Once Upon a Time I Sang

As a kid living in Nebraska for six of my life’s formative years, I met some refugees without fully understanding their stories or their situations. One of them was my piano teacher, Hans Baer, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He told as much of his story as he felt a 13 year old needed to hear, but in the past few years, through a really amazing series of events, I learned more. Through this blog, I was contacted by a German historian who was putting together a book of the stories of the Jewish musicians who fled Germany for Shanghai. I’d written about my piano teacher. The book was finished recently, MUSIKER UND MUSIKERINNEN IM SHANGHAIER EXIL 1938–1949 . The ultimate sweetness of THAT — for me — was that she attached her articles about my teacher and his wife. As I read them I was happy that I’d actually contributed a little something. He was a remarkable, unforgettable, inspiring man, and I was so lucky to have had him as a teacher, not only of piano but of life philosophy.

The other refugees I met during that time of my life came from Spain. Was one my 7th grade Spanish teacher, Dr. Espinosa, or Espinotha. The very school to which I rode the bus. 🙂 He was pretty adamant about that th sound. He organized our class one year to come to the Spanish/American Club in Omaha to sing Spanish Christmas songs.

Eight of us learned to sing some traditional Christmas carols in Spanish and a few South American songs. We had to dress up in grown up clothes. It was my first time in nylons. They felt creepy on my legs, like they were crawling around. It was pre-pantyhose and maybe I was wearing my mom’s girdle. We all went out in the very cold Nebraska December to sing to a group of old people from Spain. They were refugees from Franco’s regime about which I knew nothing.

Over the course of my teaching life I got to know refugees from all over the place and the stories carry one common thread — hope. My student from Somalia was walking across the campus with me one day and said, “Ah, my classmates. Everything bothers them. They just haven’t had to run away from bullets or watch their village burn.” He and his sister had fled their home, not knowing if their family would survive. Their mother had said, “Go!” and they ran. They did find their family and all of them refugeed to the US, but…

I’ve thought a lot about the role of hope in our lives. Hope is totally absurd. To take this absurdity forward into the dark and dangerous unknown, and sometimes with NOTHING else? “Well, what do I have to keep moving forward with? Shit. I got nothing. Necessity. Wait, I have this, too, this small and irrational thing, this tiny bird…

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

Hope keeps humans from sinking into the twin abysses of dread and loss. The irony of real hope — in contrast with “I hope Santa brings me a” or “I hope I get the winning lottery ticket” — is that when you need it, you probably don’t have anything else. I believe it’s an evolutionary strategy that kept our ancestors going forward when they had no reason to. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” Well, probably not, but it’s a lot easier to go to sleep if you think so. Hope fuels determination and will, powerful forces for change.

Back then, we sang this beautiful Chilean Christmas lullaby, “Arruru”. I don’t think we sounded like this. The melody is what we sang, but the words are a little different. I’ve pasted the “real” lyrics below.


Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Para que le meza la cuna cuando llora su niñito
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Para ver el nacimiento han sufrido los rigores
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Resplandece en el cielo sobre Jerusalén
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Loose translation: First verse; Here Mary brings her little son and lays him in a crib, she rocks the crib when he cries and sings, “Arruru, sleep little Jesus.” Second, The shepherds come down from the mountains. It’s a hard journey to see the birth. Third, Their way is lit by the white (bright) star over Bethlehem, lighting the sky over Jerusalem.

10 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time I Sang

  1. I’ve found refugees all over the place too – especially on campus. They are still coming, though more slowly in recent years. I think the poem just about covers all that is pertinent concerning hope/Hope. I love that you had a piano teacher who was both an inspiration and so unforgettable!

  2. Your life is like the song you sing,…and have sung. Like the bird, I’ll muster hope when there’s nothing else. It’s really the only last choice I’ve known. I so admire the ways your well-rounded, eclectic, and experienced life speaks to me. I know you’re no longer in the classroom or wish to be a part of the doo-doo attached, but you will never stop being a teacher. I’ll leave it there. Love from Finn and me. PS~the song is beautiful 🎶 on another note, I’ve only known a few refugees in my life. And at times, feel like a refuge in my own country!

    • I think we can easily be refugees in our own country. We travel (or don’t) in time as well as space. I was thinking last night how little I care about robots or Artificial Intelligence. But the future will care. I’m absolved from that by virtue of being 70 years old. So strange but not at all alienating. Love from us here where it still doesn’t snow. I think it’s probably because I lost one of my snow flake earrings. Once they’re replaced, it will snow 😉

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