A Musical Life With Echoes That Will Last
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Cornelia Vertenstein, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, gave her last piano lesson at 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 1. She was not feeling well, so she arranged a ride to the hospital.
Pneumonia settled in, and family gathered, sensing the end of a quietly extraordinary life.
She began giving lessons at age 14 in war-torn Romania. She did not stop for nearly 80 years. Toward the end, adapting to the pandemic, Ms. Vertenstein gave lessons on FaceTime from her home in Denver.
As her condition worsened this month, she reflected on her life’s work.
“If I die, don’t be sad,” she told her daughter, Mariana. “I led a productive life helping children.”
Near her hospital bed hung a copy of a New York Times story about Ms. Vertenstein, staying connected to her students through technology, that was published last May. It was on the front page, with a large photograph of her sitting at her piano, sharply dressed, hands folded, looking at the camera.
Ms. Vertenstein died Feb. 12. Count me among the mourners, because I wrote that story.
I never met Ms. Vertenstein in person; our interviews took place on FaceTime and over the phone. But she left a lasting impression on me and countless others whom she never met, judging by how widely and quickly her story spread. It spawned an invitation to the “Today” show (she declined) and inspired a German telephone commercial, among other things.
Her family teased her for being a celebrity, but she was uncomfortable with the attention.
“She’d say, ‘I just want to teach,’” her daughter said.
As with most stories that I have written, I remember the experience of reporting more than the words that were published. My mind sees Ms. Vertenstein’s smile. I still have it in my phone, a screengrab from one of our conversations.
I remember having technical difficulties the first time I interviewed her, all on my end. I was late to connect on FaceTime. Fumbling with my phone and laptop, I simply called her. She forgave my blundering tardiness.
I remember telling her during our last conversation that I would like to visit her the next time I was in Denver, my hometown. I still have family in Colorado, so I try to get there a few times a year. This was last spring. Surely the pandemic would ease, we thought. But I have not been to Denver since.
I also remember the unusual circumstances for how that story came to me. At the end of March, the pandemic smothering lives, I was searching for fresh story angles. Maybe the exponential powers of social media could be put to good use.
“I’m entertaining thoughts, a community brainstorm,” I wrote on Facebook. “Know something that the world should know about that hasn’t already been read and seen?”
The first response came from Jacqui Jorgeson, whom I met in 2015 when her boyfriend (now husband), Kevin Jorgeson, climbed the Dawn Wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan with his climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell.
“Mind if I share?” she wrote. “I’ve got some awesomely weird friends.”
Others shared, too. Ideas poured in. Most were the type that became familiar last spring, about quiet acts of heroism — sewing masks, volunteering for food banks, connecting with needy neighbors.
In the end, I turned only one into a story.
The suggestion stood out, about a Holocaust survivor in her 90s who lived alone and taught piano seven days a week. Unable to welcome her students into her home, as she had for decades, she took to conducting lessons using FaceTime. And now the spring recital was approaching.
The note’s writer was Yvette Frampton, a Facebook acquaintance of Ms. Jorgeson. Her three children were among the dozens of Ms. Vertenstein’s students.
Soon, I was like one of those students, virtually connected for scheduled meetings.
Ms. Vertenstein coordinated our conversations around her teaching schedule and her iPad’s battery life — always a consideration, because there was no outlet near the piano. If she had an opening between 2 and 4, for example, she would ask if we could speak at 3, so that her device could charge on the counter for an hour first.
Students considered Ms. Vertenstein a bit intimidating, at least at first, with her exacting standards and strong accent. (English was one of six languages she spoke.) She was the type of teacher that parents appreciate and that students may not, until they are older.
With me, though, she was talkative and friendly. She spoke plainly of her life and its heartaches. She was patient with my probing questions. Her mind was sharp, her memory clear.
All lives deserve more than a few paragraphs, but especially this one. I whittled it as sharply as I could to fit a newspaper word count.
“The children do not know much of Ms. Vertenstein’s past — the yellow star she had to wear as a teenager during the war, the rocks thrown at her, the fist of fascism replaced by the slogging brutality of communism,” I wrote last year.
It was mere context for her piano lessons.
“It’s very painful to talk about,” Ms. Vertenstein told me. “Besides this, why should I tell those kids such sad stories?”
There is no way to know how many children entered her house over the decades, learning scales or rehearsing Bach minuets and Haydn sonatas before exiting with a hug and a sticker and, perhaps, a life lesson not fully appreciated until later.
She was sure not going to let social-distancing protocols get in the way of one-on-one piano lessons. Ms. Frampton and others helped teach Ms. Vertenstein to use FaceTime. The recitals, performed on Zoom from dozens of living rooms before a matrix of family members, were trickier. But they worked.
Last May, Ms. Vertenstein hoped that she could soon welcome her students back into her home. That never happened.
Her last student, it turns out, was Maggie Frampton, 14, one of those featured in the online recital last May. It was early in the morning two Mondays ago, on FaceTime before school. Maggie told her mother afterward that Ms. Vertenstein was not feeling well. (Ms. Vertenstein’s family said she did not have Covid-19 and had recently received the first dose of vaccine.)
Now the Frampton children are among the 30 current students of Ms. Vertenstein in search of a new teacher.
“Some naïve part of me thought she would live forever,” Yvette Frampton said.
Also unclear is what will become of Ms. Vertenstein’s three pianos, including the Chickering & Sons that she and her husband bought for $600 in 1965, two years after landing in the United States, and the two grand pianos reserved mostly for older students or those rehearsing concerts or recitals.
On Tuesday, on a cold and blustery Colorado afternoon, family and a few friends attended a graveside funeral as others watched online. The rabbi quoted Plato’s line about music giving “soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination” — the same line that Ms. Vertenstein chose for the program for last spring’s recital.
Minutes before her small, plain coffin was lowered into the earth, notes from former students were read. One recalled how Ms. Vertenstein never liked the word “practice.”
You do not practice, she would say. You make music.
She sprinkled lessons everywhere.
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