Surrender to the Beat: Tango, The Battle of Stalingrad, and Coincidence

John McCaffrey
5 min readApr 21, 2024

Albert Einstein said: “Coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous.” Perhaps then it was God, in the disguise of seeking something new and fun to do with my wife, who led me to sign us up for tango lessons.

Classes were led by an Argentinian-born dancer and teacher named Sandra Antognazzi. It was once a week, in the evening, and while my wife was a natural, I was awful. I was not surprised. I’m not adept at any form of dance, particularly ones that require a sober communication between the brain and the feet. But Sandra was patient and positive and I learned much about tango. More importantly, it brought my wife and I closer together, even if that meant stepping on her toes during a Paso Doble.

Taking classes also led me to attend a performance headlined by Sandra and her husband Oscar Feldman, a saxophonist, composer and teacher (https://www.oscarfeldman.com/). At the event, Oscar, accompanied by band-mates, played tango music, while Sandra and her partner danced. It was electric, riveting, and each song/dance was greeted with standing-applause from the sold-out audience. The performance inspired me. So much so that I decided to write a play based on the night and with tango as a central theme.

The play, co-written with Mark Singer, was titled “A Milonga for Gabriel Isaacs.” Our idea was to tell a story about a newly divorced man, Gabriel, who wants to love again, but is struggling with issues of trust and confidence. He finds the answer to his problems, and a new romance, after attending a milonga, a social event featuring tango. The play mixes dialogue with live music and dance. After much revision and polish, and a successful reading, it recently appeared on the stage at LTV Studios. It featured Oscar and his band, Sandra and her dance partner, along with a cast of professional actors. The play was well attended and well received. This encouraged me to keep working to improve the production, and to seek out more opportunities to bring it to audiences. Which led me to reading a book. Let me explain.

I’ve always been a reader, but I’ll go through periods when I don’t read as much as I like or need. As a writer, I write best when I’m reading, especially when I’m involved in a book that is engrossing. But reading took a backseat while I worked on the play. With its completion, I went to the library.

What caught my eye was a book of military nonfiction: Stalingrad, by Antony Bever. I obeyed my interest and took it out. I was not disappointed. For a text dense with military detail, it held my attention as a story. Starting with Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, and then focusing on the Battle of Stalingrad, I was fascinated by the epic size of this WWII standoff — the strategies, the mistakes, the cruelty, and the courage. The loss of life was catastrophic. The suffering of soldiers and civilians untenable.

I read, page-after-page, until, near the end, with the author describing how the Russians, having finally turned the tides on the Nazis and surrounding their main army, employed tango music as one of many means to intimidate and to encourage surrender. An excerpt from an article by Blake Stillwell in We Are the Mighty gives account of this tactic:

“….the Soviet secret police and forerunner to the KGB, set up loudspeakers throughout the city (Stalingrad). For weeks, the Soviets played a tango they believed conveyed a sinister mood: The Tango of Death. Interspersed with the music was the sounds of a ticking clock and messages in German about how hopeless their position in the city really was or that a German soldier died every seven seconds. These musical programs were also driven around on vans throughout the city streets. They began with quotes like “Stalingrad, mass grave of Hitler’s army!” then go into the music, clock, and demoralizing quotes. Often times, the ends would be punctuated by the firing of Katyusha rockets at Nazi positions.”

I was startled to learn this, and nodding again to Einstein’s theory on coincidence, I wondered if God, the Universe, some higher power, was encouraging me to stay close to tango. I decided to abide this existential nudge and explore more, including reaching out to Sandra and Oscar. In response to how tango might have found its way onto a bleak battlefield, they shared that tango lyrics often convey a less optimistic outlook on the present and future. Tango music, they explained, is usually associated with better times, youth, and passionate love, evoking a sense of reminiscence for a past that can never be recaptured. The music is characterized by minor harmonies and tonalities, which create a nostalgic and melancholic sound. However, they emphasized this is where the beauty of tango lies. The music is full of longing, tenderness, and emotion, with the singer acting as a storyteller who conveys these feelings to the listener. And when you dance tango, the sadness is lifted, replaced by a feeling of togetherness, belonging and shared experience.

I also learned from Sandra and Oscar more about Tango’s origins, how it played an essential role in creating a shared identity for immigrants and locals alike, living in Buenos Aires. As stated by Simon Collier in The Popular Roots of the Argentine Tango: “Certainly by 1910 the tango as well as being a dance, was shaping up as the basic popular music of Buenos Aires…It was, after all, an authentic product of the city. Its final triumph also had something to do with its spectacular success overseas.”

Oscar, whose great-grandfather on his paternal side came to Argentina more than a century earlier, was such an immigrant, fleeing one of the many pogroms inflicted upon Jewish people in Russia. To this end, Oscar informed me that tango, along with other music genres, were systematically, and sadistically, played in the Nazi death camps…even as innocents were being led to slaughter. Guido Fackler writes about these “orchestras” in Temoigner/Getuigen (Music in Concentration Camps: 1933–1945): “The repertoire was varied, depending on the occasion, and generally included marching music, songs, camp anthems, light music, dance music, popular songs, film music, operetta melodies, but also classical music and excerpts from operas. There were also new arrangements and original compositions.”

Edward Westerman, in Conversation (How the Nazis Used Music to Celebrate and Facilitate Murder), gives reasons behind this musical madness. He states: “Under the Nazi regime, music and song forged community, camaraderie and shared purpose. In unit bars, around campfires and at the killing sites, the addition of music was more than just a form of entertainment. It was also an instrument for promoting a common purpose and bringing people together. Through rituals of song, drink and dance, the Nazis’ actions could be collectivized and normalized — and their larger project of violence that much easier to pull off.”

All this I learned by asking, by following my interest, by being curious…and being fortunate to have Oscar and Sandra as friends, people who care about art, about history, and the future. They have given me much to take in, much to process, and much to reflect upon. When I’m ready, when the time is right, I’ll use what they have gifted me to write something new. But for now I’ll sit back and wait for coincidence to guide me again — step, by step, by step.

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John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology. jamccaffrey.com