Playing Chopin for the Nazis Saved My Life; It Has Taken Her Six Decades to Tell Her Story. but in the Month That Sees the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, Natalia Karpf Relates for the First Time How She Cheated Death in the Concentration Camps
Byline: DAVID COHEN
NATALIA Karpf walks slowly towards her Steinway grand piano in the corner of her London drawing room.
It takes just six paces for this graceful 93- year- old Auschwitz survivor to cover the distance, but with each step, she traverses a decade back in time. She positions her stool and, after the briefest of pauses, begins to play Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
Suddenly, the room is awash with notes, gentle and sad beyond words.
In Natalia's half-shut eyes, I can see that she is far away - transported, she will later tell me - to the day this very piece saved her from execution in a Nazi concentration camp.
It was 9 December, 1943. Natalia, then 32 and exceptionally beautiful, and her sister, Helena, had been captured by the Gestapo trying to escape Poland and had been sent to Plaszow - the concentration camp featured in the film Schindler's List - where they were to be executed. But as luck would have it, they arrived on the birthday of Amon Goeth, the murderous camp commandant.
When Goeth was told that a virtuoso Jewish concert pianist known by her maiden name as Natalia Weissman - once a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - had arrived, he demanded she play at his party before her execution the next morning.
"I remember every detail about that night," recalls Natalia, shuddering visibly. "I was taken to his villa where there was a party with many guests eating, drinking and dressed in white jackets. After a while, Goeth turned to me and barked: "Now!
Sarah! Play now!" The Nazis called all Jewish women Sarah. I was shaking with fear. I hadn't played piano for four years. I was terrified my fingers would be stiff."
Natalia chose to play Chopin's Nocturne "because it was a very sad piece that I loved", knowing that when she finished, Goeth, who called himself "God", might shoot her in the head for fun.
But as the notes faded away, Goeth's mistress turned to him and said: "Be kind to her."
"That you can play, I admit," said Goeth. "You are free. You can go into the [labour] camp." "Not without my sister," Natalia bravely replied.
Later, the camp guards, who had never before seen a death sentence commuted, told Natalia: "You were born today, on 9 December, 1943."
Natalia had, indeed, saved herself and her sister. But little did she know her darkest days - in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp - were still to come.
"I am a survivor," Natalia tells me, her powerful, mellifluous voice belying her age. "I have been," she adds wearily, "so many times a survivor."
Next Thursday, Natalia will join 600 other Auschwitz survivors at the official St James's Palace reception to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There, if asked, she intends to tell the Queen that she "loves living in the UK" but that "not everything is wonderful", an oblique reference to the insensitive gaffe of Prince Harry, who donned a Nazi uniform at a dress-up party last week.
"Harry? He's an idiot," she says emphatically. "I saw a Times poll that 66 per cent of the people in this country have never heard of Auschwitz. But a boy educated at Eton - he should know!"
Interviewing Natalia at her elegant high-rise apartment, overlooking Lord's cricket ground in St John's Wood, is a novel experience. She refuses to be directed, but instead is like a train with her own momentum, stopping only at the stations she chooses. After a while, you just succumb and become immersed in her searing narrative, astounded by her crystal-clear memory, and pinching yourself that someone who has been through what she has can still be in such extraordinarily great shape - both mentally and physically.
Natalia, born in 1911, grew up the second of four children to a cultured Polish Jewish family that was part of the intelligentsia in Krakow. Her father, a wealthy industrialist who owned a knitwear factory and a dozen properties in Berlin, afforded the family luxurious summer holidays in the exclusive spa resorts of Germany, Holland and France.
AT FOUR, Natalia learned the piano and was soon identified as a child prodigy. At 18, she went to Berlin to study under Artur Schnabel, one of the foremost pianists of the 20th century. By then, her older sister had died of diabetes, and when, in 1930, Natalia's mother died of kidney failure, Natalia assumed responsibility for her siblings, bringing up her sister, Helena, and her brother, Natan, who were five and seven years her junior respectively.
By the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Natalia was married to a fellow pianist, Julius Hubler, and living in Krakow. "On the first day of the war, my husband responded to a Polish appeal to join the army. I heard later that the Germans bombed his train and that there were few survivors.
But I did not know for six years that I was a widow." Nor would she know, until after the war, what became of her father and brother.
Natalia and her sister fled Krakow for Tarnow when they heard that Krakow was to become a ghetto, but later Tarnow was made into a ghetto, too.
THOSE were terrible, terrible days in the ghetto," Natalia recalls. "One day they shot 5,000 people in the square. Another time, I saw Jews getting shot and I started screaming and my sister put her hand over my mouth and shouted at me: 'Stop! They will kill you!' It was not human. It's not something you can understand - how the human being can be so cruel."
Natalia and Helena began to plot their escape. They tinted their hair blonde - because Jews were all thought to have dark hair - and ingeniously tricked their way out of the ghetto. But before they could make the border, they were arrested and brought to Plaszow, where Natalia's virtuosity on the piano saved their lives.
After 10 months in Plaszow, Natalia and Helena were put on a transport train for Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Plaszow, people died daily because they were indiscriminately shot or hanged, but in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the scale of killing was of another order.
Now they were on a train headed for perhaps the most notorious death camp of them all, the scene of the greatest mass murder in the history of humanity.
Here, 75 per cent of each train's human cargo was sent to immediate death as Hitler's final solution for the Jewish people was viciously implemented.
Natalia's piano-playing ability would not be enough on its own to save her.
She would have to rely on luck to get her through the process of selection, as well as unimaginable grit and bravery.
"We knew where we were headed," recalls Natalia. "My sister was terrified and she said to me, 'If they cut my hair, I'm going to commit suicide.' I said: 'You idiot - your hair will grow back, but your head won't.' "We were locked, hundreds of us, into the car of a goods train, with no food or water.
Eventually, after 24 hours, we heard the German guards shouting 'Out! Out!'
and the selection of the sick and elderly began. We knew that those people were going to be killed. We had heard about the gas chambers. The rest of us were taken to the barracks. Every few minutes, the German guards would taunt us, shouting: 'Mengele is coming!
Mengele is coming.' We knew about Mengele. His name meant death."
NATALIA was surrounded by the walking dead. "My sister and I clung to each other. We scavenged for any food we could find. We hardly interacted with the other prisoners. It was the bleakest place on earth - everyone weak and starving, with empty, staring eyes - and you did what you could to survive.
Every day we thought could be our last.
Natalia lifts her left sleeve to reveal the number - A 2 7 4 0 7 - stamped on her forearm. "When they did this, I knew that probably they'd keep me alive for a while. My sister was the only thing that kept me going. That, and the fact that I was lucky with my health.
"Despite everything, I was never ill.
Only once I got terrible diarrhoea, but my sister made me say nothing because they would have killed me."
In Auschwitz, Natalia says, their personal clothes were taken away and they were issued with a short black dress and wooden clogs. They were denied underwear and their daily food intake was reduced to a single "meal", comprising 100g of bread and a bowl of thin potato-peel gruel. The rest of the day, from 5am, was spent shifting rocks in meaningless heavy manual work.
"The food at Plaszow was on the limit of what one needed to live, but at Auschwitz, it was not even that. I prayed that the Allies would bomb the camp and end our misery. If liberation had come much later, we would have died of starvation."
By the time she was liberated by the Russians in 1945, Natalia, then a 34-year-old woman, had lost 35lb and had the emaciated body of a 15-year-old girl.
As the Germans had fled, she turned to her friend and said: "I am a concert "One thing that struck me: I never saw any children in Auschwitz - they had all been gassed."
pianist. Let's go into the village and look for a house with a piano. I found one in the doctors' house and sat down to play. My fingers were so stiff, they could barely move. After that, Helena and I went back to Krakow to find our family. But when we got there, there was no one. In our family, we lost hundreds. I never saw my father or brother or husband again."
It wasn't long before Natalia was performing in public. Her first major performance was on Polish radio. "I decided to play the Tchaikovsky First Piano concerto," she recalls. "I chose it because it is one of the hardest and needs the strength of a man, and I wanted to show the Poles and Germans that they didn't destroy me.
That on the contrary, I am a survivor, that I had more strength after the war than before."
Within a year, Natalia met her second husband, Josef Karpf, a Jewish diplomat and sculptor. They were married within months. By a twist of fate, a matchmaker had tried to introduce Josef and Natalia before the war, but he had declined, saying: "I am already wealthy myself, so I don't need a wealthy woman, and I am not interested in a concert pianist."
"Serves you right," Natalia told him when she heard. "You could have married me when I was wealthy; now you get me when I am poor."
Josef was posted to the Pol i sh Embassy in London, where the couple settled and had two daughters, Eve and Anne.
Today Eve is 57 and a voice-actress, and Anne, 54, an author and journalist.
Both are married and have given Natalia grandchildren.
Natalia went on to develop a hugely successful career as a concert pianist, playing for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and dozens of others.
She remains remarkably upbeat.
"The Germans," she says, "I will never forgive, but I don't blame them all.
There are some decent Germans. Just as there are some very bad Jews."
Her music, she says, has helped her survive, because ultimately what she went through is beyond words.
But 11 years ago, Josef, the love of Natalia's life, died and her daughters were worried that Natalia would quickly fade away. Natalia defied this fear and continued to thrive. Then last year, she fell ill - and was taken to the hospital with pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Now it was the doctors who were convinced she would not survive. But within hours, she was lying in recovery, talking to her daughters about giving another concert.
"Never mind," Natalia says to me, brushing aside the story of her hospitalisation with a defiant sweep of her hand. "I'm over it. Would you like a cup of coffee. Here" - she rises unaided and adds, eyes blazing, "I make it for you myself."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Playing Chopin for the Nazis Saved My Life; It Has Taken Her Six Decades to Tell Her Story. but in the Month That Sees the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, Natalia Karpf Relates for the First Time How She Cheated Death in the Concentration Camps. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: January 19, 2005. Page number: 25. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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