Musician Pablo Casals’s Rescue of Humanity’s Honor

April 19th, 2010
Jim Thomas

In physical appearance, he was an unlikely virtuoso, an equally unlikely candidate for holding fast against evil forces.  Short, bald, portly, with rimless gold spectacles and owlish eyes, his appearance was more like a warehouse clerk than a musician.  Looks, however, can be misleading

Pablo Casals, native of Spain, was an outstanding figure in the world of classical music.  Some say he was the greatest cellist of all time.  He was also rigidly conscientious, both in his music and as a believer in world peace and democratic order.  By those beliefs, he stood firm—with steel-hard integrity.

When the Spanish Civil War erupted and the Franco regime came to power, Casals fled Spain, vowing never to return as a citizen until freedom was restored.  It was a vow he kept.  He and his family fled to France, where they took up exile in a dilapidated house on the outskirt of Prades.  There he spent the war years in virtual exile.

They had a bad time of it.  For months on end, they were short of food, existing on a fare of boiled turnips and green beans.  Milk and meat were unavailable.  They had no coal and little wood, and the cold weather became a serious threat.  The maestro severely suffered from arthritis and malnutrition.

In the depths of their ordeal, the German invaders issued an invitation and an appeal.  On a cold rainy morning in the winter of 1944, a German staff car arrived at the Casals’ villa with three Wehrmacht officers.  Their proposal: would he play for the German people in Berlin?  In consideration, they offered food, coal, hospitable living conditions.  All he had to do was play his cello for their countrymen.

He refused the offer, knowing it could bring to end their physical misery.  Said he, refused to play in Germany—that birthplace of Beethoven and Bach that had been so dear to me,–because I had the same attitude about going to Germany that I did about going to Franco’s Spain.”

Thomas Mann, the great German writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, was asked his “opinion” of Pablo Casals.  In so many words, he responded that he had no ‘opinion’ “… only profound respect for a musician, who in a demented period of European history came to the rescue of humanity’s honor.”

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