirror last night and told myself that I am going to make it, I am going to find out the truth and tell people." I shook my head and he smiled, but I guess you had to be like that if you had ambitions to be a world-famous journalist. He planned to start with becoming the most famous one in Prague, then Czechoslovakia, then the world.

Right then, I knew resistance was futile. "Fine, I'll do it. I'll write a letter to a girl. It will improve my writing at least. After all, I'm going to be your next ace reporter."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Max," David said. "As editor of the school paper, it's my job to keep out the riffraff."

"Riffraff?" David used phrases I wasn't too sure of.

"Riffraff. Undesirables."

"Now, why would I need another friend when I have you?" I asked.

David Grunewald was my best friend. He was a topper, a word I made up. He was tops — in friendship, in school, in music. In persuasion. He was a musician, a writer, a footballer — a topper. He had been with me from my earliest memories, he'd helped me through the very sad days when my mother's illness was terminal, and I imagined he'd be with me always.

"So, since you know everything, who will be receiving my letters?"

"Sophie, that's who. She's the daughter of a friend of my family. She lives in Austria. She's perfect for you. She's musical, she's pretty, she's a girl. Perfect. Write about things you like, what you want to know, about yourself. With every word, you'll be making a new friend."

The thing about David was that he really made you believe everything he said.

That evening I sat at the desk in my room, laid out a crisp sheet of writing paper, dipped my pen in the ink, and set out to write my first letter. I wasn't sure what to write at first. I was nervous, beginning with a rough draft, just the way all writers do, David said. Gradually I began expressing myself, even better than I thought I could.

May 14, 1938

Dear Sophie,

I'm happy that David suggested I write to you and that you like music.

Music is part of me too, a great part of my life. I came by it naturally. My father is the conductor Viktor Mueller.

We live in an apartment in Mala. Strana, the old quarter, near the castle. Nearby there are parks where I play, and concert halls I love, and classic boulevards where I walk, usually with my father.

In Old Town, there's a telegraph building, where messages are received and sent. Sometimes I pass by, hearing the keys clattering away, hoping that I will receive a message from my mother. It's just a silly thought, I know, because she died when I was little, but somehow, I still hope. I often go to Prague Castle. It's in a beautiful place across the river, where there are a million steps. It's like a castle in a dream or a fairy story.

This is a city of red-tiled roofs and flowers, and a tram that introduces her bells as she swings around the corner. Even the trams have a musical rhythm.

But something is happening now, and I see my father and others whispering about the flags that are appearing everywhere, red flags with their black swastikas on white circles, and I wonder what it all means.

Maybe I've not written enough in my first letter to you.

I hope you'll write me.

Max Mueller

For days that turned into a week, and more, I wondered if she'd got the letter, if she'd read it — but at last, a lilac envelope appeared in my mailbox, and I just knew. I ran up to the music room, grabbed my father's silver letter opener, almost panting as I slit open the envelope. It was like a gift.

May 28, 1938

Dear Max,

Thank you for your letter. I'm pleased to learn about you, to meet you through your words. Well now, I love music too. I don't like to brag, but my great-uncle was Gustav Mahler.

You make your city sound so appealing. I would love to see Prague. Things in Vienna are not easy these days. There are a lot of new ideas in the air — ideas that seem to be dangerous to people like us. We have those same flags flying too. Mama tries to protect me, and I let her think that I see nothing, but sometimes at night I hear her weeping. She cries, asking, "Why do they hate us?"

Well, where to continue? I guess, at least my friends say, that I'm a daring and curious girl. I'm learning Hebrew, and it's not the easiest language to learn. It has a lot of symbols, and you must read backward Someday, I hope to go to Palestine.

I've never written to anyone with so many of the secrets that I carry, and I'm not sure why I'm writing and telling you so much, Max, but there must be a reason, mustn't there?

Sometimes I go to Sacher's. The hotel has the best bakery in the world. Someday I'd like to treat you to a torte. They are arranged in perfect rows protected by a polished glass case, and they are as colorful and as beautiful as the flowers in the market. Yellow, red, pink, white, and of course, chocolate.

You wrote to me about your father and mentioned your mother. Can you tell me more about her? I will tell you about mine. Mama works every night, and when she was not here, my father was always nearby. He was a professor of history by day, and in the evening, wrote beautiful poetry. He read all kinds of poetry to me — not just Austrian poets but anything that has been translated into German. But things have changed and he's not around to read to me anymore. He was taken away by the soldiers who have invaded our country. He sold our silver settings and our paintings so Mama and I would have money to leave for a better place. He promised to join us.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he was taken away by men in black. They smashed up the house and just dragged him off in their car. I don't know why, except maybe because he knew too much history, and maybe because he is Jewish.

It's an awful feeling when someone knocks at your door and tells you that you don't live there anymore. I hope it's a feeling that you will never know.

"Don't worry," he said to us. "I'll be all right. You and Mama must go. For my sake." Those were the last words he said to me.

Every day, I play my piano more than ever and I play for her. Music has its own language and I strive every moment to learn its meaning. I want to find the music to soothe her.

I think we might be leaving Vienna soon, and I shall miss it. After all, it's a city built with music.

I'd love to see you. I hope that this may be soon.

Yours affectionately, Sophie

I finished the letter and then read it again slowly. I was moved and a little stunned by her honesty. It struck a chord with me. I had never spoken about my mother to anyone, and it was hard to express my feelings, but I took a chance. I'd never really tried to say these things, but as soon as I began, I knew what to write without even thinking, as if my pen were moving on its own, and I started to express words and feelings that I didn't know I had. The words started to flow, they seemed to be writing themselves onto the page.

I remember one time I asked Hans, my father's best friend, how it felt to compose music, and he told me that sometimes, most times, it was hard work, but other times something seemed to take over, almost like magic, and he wouldn't even be thinking, he would be existing in some space removed from the world and afterward he would look at the sheet and the notes would be there as if they had always been there, or had been waiting to appear. That's how it felt writing to Sophie that day.

June 14, 1938

Dear Sophie,

It's strange, isn't it, but I think we get along, looking for ways to make our lives better when things are bad. I don't talk about my mother really and remember only a little about her, but I do know she was an actress. From her clippings, I can imagine why she was admired by many, and I can see why my father adored her. I remember her like a fading photograph but one that sometimes becomes sharp again just for a moment and then she goes away again. Sometimes I can't believe she ever really existed, but a lot of the time I feel as though she's still here. To me she was always a summertime lady, because she always wore a large sweeping hat with a huge bow, and underneath its brim was a smile that was brighter than any footlight onstage. But then I think she can't always have been like that — not in the snow, not in the rain. But that's how I see her. No matter whether she was onstage, at home, or by my side, my father tells me that she was as gentle as a whisper, and it is that whisper that I can still hear, can still feel sometimes, when I need it most.

My father and mother met here in Prague. He was on tour and once he met her, he never wanted to leave. I was born soon after they married. Then she became ill. Nobody could do anything for her. I didn't know how to save her. I didn't even know how to manage, how to get through the day. But Poppy, my father, said that he would help me, and I would help him, and we'd do that every day from then on. We'd be there for each other. They met here, and Poppy said that, in many ways, Prague was her city and we both feel closer to her here. It seems she's just out of reach, just around the corner, just out of sight, looking down on us, checking that were doing all right.

I think you'd like Poppy. He has a low, steady voice, and I can see, when he doesn't know that I am looking at him, a hint of sadness in his soft brown eyes. I know he doesn't want me to know it, to see it, so I never let on.

After my mother died, my father threw himself into his work. I think maybe he was hoping to dim her memory, to keep the sadness away, but it doesn't work. I always know he is thinking of her from the way he looks after me, the way he does everything. He lives his life with a lot of courage. I know that, and I try to be like him. And he tells me often that life's like a seesaw. Up and down, back and forth. Hurt and happiness. And I want to be on the side of happiness. Do you think we can choose which side we get to be on?

My world revolves around music almost as much as yours does. I think we need all kinds of music — from when we are born to the moment we die. After all, we all live with the rhythm of our own heartbeats, and Poppy says: "Music reminds us of the mysterious beauty that is in each of us and connects everyone to everyone else." But he reminds me so often that it's not easy, "You must work to master it, and you may never master it, but you will improve, you will learn to understand it, and to express yourself, but you must practice, " and I'm getting more comfortable with the piano every day. I take lessons with Hans Krása, who also writes operas.

We will meet one day. I know this.

Yours, Max

We exchanged letters more and more regularly, sharing our memories and experiences, in every letter revealing more about ourselves, more of our lives, and every word made a difference. I was learning about her and sharing feelings and memories I scarcely knew I had. The letters from Sophie were the things I looked forward to most in my life. In one of her letters Sophie enclosed a photograph. I thought you'd enjoy one of me at the piano. I must follow who I am, after all.

The snapshot brought my movie to life. She was smiling, wearing a jacket with ruffles. I looked carefully at the photograph and my heart skipped a beat. The photo was shaded in sepia. It appeared like a picture out of an old photo book, as though Sophie were stepping through time to smile at me. Her hair was a light brown, I imagined, and her eyes were blue. It didn't make any difference. It was Sophie, sitting at her favorite place in the world, at her piano, her fingers about to touch the keys. I knew that feeling, that the music was about to begin. That moment before you create the first note, when it seems that anything is possible. It is a special kind of silence, that moment before. A magical silence. Sophie knew that magic as well as I did.

I knew I wouldn't show the photo to anyone except David. I slipped it into a secret place in my pocket to have it with me always. Close to my heart. I felt it belonged there more than anywhere else.

I had to return her sentiment. I sent Sophie a picture of myself in my father's study, surrounded by his musical scores, showing I was a musician too. The local photographer who took it told me that I looked tall and handsome. I guessed he was just being polite, but tall and handsome was an ambition of mine. When I stared in the mirror, all I saw was that I had brown eyes and brown hair. I hoped Sophie would like how I looked. Every day I raced to the mailbox, hoping for a letter. The world seemed to be getting darker, but these letters cast light into my life, Sophie's words on the page electric and thrilling. Her words were the closest I could get to hearing her play music. And music was how I made sense of the world.

Soon I received another letter, in which she talked about a group she belonged to called Aliyah. She didn't tell me much beyond that, and when I asked my father about it that night, he just shrugged and looked puzzled. I asked her in my next letter and waited anxiously for an answer.

July 2, 1938

Dear Max,

Aliyah means that we will make a return to our homeland, Palestine, after being away for two thousand years. It's a faith that we will be restored to who we are and what we want to be, that we will fulfill the wish of every Jewish person, this never-ending dream of my people.

And after all, Max, we all dream, don't we?

People in our country don't want us here, but there's a village near Prague where we can live in the meantime. We hope to build a new community there. Since Mama is a nurse, she'll be needed.

But all of this means that we will be coming to visit Prague for the day, in a few weeks.

Love, Sophie

My heart skipped a beat as I read these words and I wrote back at once saying I'd be pleased to come to the station and show her around my city. She's coming my way!

Saturday couldn't arrive fast enough.


Oxford 1938

Anna Kingsley had the markings of privilege and success, and the virtues bestowed upon her came from the confidence gained mostly from her family and her education at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall. Founded in 1879, it was one of the newer and more progressive colleges, a neo-Georgian, white-trimmed, redbrick building standing alone along the River Cherwell. A spot on the river's edge was a favorite hiding place, where she often picnicked. She took a first in politics, philosophy, and economics.


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Copyright © 2019 TK.
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