Memories are a funny thing. We never know exactly when they will crash upon us. As I heard the news on Friday afternoon that Christopher Plummer had died at age 91, I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s apartment in Pembroke Pines, Florida in the early 1980s. I was probably no more than 3 or 4 years old at the time. And there I was dancing around the plastic-covered couch to “My Favorite Things,” while hugging tightly to the album cover with the seemingly ancient picture of Maria and the Von Trapp children dancing through the mountains of Austria. That moment in time was the start of my obsession with the “Sound of Music.”
I have a terrible singing voice, but I dreamed of playing one of the Von Trapp children on stage. From practicing Gretl on the staircase of my house to transporting from my teenage bedroom to the Gazebo on a warm Austrian evening as Liesl – I would belt out my very best renditions of “So Long, Farewell” and “I am Sixteen going on Seventeen,” torturing my younger brothers for hours. Long before streaming existed, I would wait anxiously for the movie to come on network television, usually right around Christmas, and force my entire family to climb into my parents’ bed to watch it for hours, commercials and all.
Yet in all of those childhood memories of my favorite movie of all time, I don’t think I ever actually noticed Captain von Trapp himself. I will even ashamedly admit that when I finally got a VHS copy of the movie, I often would fast forward through “Edelweiss” and quickly move on to the scene with the puppet show. My love at the time was truly of Maria and the Von Trapp children.
All of that changed as a college student abroad. Like many Americans spending a semester somewhere in Europe in the 1990s, I ventured to Salzburg, Austria – the main reason we all went was to partake in the infamous Sound of Music Tour. I have been fortunate enough to take many tours all over Europe, for pleasure and work, yet this still remains at the top of my list.
I think back now and smile with joy as I picture myself singing Do-Re-Mi by the famed fountain. I take a deep breath in and I can still smell the packets of edelweiss that we were given. And with one big inhale, I can recall the taste of the fresh apple strudel we ate while sitting across from the church where the wedding took place. But it wasn’t any of those that make that day so formative for me.
As a history student, already focusing my studies on the Holocaust, it was staring right in front me. While Marias’s arrival from the Abbey to save the children and the Von Trapp Family with song is what made me fall in love with the Sound of Music, it is most definitely Captain von Trapp’s defiance of the Nazis that has captured my lifelong respect and admiration.
The Sound of Music is not a Holocaust film by any means; but it is a film that shows a proud Austrian standing up to what he believed was wrong. For the most part, the annexation of Austria in 1938 was met with jubilance by the Austrians. Joining ranks with Hitler and the Nazi party was surely going to restore the power of what was once their great empire.
Voicing opposition to what was so widely accepted took strength of character, conviction, bravery and – contrary to popular belief at the time – a greater love for the Austrian people than all the others. As I stood marveling at the beauty of the Austrian Alps, on the brink of entering a life devoted to studying Europe between 1933 and 1945, I began to recognize that it was the Captain von Trapps of the era that I wanted to learn about, read about, write about and eventually teach about.
I always recognize and keep in my mind the memory of the unfathomable loss of the Holocaust and the Nazi era. But I also strive to recognize the good that some extraordinary people exhibited during those horrific years. For society to learn not to repeat the past, we need to not only focus on what went wrong, but also vigorously stress what went right. If Austria had been filled with Captain von Trapps, we would have an entirely different narrative of World War II.
So as I, and so many others, mourn the loss of Christopher Plummer, it will be “Edelweiss” that I will play over and over again. I will marvel at the intense love of country that Captain von Trapp had, as he bid goodbye to his fellow Austrians, making the much more difficult choice of the time.
And yes, of course I know it’s not him actually singing it, but it’s Christopher Plummer who will always be the heroic Captain von Trapp.