What does Juliek's playing of Beethoven on the violin mean to Eliezer?
The thought of Juliek playing the violin in such horrible circumstances is one of the most powerful points in the book. What makes this point even stronger is that there are many instances when Eliezer talks about the silence, especially at night. As you can imagine, the silence spoke loudly of terror, loss of hope, and looming death. So, when that silence was broken by the playing of a musical instrument, it was powerful. Eliezer states:
"He played a fragment from Beethoven's concerto. I had never heard sounds so pure. In such a silence."
For Eliezer this meant a few things. First, the violin meant that Juliek had not given in to death or given up hope. He looked death and evil in the eyes and still chose to play something beautiful.
"The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek's soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again."
Second, it was Juliek's gift to dying men. From this perspective, Juliek gave a gift even in this horrible context. Can there be good and charity here? At least there was a glimmer of goodness. Eliezer writes:
"I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget this concert given before an audience of the dead and dying? Even today, when I hear that particular piece by Beethoven, my eyes close and out of the darkness emerges the pale and melancholy face of my Polish comrade bidding farewell to an audience of dying men."
Finally, the story does not end well for Juliek. The next morning Eliezer finds him dead. For Eliezer, this confirms that in the end there is still death.
"I don't know how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke at daybreak, I saw Juliek facing me, hunched over, dead. Next to him lay his violin, trampled, an eerily poignant little corpse."
But Eliezer will continue.
Initially, the sound of Juliek's voice reminds Eliezer of the past, of orchestras and music and concerts prior to the concentration camps. The realization that Juliek still had his violin with him seemed too unlikely to even be given much consideration.
When Eliezer heard music and realized it was not a dream but Juliek actually playing the violin that had also survived to that point, Eliezer recognized that he was hearing Juliek's dying statement. For Juliek the musician, his life did not flash before his eyes as visions in the moments prior to his death. Instead, his life played out its review in his music.
His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.
Eliezer understood that Juliek was paying tribute and saying goodbye in the way that he knew best.