Jul 122016
Violinist Jascha Heifetz (at right in photo) felt one of his greatest performances ever was for a single U.S. soldier during World War II.

Violinist Jascha Heifetz (at right in photo) felt one of his greatest performances ever was for a single U.S. soldier during World War II.

Part of the orientation training for every new soldier was a viewing of the film Why We Fight. It showed the evil side of the enemy, the rape of Nanking, Stuka bombers over Spain, the Wehrmacht triumphing down the Champs Elysées. Those were the bad guys we were fighting.

Why We Fight ended with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “This world cannot exist half free and half slave.” Onscreen the graphic world split apart; half white, the other half black.

When the house lights came up, there were white soldiers in their section of the theater, the black GI’s in theirs.

We were fighting for freedom, but freedom was fuzzy. It was Mom and apple pie, and the mountains and the prairies. Jefferson and Washington…. but not too much Lincoln. At that time the American Army’s officer core was disproportionately Southern.

I saw Ingrid Bergman read from the script of her film Joan of Arc. I was at least fifty yards from her. Generals and commissioned ranks surrounded her within fifteen yards. We enlisted men were out of voice range.

Another boost to American morale came when we were so far behind the lines some officers wore neckties. The announcer said, “Within cannon range of the front lines, André Kostelanetz and Lily Pons bring you The Bell Song from Lakmé.  The eight-inch field pieces were probably firing ten miles ahead of the orchestra. I could not hear them.

What bothered many of us were the motion pictures on combat themes. There were many, many khaki clad soldiers on the back lots of the film studios doing heroic things. The question was, why weren’t John Wayne or Henry Fonda in real uniforms? The same for the hundreds of actors who played bit part soldiers. Most of them looked much fitter than I. And they got the girls. We didn’t.

One celebrity did help my morale. We were on the Elbe River in late April 1945 and I was in a foxhole on a reverse slope. The word was passed that a violinist was giving a show about a half-mile away. We crawled on our bellies, found a copse, stood up, and went to a nearby beer hall. The wallpaper had a large white oblong patch where either a photo of Hitler or a Nazi flag had been recently removed.

A baby grand piano had been off-loaded and placed on an improvised stage. A violinist, Jascha Heifitz, asked us what we would like to hear.

“Old Zip Coon! Turkey in the Straw!”

“No, not for combat troops,” Heifitz said. “Musical spinach.”

He played for almost an hour. Some of the Bach Violin Sonatas, an adaptation of one or two movements from The Brandenburg Concertos, and for fun The Hora Staccato, which Heifitz had co-written.

Civilization surrounded me.

When it was over the piano was lifted back on the truck, and Mr. Heifitz, the pianist, and a lieutenant left in a covered jeep.

I crawled back to the riverbank and waited for the Russian Army to appear.



Jascha Heifetz, PBS American Masters