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By B.A. Van Sise

Cecile Ruppert loves Chopin, like her mother before her.

B.A. Van Sise Portrait of Cecile Ruppert
B.A. Van Sise Portrait of Cecile Ruppert

In 1938, authorities in her native Berlin forbade her from receiving further piano lessons from her Catholic instructor. Her mother, a classical pianist, had no chance to continue the education in the few months before Nazi authorities smashed her father’s jewelry store and destroyed her mother’s Knabe piano.

A year later, they were penniless, and they were Americans, living in a tiny apartment in Queens, New York. “We didn’t have a piano,” Cecile says. “We didn’t even have furniture.”

When, decades later, the German government sent Cecile her Wiedergutmachung—reparation payment—she took their eleven hundred dollars and spent it on a new Knabe piano of her own. She’s still got it, and she still knows the songs she learned in Berlin those many years ago—the Beethoven, the ragtime, her beloved Chopin.

“I just play,” she sighs. Tinkling away at the electric piano at her sons’ home, she rattles out an old Jewish tune from another time. “I just play from memory.”

Stories Survive is made possible by the Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation.