Seventy years ago, shortly after defeating Nazi Germany, three victorious leaders met in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. President Harry Truman was there with British and Soviet leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Stuart Canin was also there — he was a 19-year-old GI from New York City who played the violin.
Canin was drafted and sent to Europe as an Army rifleman, and he took along his instrument. He went on to become a successful violinist and concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and he’s the subject of a short documentary film called The Rifleman’s Violin. He’s now 89, and he spoke with NPR’s Robert Siegel about a monumental political meeting that he remembers from a unique perspective.
Robert Siegel: Before we get to Potsdam, tell us about your decision, when you shipped out to serve in Europe during World War II, to take your violin.
Stuart Canin: Well, I had no idea how long the Army would want my services. So, I had my $2, cigar-box violin, and going up the gangplank, my commanding officer said, “What are you going to do with that?” I said to him, “Well, you never know.”
But ultimately, the Army figured out it had a violinist on its hands, and it could make some use out of this gift you had.
The war ended on May 8, and on May 10 I got orders — they said, “Private First Class Stuart Canin is going to be sent back to Paris to join an entertainment soldier show company.” Among the people there were Josh Logan, the famous Broadway director, and Mickey Rooney, the wonderful actor at that time. I went around with Sgt. Eugene List, the well-known American pianist who came over then with the future idea of having a GI symphony, which did eventually come about.
Flash forward to July 1945, just about this time of the month. You’re being taken to Potsdam.
Our commanding officer in Paris said, “Eugene, you, Stuart and Mickey, get yourselves ready. We’re flying to Berlin, because President Truman is coming over.” They drove us over to Potsdam, and they billeted us in a tent. Then, the next day, our commanding officer came and said, “You guys, get shined up.” They took us across the street to this house. We had no idea, we just thought the president was going to be there. But we were standing on the porch, and we heard the sound of motors coming and, one after another, big, black limousines. When we looked out, we could not believe it. Stalin came out of one, Churchill came out of another, and everybody who was on the front page of the New York Times.
This was a conference, Potsdam, in which the map of Europe was being redrawn — Vietnam was being partitioned. This was the meeting of the most powerful men on the planet who were making big decisions in the postwar world.
That’s exactly right. Just as an aside, Mickey Rooney never got to appear, because my commanding officer did not know that Stalin and Churchill were going to be there. He thought just Truman, and he thought maybe that would be fun for Truman. But when they realized that Mickey doesn’t translate into Russian that easily, and Churchill was about to lose his position as prime minister of Great Britain, that didn’t bode well for Mickey’s appearance, so he just got to stay in the tent for a week.
So, the real star power was stuck in the tent across the road, and you and List are called upon to play. What a cast of characters you were playing for!
We had no idea, of course, until we saw them get out of those cars. Truman, Stalin and Churchill came out, and there was one long sofa. Truman sat in the center, and Churchill — as befitting his politics — was on the right, and Stalin had the place of honor on the left, befitting his politics. There was a little upright piano that we were going to use, and I had put my violin there, and Truman said, “Well, gentlemen, would you play for us?” So, I went over behind the piano to get my violin, and the fellow who was acting as Stalin’s aide, I tell you, he leaped across the room in one step. He was across the room at my side — I will never forget his face watching me open the case and take out the violin and the bow, and then he relaxed and he went back.
You were not an undercover hit man who had been sent to assassinate Stalin, as demonstrated.
I’m delighted to learn that the first piece you play is one of my favorite violin pieces, which is the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro, the piece that Kreisler said was written by a composer named Pugnani.
Yeah, he just didn’t think that his music would be accepted.
You also played a Tchaikovsky piece, I gather, and that got a rise out of Stalin.
Eugene just decided on the spur of the moment to play the theme of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Stalin leaped to his feet and said, “A toast to the musicians!” Somebody grabbed a vodka from a tray that one of his aides was holding.
This would have been a remarkable experience for anyone, but you were all of 19 years old when this was happening!
Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve been nervous in my life. I’ve been a professional musician for God knows how many years — 60, 70 years. And I still remember when I saw these people come out and take a seat, on that love seat. I don’t know if you can call it a love seat with those three people, but anyway. And then I had to get my violin out from behind the piano and start to play. But once you start to play, and you have a familiar object in your hand, you’re OK. It was just that the thought of playing for these gentlemen was way beyond what I could ever imagine. But, the president promised me, and he made good on it, that he would send me an autographed picture. So he signed it, “To an excellent violinist, Private First Class Stuart Canin, Harry Truman.” Which I have and treasure.
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