I surf through various Facebook posts and there it is. World Wild Hearts, a website packed with videos, information, travel tips, recommendations and stories. The most recent link showcases Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Immediately, memories of my own visit to this charming and vibrant city flood to the surface. With them comes a particularly powerful experience that resonates still.
1998, a Sunday in mid-October. I stroll along the seawall, the Tagus estuary to my left. Reveling in the cooling breeze and sunny skies, I reflect on my efforts of the previous day, of refereeing a rugby match between Portugal and Dynamo Bucharest. It is an enthralling contest. A game of vastly contrasting styles, the fast, fluid counterattacking of “Os Lobos”, the Wolves, looking to outflank the bash and crash of the Romanians. In the end, to the dismay of a rabidly partisan home crowd, the visitors eke out a narrow, hard fought 23-18 victory.
My walk takes me near the famous Belem Tower, the point of embarkation for the many Portuguese explorers of centuries past. Now a UNESCO heritage sight, the four story fortification is a ceremonial gateway of sorts, one of Lisbon’s most celebrated landmarks.
The clock edges towards 430pm as I continue along the promenade. As the number of tourists begins to thin out, I find myself, along with a few others, in the company of an older man. He stands near the railing, weary eyes only just open, but back ramrod straight. A violin, cinnamon in colour, looking as if it has seen better days, rests against his chin.
A battered case lies open at his feet, complete with rosin cloth and dotted with a handful of coins. His shoes are worn, black pants rumpled and frayed. A baggy, white dress shirt, buttoned at the wrists, and a black cravat complete his wardrobe.
Busking, of playing music in public for voluntary cash donations, is illegal in Lisbon, but the violinist thankfully pays no heed. A good thing too, as to deny this particular musician would have been nothing short of criminal.
Drawing his bow across the strings, fingers trembling, he begins to play. The notes hang in the air, full of pain, hurt and suffering. Send shivers down my spine, as the musical theme backstops the trials and tribulations depicted in one of the finest movies ever produced.
This film relates the story of a Czech born businessman named Oskar Schindler, who, in 1939, uses Jewish labor to start a factory in occupied Poland. As World War II progresses, the desperate fate of the Jews becomes more and more clear. When the SS begins exterminating Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler's motivations switch from profit to a deep sense of empathy, as he arranges to protect his workers while keeping the factory in operation. By so doing, through various means, he saves over 1100 Jews from death in the gas chambers.
Above all, with its myriad twists and turns, Schindler’s List remains significant because it never allows the terror and bleakness of the Holocaust to overwhelm the importance of fighting bravely for a common good. That while mankind has the capacity for doing monumental evil, it is equally capable of astonishing bravery and compassion.
The violin continues, the music an ongoing mix of sadness and heartache, at times evoking a sense of complete anguish and misery. Yet the score, rooted though it may be with difficulty, desolation and unbearable sorrow, also retains a kernel of hope.
I remain transfixed, as the violinist carries on. Alone with his own thoughts, he now stares far away into the distance. Do I detect a quiver and some tears? Or are they my own, as the hauntingly beautiful composition and its delivery draw a flood of emotions? I blink furiously, look to get my wits about me. Take several crumpled banknotes from my pocket, lay them in the case, nod admiringly in the old man’s direction.
A final heartrending note soars, then dies away in the growing afternoon chill. Still, I cannot bring myself to leave, cannot escape a solo violin that cries for love and peace. That weeps for the millions who perished during a horrendous period in history.
Tragically, we seem not to have learned many lessons from the past. Yet again, the world spirals dangerously downward, a toxic mess of invader and the invaded, conqueror and the conquered. Wanton destruction on a massive scale. The death and injury count, of military personnel but also civilians, rises steadily. In this case, Ukraine continues to fight valiantly against its Russian aggressors, almost on its own, but strangling slowly as western support fatigues and hints at fracture. No end in sight to the agony, only endless rounds of artillery bombardments, counterattacks, concessions and grievances. Of severe economic sanctions, crippling food and fuel shortages, war crimes, rampant inflation and extreme hardship.
Whatever the history books may one day say, regardless of the eventual outcome, there will be no winner. As was the case nearly 80 years ago, recovery, in Europe in particular but all across the globe, will take years, if not decades.
And so, may the millions currently or soon to be afflicted by calamity and loss also find solace through their own solo violin, whoever and whatever that may be.
For, as noted in the penultimate scene of Schindler’s List, “whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”