The Wife and the Piano Teacher
by Ute Carson
34th Parallel Magazine, Issue 22, May 2013

The story did not start in Philadelphia but on a prosperous estate in the province of Silesia in the Kingdom of Prussia.

It was 1829 when Clara, then 29, sat for her family portrait. Her eyes were dreamy, fawn-like and unruly ringlets dangled along the sides of her face. Only her full, pouty lips hinted at her bottled-up determination and unconventional spiritedness. She was perched on the arm of a divan, ready to sprint away.

Clara was the daughter of Baron and Baroness von Thielau who had brought up their seven children to be independent, giving them free run of the bountiful grounds and woods surrounding their impressive manor. All members of the family rode horses, the women sidesaddle in those days. The children were schooled by an English nanny, a French tutor and music teachers. As a teenager Clara was a sufficiently accomplished violinist to perform at family soirees. At the time the portrait was painted she was married and had three children.

Her husband, Rochus Baron von Lüttwitz was sixteen years her senior and owned an estate a few kilometers to the east. He was a decorated officer in the Garde du Corps of the Johanniter, the Knights of the Order of St. John, a quiet man, prone to melancholy. And he preferred hunting to his wife's lively social gatherings. Though he adored her, he often dozed off in his high-backed overstuffed chair while listening to her play the violin.

When their first child, a boy, turned seven, Clara hired a piano teacher who had just arrived at a neighboring country home from Russia. Stanislav Rosen was young and talented. The only thing we know about his looks is contained in a letter from Clara to her parents, "His slender fingers fascinated me from the first time I saw him play. They glide across the keys like spiders, beautiful and a bit uncanny."

The course that Clara and Stanislav's relationship took and the tragedies that followed are shrouded in mystery. All we know comes from rumors and early warning signs. A maidservant told of watching Clara and her husband ride out one leafy fall afternoon to their favorite family picnic area by a lake covered in sky-blue water lilies. To the servants' surprise Clara later rode home alone and spent the next several hours in the stall, grooming and talking to her beloved mare. That evening she called for the coach and was driven to her parents' home.

The devastating news seeped out. Clara, who had delivered her fourth baby a few months before, declared her love for Stanislav. Divorces were rare in those days and Rochus was not given to outbursts. He showed no emotion upon hearing his wife's confession. Instead, he had his belongings moved to a separate wing in the mansion and told inquirers that his wife was in the process of making profound choices which would affect them all. The couple agreed that Clara would stay at the estate for one year before finalizing her decision. If at that time she was certain that she desired the piano teacher as her companion, he, Rochus, would set her free. Stanislav was asked to leave, and soon thereafter departed for America.

In the months that followed, Clara was often seen on trail rides with her husband. Everyone hoped for her change of heart. Time would surely move Clara's mood for the good of the family and reunite husband and wife. But the stars did not align that way. There are no records of Clara's deliberations. Was she pining for her lover? Or did she simply tire of the comfortable but predictable life aristocratic ladies lived during those years on remote landed estates? Was she a spirited person trapped by her sex and circumstances? Or was it true love? And was music the lure?

The mansion was decorated for Christmas and Rochus had forgotten that the year of waiting had elapsed. A week before the holiday festivities were to begin Clara brought her youngest child to her parents' home. The following morning she was seen slipping through their portal, making her way on foot to the road where the daily stagecoach would come by. She was clad in the long hooded plaid cape she always wore on country outings. It was rumored that she had a small bundle tied around her waist containing a few personal belongings and jewelry. No one knows how long her travels lasted from southern Silesia to the coast, then onto a ship bound for America.

As soon as Clara disappeared, Rochus ordered all likenesses of her taken down from the walls of the mansion and forbade her name to be uttered by anyone. The children, except the youngest, remained with him and were not allowed to correspond with their mother as long as Rochus lived. All contact occurred via the von Thielau family.

It often took months for letters to cross the ocean. The first letter to her family from abroad seems to have been written in response to the tragic news that had reached her of the death of her youngest child, a girl, who died several weeks after Clara's departure. The child's gravestone bears the mournful inscription: "Died of a broken heart." Clara's note to her parents was brief and revealed nothing about her circumstances. It stated simply, "God does not punish us, LIFE does."

The next letters are few and far between. Clara had borne two sons by the time tragedy struck again. A custodian at the music school on the outskirts of Philadelphia where Stanislav taught described the scene. Stanislav was sitting at an open window. Piano chords rippled through the spring air. A young girl was standing next to her teacher rehearsing an aria when two unsavory characters slipped into the enclosure of the school, climbed through the gaping window, and dragged Stanislav away with them. Search parties were sent out by the authorities but there was no trace. The von Thieleau family had grown accustomed to receiving unsettling news from their truant daughter, and they recalled that an earlier letter had contained a brief mention of a large gambling debt. Stanislav was never heard from again.

As the initial shock over Stanilav's disappearance faded with time, Clara's letters reassured her parents that she was fine. She had found work as a language tutor and was giving piano lessons. Eventually she was able to support herself embroidering pillowcases, tablecloths and cloth napkins in her own distinctive style. Clara wrote of the satisfaction she found in her work and described in detail her trademark embroidery featuring sky-blue water lilies. She was proud of her sons, who were growing up to be fine young men.

Clara died in 1860 at the age of 60. The trail might have ended there, and was lost from view for nearly a century.

In the bitterly cold late spring of 1945 my great aunt Baroness Vera von Lüttwitz returned to war-torn Germany from her position as a war correspondent in Denmark. She had no children and many of her family and friends had been killed. She found temporary refuge in a shabby attic room in a small town near the Danish border. One frosty day she was lugging twigs, branches and a few solid chunks of wood up to her tiny stove, which stood next to a mattress on the floor, her sole furnishings aside from some makeshift kitchenware and utensils. A knock interrupted her bustling to and fro. It was probably the distraught tenant who regularly begged her to share a bit of kindling.

Instead, a middle-aged American officer stood at the door. He greeted her warmly in broken German, "I believe you and I are relatives." Aunt Vera had heard too much during the last terrible months to be taken by surprise by anything. She simply straightened her faded apron and, as there was no place to sit, the two stood facing each other. She listened, noticeably shivering, and was pleased when the officer himself stoked the fire and piled on few sticks. He did not stay long but spoke in detail about the lengths to which he had gone to locate her through the embassy in Copenhagen. He assured her that he was eager to learn more about his German family and, if she had no objection, he would like to visit again. Aunt Vera was touched but also tired. She took the bundle of letters from him, along with his name and address and his winter coat which he discretely placed on the mattress without a word.

A few days after this visit Aunt Vera was picked up and interrogated by the American military about her work in Denmark. When the authorities realized she was innocent of cooperating with the Nazis, they released her. Soon thereafter she moved to the outskirts of the city of Kassel, the center of which had been severely bombed by the Allies.

Although a copy of the von Lüttwitz family portrait had been prominently displayed in my grandfather's study, as a child I had shown no interest in the ghostly figures in strange costumes who stared down at me from Grandpa's walls. But in my late teens my curiosity about the woman who fled to America was piqued.

When Great Aunt Vera was in her mid-eighties, I visited her in hopes of learning more about Clara. Aunt Vera seemed a bit annoyed by my questions. "In our family in those days one did not leave one's husband," she said adamantly. "And those poor children, one still a baby." When I wanted to know if she read the letters she replied curtly, "Yes, I have. They are full of descriptions of embroidery. Grandmother should have left it at that." When I told her that I longed to see the letters Aunt Vera seemed to blush. A little scarlet wave appeared along her hairline. "They are gone. I had them in a box without a lid and one of my cats used the thin sheets of paper to cushion her birthing place." My aunt had always been an animal lover but had gone overboard after the war, adopting strays in her old age when she could once again afford food for herself and her feline friends, thanks to a generous government pension. The name and address of the American officer who had paid Aunt Vera that surprise visit also disappeared along with the letters.

Fate had given our family a chance to connect the dots of the saga of Clara von Lüttwitz but the trail was once again covered for posterity. Unless, of course, some distant family member reads this story and is curious enough to retrace the footsteps back through time from Philadelphia to that Silesian estate where a mystery woman will not let me rest. Was she simply ahead of her time, courageously following her heart? Or was it heartless of her to leave husband and children behind in a search for personal fulfillment?

I am haunted by Clara. She was my Great-Great-Grandmother.

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