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Holiday Gift and Event Guide — The Altamont Enterprise, November 26, 2009

“The smallest Christmas ever”
Former concert pianist sounds sad note

By Anne Hayden

RENSSELAERVILLE — In a cramped house nestled in the Hilltowns, a former concert pianist, who speaks only Russian, looks out her window. She feels confined by her four walls, the language barrier, and the fact that she hasn’t been able to play an instrument in over 40 years.

With her rundown, cluttered home standing in stark contrast to the prim neatness of her appearance, Anna, age 74, tells the story of her life. She was born in Poland in 1936, three years before the German occupation during World War II.

“When the Germans came, it was horrific. They killed lots of people,” she says through a translator. “I was afraid of them when they yelled on the streets,” Anna remembers. She recalls the holidays as a time for family to get together, but says it was hard during the German occupation, because gatherings of any kind were considered suspicious.

“My mother always tried to go out and find a tree, but they were hard to find in wartime Warsaw,” Anna says, as she glances to the corner of her crowded sitting room, where her artificial Christmas tree holds a place of honor.

After the war ended, religious observances of any kind were curbed by the Communists.

“I still somehow managed to get out to church without getting into any trouble,” Anna admits with a toothless smile. She says that growing up in Poland during the second World War and under Communism was “tough,” but she always found solace in one thing  — the piano.

She started taking lessons when she was 7, and attended the Warsaw Conservatory for high school.

“When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to do — I thought maybe I would be a medical doctor, a journalist, or a pianist,” she laughs. “But when I started playing piano, I just did not know how to stop.”

Working with a private agency, Anna booked concerts all across Europe. She fondly reminisces about the major cities in which she performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Rome, Paris, Vienna, and Prague. Pressed to pick her favorite city, she says it is a place in Italy, the city where Romeo and Juliet takes place. She can’t quite recall the name — Verona.

Her favorite composer is Frederic Chopin. “It’s Chopin, of course! I am Polish!” she proclaims. She also enjoyed performing compositions by Claude Debussy, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Asked for her favorite composition of all-time, Anna says choosing is a nearly impossible task. She thinks for a moment, and finally comes up with Chopin’s “The Revolutionary Etude.”

Anna met her first husband, a professor in Warsaw and a foreign diplomat, when she was 32. She was organizing a program on music of the world, and called the university for help. She ended up falling in love with the man who helped her — he was 28 years older than she. The couple married, but Anna was widowed seven months later. She gave birth to their son shortly after her husband died.

After she was widowed, she stopped touring the continent. She had been performing as a soloist for 16 years.

American nightmare

“A friend invited me to come to America, to New York City,” she says, putting her hands to her face. “Life played some mean tricks on me then.” Anna talks about coming to America with no plans to remain in the United States. She left her son in Poland with her mother.

While visiting her friend in New York City, Anna was mugged, not once, but twice. She was robbed of her money, her documents, and, during the second mugging, which she insists on calling an “accident,” she almost lost her life. It pains her to think of “the accident,” and she has to pause to gather her composure before she can go on.

Though she managed to survive the incident, it took her months to recover from her injuries, and there is one important thing she never did recover — her sense of hearing.

“Something happened,” she tries to explain, placing her hands over both of her ears. “The sounds, I don’t hear them right. The music hurts my ears.” For this reason, her hands have not graced the keys of a piano for over four decades.

As she recovered from her personal trauma, Anna fought through many layers of red tape to bring her mother and son to America, since she knew she would not be able to return to Poland.

“I lost all ties with Poland,” she says matter-of-factly. She remarried, this time to a Polish man she met in America, and lived in New York City for 22 years.

“Then our financial situation got bad; we could not afford to live in the city anymore, so we had to move somewhere that we could afford,” she says, gesturing to the ramshackle dwelling she now inhabits. Her family moved to the Helderberg Hilltowns because her son liked the mountains, she says, and it would be less costly than the city.

Anna’s second husband died eight years ago. Her mother, 95, lived with her until six months ago, when she lapsed into a coma, and is now in a facility.

Here in America, though, when everything else seems to have been taken away, Anna always celebrates Christmas.

“It’s the smallest Christmas ever, but I never fail,” she says. “I go to the Christmas Eve vigil at the Catholic church in Greenville, and I watch the Christmas programs on television.” And her decorated tree stands in the corner.

Anna says living in the Hilltowns is hard for her. Attending Mass during the holidays is one of the only times she goes out.

“I’m used to big cities, and crowds,” she says. “Here it’s just these four walls, and I look out my window. If someone calls me on the phone, it’s nice. But that’s all.”


Anna did not want her real name used for this story, since she is wary of publicity. The Enterprise was given her name by Kathleen Speck, director of the Hilltowns Community Resource Center, to raise awareness of its Holiday Fund for Seniors. (For more information on this program, turn to our holiday special section.)

Nina Reich, of Guilderland, served as translator.

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