Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

At Auschwitz, Cello in Hand: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

At Auschwitz, Cello in Hand: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Article excerpt

Among the perspectives taught about the Holocaust, music's role in the Nazi genocide is one of the least discussed. This can be accounted for by the unlikely binary it presents: a beautiful concert series, functioning within systemic murder. Chopin's demand, "Pour all your soul into it, play the way you feel!" is hardly applicable to the starving prisoner playing in a death camp orchestra as the audience, SS Guards, privilege themselves to pleasant melodies following a day of gassing children and mothers, or torturing a group of unsuccessful escapees. Yet such was the circumstance for the few (and fortunate) musicians of the Holocaust, and specifically, there are events in Anita LaskerWallfisch's life which are significant for musicians today: they speak of the importance of learning music, and provide practical reasons which teachers may want to consider when faced with the question: "Why learn music?"

Lasker-Wallfisch was a member of the KL Auschwitz Women's Orchestra during the year she was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau (1943-44). Before the war, she studied cello in Berlin, but her aspirations to become a cellist were interrupted by the onslaught of Nazi persecution of Jews, her imprisonment, and eventual deportation.

How did someone play the cello in Auschwitz? It was the last thing on Anita's mind when she got there. When she arrived at Birkenau in 1943, Lasker-Wallfisch had a "criminal record," which was actually an advantage. Her crimes: forging papers for French PoWs and attempting escape while working at a paper factory in Breslau, her hometown. Anita explains,

"That gives you a little insight into the German bureaucracy: it was unspeakably stupid. I did not arrive at Auschwitz on an enormous transport of Jews, but a small transport of "criminals." That explanation goes back to something that I will unfortunately never know all the reasons for: my father was a lawyer, and he must have known a colleague who might have been privy to the system, who knew that these two Lasker children were arrested.1 Someone must have arranged that we would be shifted to the criminal category."

Anita added, "It was suspicious that people were put on trains and nobody returned. The trains that were going Godknows-where came back quickly, empty, and it was a clear these weren't trains taking people to a holiday. Exactly what happened one didn't know; one heard about the gas chambers but it was hard to believe. While I was in prison, I was hearing more about these gas chambers. If you were sent to Auschwitz, that was the end. One hadn't heard much about Treblinka and Sobibor, but Auschwitz we knew."

"As for us," Anita remembers, "we remained in prison to wait for a trial. It was better to be a criminal than a Jew in the German legal system. A criminal must have a trial, so in other words, it postponed our deportation to Auschwitz. There was a normal legal system in Germany prior to the Nazis, but it had become irrelevant: doubtless a shock those who had studied law."

Anita and Renate Lasker were tried and sentenced: "My sister got three and a half years of penitentiary, and I got one and a half years prison. But the moment the trial finished the Gestapo was there again, and we were sent to Auschwitz."

Upon arrival, while new prisoners were being processed (shaved, tattooed, given camp uniforms), the inmate who processed Anita asked what Anita had done before the war, and Anita said, T played the cello.'

The prisoner replied, "Fantastic!- you'll be saved."

Anita recalls, "I stood there naked, thinking I was about to be sent to a gas chamber, and she wanted to know about playing the cello." It was this that began the series of events which saved her life. The conductor of the Women's Orchestra, Alma Rosé (Gustav Mahler's niece), came to see Anita and audition her, a pure formality since the orchestra was in need of bassplaying instruments. Anita commented on the moment's strangeness: "I'm in Auschwitz and I have a cello in my hand. …

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