In a black and white image, bordered in a simple silver frame on my piano, she is seated behind the wheel of a classic roadster. Coyly sporting a riding cap, cream-colored driving gloves, and her trademark smile is a woman who not only taught me arpeggios, flats and sharps, but about life, its remarkable coincidences and values that we should hold dear.
We first met in March 1987. I was nearly ten, and my piano-teacher to-be, Mrs. Erna Blonek, was 86. I remember thinking that the diminutive elderly woman, with wavy hair as white as snow, spoke with a funny accent. My mother later explained that Mrs. Blonek was originally from Czechoslovakia. Over time, I learned that she had been widowed in the 1960s and that she and her radiologist husband, František, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930’s.
On the same minimalist couch that I now serenade guests on in my own home, I once awaited my lessons in Erna’s second-story apartment unit, situated in a boxy brick complex in Rock Island, Illinois. There were always magazines, books and newspapers strewn about her Art Deco table; most of the literature was for mature readers. I immersed myself in the children’s comics instead.
During that first springtime lesson, Mrs. Blonek introduced me to the Middle C. Under her aquamarine-blue gaze, as well as the watchful eyes of ceramic busts of Mozart, Brahms and Chopin – masters whom Mrs. Blonek would later playfully refer to as ‘her men’ – I tentatively learned how to navigate my fingers through a shiny sea of black and white.
Soon I wasn’t just playing for composer statues and Mrs. Blonek. Within a month’s time, she had prepared me for my first recital. I tickled the ivories of the antique baby grand piano in Moline’s elegant Deere-Wiman home with Old McDonald as well as a rudimentary version of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. Mrs. Blonek’s addition of a C-major chord at the end of the piece – my first chord ever – was empowering!
During her students’ performances, Mrs. Blonek proudly sat on a high-backed upholstered chair with swirly, dark wood trim, sporting a little suit. A corsage was pinned to her jacket. Afterward, students and their supporters sampled delicate cookies and sipped punch, served from sparkling crystal bowls. On the back of that recital program and every one to come was a cartoon rendition of a custodian sweeping away missed musical notes from underneath a grand piano. The witty image was taken from Mrs. Blonek’s beloved New Yorker magazine.
Mrs. Blonek’s feistiness came through if ever I didn’t practice. In order to remind her students about their duty to practice, she pinned a rendition of the well-known Uncle Sam recruitment poster above her piano. However, this patriot’s directive read: “I want you… to practice every day!” Mrs. Blonek was not shy about counseling my parents about the necessity of purchasing a real piano for me. In time, they replaced my electronic keyboard, which lacked several octaves, with an antique upright. Several months later, when my parents purchased a circa-1872 home outfitted with two pianos, we became the proud owners of three pianos. Finally, I had a piano with touch sensitivity. Nevertheless, Mrs. Blonek continued to attempt to ingrain in my fingers a graceful arch. Her aid was an apple-red rubber ball which she had me grasp in my hand before positioning my hands on the piano.
Over time, we bid farewell to Old McDonald and greeted such classics as Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Mozart’s Fantasie in D Minor, and Diabelli duets. Though classical music was what she held most dear, Mrs. Blonek also introduced me to jazz as well as ragtime master Scott Joplin’s lively Entertainer.
As my family and I got to know Mrs. Blonek, we learned that she was not just a conservatory-trained classical pianist from Prague, she was also the epitome of activity. In addition to teaching as many as 20 students at a time, she was an avid swimmer and marina walkway walker. She was also fluent in Czech, English, French and German. Despite her advanced age, she regularly traveled to London to visit her niece, Trude. Erna would never return to her native Czechoslovakia in the 60+ subsequent years that passed following her transition to a new life in America. Memories there were too painful…
Raised in a Jewish family in Kladno, a small village in Prague’s outskirts, Mrs. Blonek was the daughter of a flour mill owner. In 2000, my parents and I would journey to Kladno, hoping to find some genealogical information about Mrs. Blonek’s family. We visited the town hall, and were told by somber-faced city hall employees that Kladno now had no Jewish residents and that official records had been destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Years earlier, we had learned that many of Mrs. Blonek’s brothers and sisters – a family just shy of ten – had perished in Europe’s concentration camps. The sepia images on Mrs. Blonek’s walls of her brothers playing in a string quartet came to mind as we explored Kladno. What stories surrounded their deportation? What concentration camps were they sent to? How did Mrs. Blonek learn of their deaths? These are questions I would never ask. I had always thought it particularly remarkable that Mrs. Blonek had been able to attend a screening of the film Schindler’s List. I recall hearing that she left during one of the scenes in which prisoners are led to a gas chamber.
Erna and her husband had led privileged lives in Prague and Dr. Blonek was a well-respected radiologist. Among his patient list was Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president. Erna told us tales of an increasingly frightening climate brewing for Prague’s Jewish residents in the 1930s. At one point, she and her husband snuck down to a bank to withdraw funds; there were also tales of safeguarding her husband’s golden coins, which are traditionally immersed in a newborn baby’s bath water. The Bloneks also watched from their home’s balcony as Hitler marched into Prague. Erna had remarked how he was a foolish man, but František noted that he was also very smart.
The Blonek couple, unlike many of Erna’s Beck relatives, were lucky to have escaped Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. With their social and financial connections, they attained safe passage to the United States by offering up their fashionable Graham Paige automobile to a Gestapo officer. The necessary paperwork – their tickets to a new life and rather an assurance of life itself – were covertly placed underneath a dinner plate in a Prague restaurant. Erna said that when she and František arrived in America, she corresponded with her family for a time. In letters they remarked, “Everything is fine here… It wasn’t necessary for you to have left.”
As I entered high school, I left behind my weekly piano lessons. Mrs. Blonek had expressed dissatisfaction that in pursuing other activities such as tennis, I wasn’t devoting as much time to the piano. A stubborn sophomore, I decided to quit. Years of silence followed.
After high school graduation, a newspaper image of me beside the Eiffel Tower prompted Mrs. Blonek to pen a message. “I knew you’d make it back to Europe,” she wrote, in her distinctive European swirls. She knew that her native continent had been close to my heart and that it was my dream to travel there again. We reunited in 1996; it was as if no years had passed us by.
Though I did not embark on formal piano lessons as a young adult, Mrs. Blonek and I met regularly to play our beloved duets. The sessions were often interrupted by laughter as we tried to keep in time together. My mother and I would also meet Mrs. Blonek on early afternoons to sip tea and listen to her tales of life in Prague’s golden days. Vintage hardback books – featuring black and white images of Prague’s Charles Bridge and the city’s cobbled lanes – quickly developed over-extended spines because they were sprawled out across Erna’s dining table. Erna’s stories also made the once-anonymous travel prints on her apartment walls come to life. On those afternoons, we also tasted her versions of the Czech koláče (cookies), and marveled when she serenaded us with her signature piano pieces – Valse in E Flat by Durand, and Edelweiss. Her chromatic scale runs up the piano’s treble octaves seemed somehow effortless.
During our 13-year relationship with Erna, we experienced remarkable coincidences. In 1990, my parents and I were visiting New York for my father’s college reunion. Ever the chatterbox, my mom struck up a conversation with an elderly woman in a Manhattan hotel lobby. The pleasantries exchanged about the woman’s accent (my mother learned it was Czech) evolved into mention of my Czech piano teacher in Illinois. It was not even ten minutes later when Helen fleetingly asked my mother the name of my piano teacher. Upon hearing the reply, Helen’s face went ghostly white. She and Erna had been friends in the Eastern United States shortly after the war, but due to Helen’s marriage and subsequent name change, they had been unable to find each other in later years. Erna was astounded when she learned that we had met her long-lost acquaintance in New York City. Despite Erna’s playful insistence that ‘Helen always had a crush on (her) František,’ Erna and Helen reunited in Illinois. Shared traits of independence were evident during that reunion.
Another fluke occurrence happened in early 2000. Motivated significantly by Erna’s tales of lovely Prague, my parents and I decided to venture there to trace her roots. Sadly, Erna had become unusually ill and weak with the flu prior to our departure. Nevertheless, she was excited to hear we’d be tiptoeing through her homeland very soon. We promised her home video footage of her birthplace, Kladno, as well of Prague. In the 1920s, Erna had attended the music conservatory in Prague and also met her husband while at a grand ball at a neo-Renaissance gallery called the Rudolfinum.
Due to her illness, we hadn’t been able to ask her about important logistical details, such as her former Prague address, or her family members’ names. We winged the trip and relied on our memories to guide us in our basic research.
Returning about one week later, we were devastated to learn that Erna’s condition had worsened. Fortunately, we were able to share with her our video images, as well as koláče and oplatky cookies, and a CZ automobile sticker for her baby blue car. Coincidentally, the footage depicting a now-blighted grey Kladno, watched over by ominous nuclear towers, did not work. In some respects, we were relieved that Erna would not see how her once –charming village had evolved. The Prague footage flowed without flaw, though, and Erna clasped her hands in delight at the sightings of the Charles Bridge statues, and of the Golden Lane’s miniature buildings. Furthermore, she was ecstatic that, unbeknownst to us at the time, we had chosen to stay in her former neighborhood. To us, Vinohrady had just been a residential area with diamond-in-the-rough apartment buildings awaiting their rebirth. Now, the quirky Prague neighborhood took on new meaning. Somewhere in that neighborhood was where the Bloneks had lived. Only later would we learn how fate had gone so far as to lead us to her very apartment building!
Sadly, Erna’s energy was not to last. In time, the once perpetually active woman succumbed to pneumonia. She died shortly after our return, in a hospice bed placed by her beloved piano in her cozy apartment. Erna’s friends and students were devastated. Of her two remaining family members, one niece was able to come for her funeral. After the burial and memorial services were finished, Erna’s circle of friends, along with niece, Doris, took on the task of emptying out her apartment. I accepted a towering stack of yellowing sheet music and books. Assessing my musical weaknesses – keeping correct time and hand-positioning – I also latched onto her vintage caramel-colored Taktell metronome and rubber ball. The latter brought a smile to my face as I remembered sessions atop her cushioned piano bench, squeezing the ball and desperately trying to arch my hands. Erna’s ‘men’ also were divvied out to different homes. I chose Mr. Brahms as other pupils had already adopted Mozart and Chopin.
As we helped to clean out her home, many of us were struck by the realization that Erna had been self-sufficient up until her death at age 99! Yet as we rummaged through her familiar items, we also caught a glimpse into her younger days. Doris smiled as she paged through a leather-bound concert attendance book from the 1920’s. In it, Erna had recorded classical concerts she regularly attended in Vienna and Prague, noting the composers and the pieces. One page, unlike the other conservative entries, spilled onto other pages. It was the day that Erna became engaged to František. With an almost-childhood delight, she practiced her signature-to-be, repeatedly writing: “Today, I am engaged!!” Other albums with suede-like marbleized covers, documented the Bloneks’ grand tours of Europe. There were images of Erna atop wooden skis by a chalet, another of her in billowy palazzo pants on stairs leading to the grand Monte Carlo Casino, as well as one of Erna in Venice’s San Marco Square, surrounded by hundreds of Venetian pigeons.
Doris presented my family with a charcoal-like abstract sketch, elegantly framed in an antique gold frame. “Be sure to research this artist,” she said. “Max Švabinský is very well-known in the Czech Republic.” Upon delving into Czech art history literature, we became increasingly curious how the Švabinsky and Blonek paths had crossed. Švabinský was a well-known artist who designed Czech banknotes as well as the prominent stained-glass panels in Prague’s well-known Saint Vitus Cathedral. We would later track down Max Švabinský’s step-daughter, and exchange several letters. It is a personal regret that we never met Zuzana Švabinska. She died in 2002.
On the day of our last cleaning session at Erna’s apartment, her niece, Doris, a petite concentration camp survivor with a tattooed number still visible on her arm, approached me with a photograph. “You wanted to know where my aunt lived in Prague. This is her apartment.” Stunned, I took the photograph in hand and studied it closely. It certainly resembled a building my father and I had paused in front of during our visit just weeks before. During a morning jog through Vinohrady on that crisp morning, we had stopped by a brown-grey structure with friezes of male figures by the ground floor entrance. I’d remarked that I thought the word identifying the building – materská škola – meant ‘mother’s school’ or ‘preschool’. We had then continued on our way.
With a map in hand to trace our jog earlier that year, along with the exact address of the apartment building, my father was able to confirm that we had stopped in front of Erna’s very apartment building that bitterly-cold January morning. Remarkable given that Prague is a city of 1.2 million people!
The coincidental discovery served as an incredulous diversion of sorts as we came to terms with Erna’s death. It was hard to begin to imagine our lives without Erna’s easy laughter, her gift of music and her positive attitude. All of this in spite of a life of earlier loss and sadness…
In 2007, I resumed piano lessons with another talented Eastern European, conservatory-trained instructor. Corina and I often delved into the same books from which Erna once used to play and teach. There were times when Erna’s Old World swirls, abbreviations and dynamics markings left us confused. “What did she mean?” Corina asks. And then an epiphany, a deciphering of her instructional intent: “Ah, she was highlighting that as the melody”… Or, “she blocked that part of the measure’s notes because she didn’t like the sound. Brilliant! I can tell that she was a brilliant musician!” I once got a bit teary as we deciphered those codes on her trademark Edelweiss. The Sound of Music classic is one of my favorite pieces to play, not only because of its unique arrangement but also because of the special woman whom it brings to memory.
Though Erna has been physically absent from my life for more than eleven years, I still feel as if her gift of music and her zest for life surfaces regularly. I recall her once saying that despite being widowed and living alone for more than 30 years, she never felt alone because she always had the memories of the special people who had been a part of her life. I shall carry her lessons and memories of our interactions throughout my life, too.
One of Erna’s favorite mantras, etched into a souvenir plaque and prominently placed in her apartment for all those years that I knew her read: “Life without humor is no life at all.” In the mid 1990s, when the time came for her to bid farewell to her outgoing piano and welcome a new one, Erna penned a witty poem. Most of her students have copies of it today. My copy of the Adieu to the Piano is placed prominently on my piano, beside a colorful candid image of my mother and me with Mrs. Blonek. We are giggling about a piano recital happening. I can still hear her mischievous little laugh even today…
Adieu to the Piano, by Erna Blonek
Adieu Mr. Koehler
You have been good to me and I am very sorry to see you leave.
Your company made my life richer and my technique better.
You shared with me my sorrows on those dark days and then came better days and we could laugh together.
You did not mind it when I hit wrong notes, because you knew I did not mean to hurt you.
That’s what friends are for.
Your keys are still in quite good shape, except for a low “A”,
Which has a congenital history of numbness and did cause some grief to the tuners.
Your treble octaves are quite tinny and do not react to any touch.
But as a whole, you still have a good life ahead of you and shall give pleasure to many.
Welcome Mr. Chickering
Be good to me. I fell in love with you at first sight.
Your beautiful bass is strong and warm.
If my “forte” gets too loud, please remind me that there is a way to change to “mezzo”.
Your treble octaves are brilliant. I know that this, my new piano-forte, will make my “piano” to become my forte.
I shall treat you with respect.
I shall dust you every other day and polish you in the English way.
My dear Mr. Chickering, you can be sure no Steinway and no Yamaha shall claim to have a better home.
We two shall become friends.