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

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 19, 2005 | Go to article overview
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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.

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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
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