Portrait

A chance meeting with an elderly musician draws the author into his troubled life. By Cass Moriarty.

Chance encounter

We met by chance. I had no idea he was a skilled architect, or that he danced the tango, or that his playing of the haunting doina lament on violin was beautiful enough to make you weep.

“I’m thinking of writing my memoir,” he said. He wore the colourful clothing of a younger man, a bohemian. His head was bald. “Call me Moshlo,” he said. I wondered if that was his first name or his last.

We exchanged emails. Almost 80, Morrice Shaw preferred to answer to the diminutive name his mother had used when he was small. We emailed about inconsequential things, only a handful of times; the doina intrigued me. Then my last few emails went unanswered.

A Jewish Holocaust survivor had written her way onto the pages of my new novel, an accomplished musician who expressed her melancholy through doina. I wrote to Moshlo: “Would you read a short piece and give me some feedback on authenticity?”

I received a reply from a stranger. It was Moshlo’s ex-wife, Carla. She told me that he had committed suicide.

I was shocked. I felt an unexpected grief for someone I hardly knew.

 

Carla and Moshlo were together for 20 years, partners in life, in music, dancing, film. As his estate was finalised and those he cared about were coming to terms with his loss, Carla and I kept in touch. I unravelled the astonishing story of Moshlo’s life, and of his death.

His was a legacy of childhood pain pinned to a framework of intergenerational trauma.

Born in Poland in 1935, Morrice Shaw was circumcised by his grandfather, a rabbi who later disappeared during the conflict. His family immigrated to Australia two years later, before the war, although the menacing grip of anti-Semitism had already taken hold in Europe. His parents were poor but hardworking; his father was a furrier who began by adding fur trims to coats, and eventually provided haute couture fashion to Australia’s elite. He dressed the prime minister’s wife, Pattie Menzies.

At the age of five, Moshlo began training as a classical concert violinist. His teacher, intense and exacting, demanded a punishing regimen of practice and performance; Moshlo spoke of “working with blood-sweat”. His neighbour, the pianist David Helfgott, shared similarly gruelling training.

Moshlo’s parents anticipated he would become a virtuoso violin player. At 17, he was sent to Paris where he studied under a master and practised nine hours a day. But he was isolated and lonely. He knew no French. He became emaciated, too sick to leave his lodgings. He was sent home and diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Most of his ulcerated colon was removed. Of much greater suffering, however, was the humiliation of disappointing his parents: their dream for him had died, the whole episode scaffolded in a profound silence.

And so the dichotomy of music was created: a passionate, enlivening, zealous fervour, but also a tortuous obsession of unreachable perfection.

Carla and Moshlo’s union was marred by his depression and crippling anxiety. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and narcissism, but he resisted labels and medication. He lived with the chaos of a brilliant mind. His broken relationships, collateral damage, reflected his own trauma as a child, but also the trauma of his people – children of survivors syndrome. His relatives were imprisoned at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, or remained in hiding during the war. He often spoke of his family’s anguish, recalling childhood picnics, his distraught relatives crying and raging about the gas chambers. One uncle repeatedly exposed the scars on his chest inflicted by the Nazis. “That would affect any child,” Carla says, “hearing stories like that.”

This background hum of distress, persecution and traumatic history tortured Moshlo. “He was empty,” Carla says.

When Moshlo first heard the doina, it reignited a memory of his mother’s lullabies, the subconscious sounds of his Jewish heritage. Through a series of chance encounters in Berlin, he began to explore the style in a bunker pockmarked with bullet holes, a grim reminder of the war. Across the road were the dungeons where SS soldiers tortured countless Jews; the doina’s unique improvised sound echoed the dark sense of foreboding, resonating with a deep, generational familiarity.

The doina was respite, but music and dancing were not enough to hold the couple together. The effort of surrendering to Moshlo’s moods was exhausting for them both. They divorced nine months before he died.

Moshlo began to panic more frequently. He fell and fractured a vertebra. He felt frail. He no longer wanted to cope with his debilitating illness, or with the intrusiveness of his black thoughts. He often said, with passion, “I will not be thwarted.” When I ask what he meant, Carla says, “He meant, ‘This is how it is.’ That is all.” He would not be thwarted.

A week before he died, at Moshlo’s request, Carla produced a poignant short film The Last Portrait of Moshlo. In it, he talks of pain, exhaustion, grief and depression. He talks about his desire to surrender to the wolf.

“I can’t take this any longer, the best thing to do now … is to surrender my life, completely. A grey wolf has been shadowing me … panting. I could feel its breath, it was hot on my heels, I always felt that it wanted to consume me … I’ve been sprinting ever since, I was at the finishing line … things can’t go on forever. I can only say that everything, finally, has to come to an end.”

He was tired of running.

Moshlo bequeathed nearly his entire estate to Médecins Sans Frontières. He left small bequests for his loved ones, and instructions that his cherished violin be tended by Carla, to be played by Conservatorium of Music students. Disappointed, his family closed ranks against her wishes to retrieve meaningful personal mementoes from their marital home: photographs, recordings, small tokens of the life they shared. This, like their intertwined life, created enormous joy and terrible sadness; that dichotomy again, of light and dark.

Listening to all this, I reflect on chance encounters, on how one story leads to another, on how our lives are linked by the infinitesimal minutiae of living and the vast infinity of consequences.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Chance encounter". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.