The woman who made my piano sing

By Herman Labuschagne

She was in her late 70’s and not in a very good physical condition anymore. She was hard of hearing, very opinionated, and spoke reasonably broken English very loudly. Plus, she was seldom interested in listening. Instead, she talked almost non-stop. She had very few friends, and had no family anymore, except for a son that he had last heard of in 1986. Somehow, the winds of fate blew her into my life.


Anneliese Ihnken


I was a young bachelor at the time. Once a year I used to go to the coast for a holiday, and my 10 hour journey passed near the small little country town where she lived all by herself. Every time I felt sorry for her. I would pick her up – along with her mountains of luggage – take her to the coast for 10 days or so, and then bring her home again. And every year I promised myself that would be the last time. She wore me out. She was just too intense…


Strangely, though, over the years something unexpected happened. She quietly became a friend. At the same time, her life’s story slowly emerged to form a picture. It was a mosaic of memories that collected themselves after hundreds of kilometres, burning across the Great Karoo. The story of her life is too long to tell here, but one day I hope to document it in full. Her incredible stories of a 15 year old girl, who was trapped in the city of Dresden when it was fire-bombed during World War II. How she had four incredibly miraculous escapes from death. The harsh times under Russian occupation. Her valiant struggles as a single mother in a faraway country after the war. Making ends meet despite all the odds. Learning to drive for the first time in her upper sixties. Always battling to survive. Never giving up.


One day on one of our trips I told her about my grandmother’s beautiful old piano that had become worn out and unplayable. There and then she insisted on me driving to the next big town where she made me stop so she could transfer several thousand bucks into my account to pay for a full restoration.

“Your grandmother’s piano must sing again!” she insisted.

“You can repay me as- and when you can,” she explained, when I objected. “And if I die, consider it a gift.”

I repaid her in less than a year. And she really did make that old piano sing again, as it continues to do to this very day.


One year I passed through her town unexpectedly. I didn’t really have time to stop but the car just turned off the road by itself. Not finding her at home, I started asking around. It wasn’t hard to find her. Everyone knew of the eccentric old German lady who lived in the small cottage at the north end of town. I found her in a coma following a stroke. She did not recognize me, but I felt obliged to at least spend a little time with her. It felt silly to speak when she showed no response, so I just read from her Bible for her in my best school German. I chose the passages which she had most heavily underlined. When I came to Revelation 3:12 it said: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.” At that her eyes suddenly opened and she started breathing very hard. Her laser blue eyes bored into my face for a long time, until the light gradually went out of them again.


She was 78 years old, but her eyes still sparkled like a 15 year old sometimes.


She never woke up after that. Two days later she left a world in which she had never truly felt at home. In her house there was almost nothing that I would have wanted, except one thing only: a lovely oil painting of a shepherd with his sheep. I once asked her where it came from. She said her father had brought it back with him from Siberia when he was an intelligence officer in the War. One day friends of mine who handled her estate visited me – and brought me a large object that was wrapped in a blanket. It was that painting. It has been hanging above my grandmother’s piano every since.


I’m sharing this story because she has been on my mind tonight. And because I just realized something that I have always missed until now. She told me that after the war was over, she was wandering the streets as a young girl, all alone. She was slowly starving. On the third day she prayed to God and told Him in desperation that if she did not find food or a job the next day, that she would take her own life. The first thing the next morning she walked into a business and was offered a job in Namibia.

When she told me this, she looked at me intensely and pointed with her finger as she slowly and very passionately said: “That’s when I knew that God had a purpose for my life…!”


I think the thing that I have missed until now is elementary: sometimes God allows us to go through hard times so that we can be absolutely certain that He exists and that He has a purpose for our lives.


She had more setbacks and disappointments in her life, than almost anyone I’ve ever known. But it did not make her bitter. It did not shake her belief in the goodness that there can be in mankind. Or her hope in the future. I wanted the world to know her story, and that I was well-pleased to be her friend. I wanted to write her name on the walls of the world so that it would not be forgotten. Her name was Anneliese Ihnken and she was 80 years old.


My grandmother at the piano that was made to sing again.

The story of the Piano

The front part of our old farmhouse was sort of out of the way and always a bit on the cold side, so we seldom used it. That's where my great-grandmother's old piano used to stand. One night, quite out of the blue, we suddenly began hearing music. I followed the sound and discovered my grandmother seated in front of the piano. She had opened a book of fairly difficult sheet music and was slowly, but accurately, playing again for the first time in 32 years. The year was 1992 and she was 76 years old and I was just 19.

Grandma kept playing from that day onward, and we later had to send her own mother's old piano back to her home in town so she could continue making music. This piano, however, remained in our house where it had been standing since I was born. I learned to play on it, and so did my sister also. I have this piano now. It is a Carl Weimar. The wood is burl walnut and the keys are still original and almost entirely undamaged. I had the works restored about 8 years ago and it is still in very good condition after more than a century of use. The piano tuners always say it astonishes them that the frame is still tight and in perfect order.That cast iron frame bears a strain of nearly 20 tons.

My grandmother always said this piano "sings." It actually did. I had it tuned to concert pitch when it was restored, and that took some of the sweet melodiousness out of it, unfortunately. I still think I might have it downed down to the original pitch again one day.

In the meantime, it is kept tuned by the piano tuner, Piet Ferreira. His mother was a very close friend of my grandmother. His father was the district surgeon, and a good friend of my grandfather. He was also the last person with him when my grandfather died. I ran into Piet one day here in George, and although I had never known him, I was overjoyed to finally meet him 1,400 km from the town where we both came from. We felt like family right away and have kept up a friendship ever since. I couldn't wait to let Piet bring her back into tune again.

Music makes friends. Music brings people together. Music is a bridge between generations.