Sunday, May 11, 2003

Death camp survivor owes her life to the cello

Nazis spared some who had special skills

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch remembers the day she was saved from certain death because she played the cello.

It was 1943. She had just arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp - where the Nazis ultimately killed about 1.5 million people - and was receiving the tattooed number on her arm that would be her new identity.

The tattoo artist, another prisoner, whispered to her, "What do you know how to do?" He knew those with special skills were sometimes spared from the gas chambers and the ubiquitous chimneys spewing ashes. Anita knew it was hopeless. The teenager answered, "What do I know how to do? I just play the cello."

What: "Music Saved Her Life," celebrating the musical legacy of cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. Participants include Lasker-Wallfisch, her grandson, Simon, the Amernet String Quartet, pianist James Tocco, cellist Christoph Sassmannshaus and CCM dean Douglas Lowry
When: 2 p.m. today
Where: Robert Werner Recital Hall, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Tickets: $18, available at the door. 221-1875, ext. 355.
A tribute: The concert is a tribute to Henry Meyer, a survivor of the Auschwitz men's orchestra and violinist of the LaSalle Quartet. He was critically injured when a car hit him as he was leaving Music Hall in March. He is recovering at Drake Center in Hartwell. Cards and flowers may be sent to Drake Center, 151 W. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati 45216.
The Holocaust survivor will tell her story and celebrate the musical legacy she passed on to her son and grandsons in a concert today at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The event is part of "Women and the Holocaust," sponsored by the Center for Holocaust and Humanity at Hebrew Union College.

Lasker-Wallfisch survived because she joined the Auschwitz women's orchestra, conducted by fellow-inmate Alma Rose.

"Although my head was shaved and I had a number on my arm, I had not lost my identity totally. ... I was the 'cellist,' " writes Lasker-Wallfisch in her memoir, Inherit the Truth (St. Martin's Press; $22.95).

Music her refuge

Music, she says by phone from London where she lives with her pianist husband, Peter Wallfisch, "saved my life. It was a refuge. You could imagine that you weren't where you were."

The conductor, Rose, a famed violinist and niece of composer Gustav Mahler, had risen to unprecedented stature within the camp for her women's orchestra (depicted in singer Fania Fenelon's memoir and 1980 television movie Playing for Time, starring Vanessa Redgrave). It turned out, Rose needed a cello - one of the lower strings - for her ragtag group.

Lasker-Wallfisch is unhappy with portrayals of Rose as a cruel taskmaster. She died in the camp in 1944.

"The absolute truth was that she was an extraordinary person, a very dignified person, much older than us, and she treated us just like a headmistress," she says. "We weren't always very pleased with her, but it's interesting that all of us, now, are very grateful to her. She saved our lives, really."

Playing for 'Angel of Death'

The orchestra offered them hope. Their main task was to play for the thousands of prisoners who marched through the main gate on their way to work each morning and evening. It was absurd, surreal, frightening - "and it was a lifesaver at the same time," she says.

They also gave concerts on Sundays, and played on demand for any SS officer who might desire music. That is how she came to play Schumann's Traumerei for the infamous doctor of Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, nicknamed the "Angel of Death."

"That was nothing special," she says. "They used to come into the block, and ask to hear this or that, and we just played it."

Lasker-Wallfisch was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was cultured, beautiful and played violin.

In her memoir, Lasker-Wallfisch mentions several ironic coincidences that run through her life. One involves Henry Meyer, the Cincinnati violinist who survived the Holocaust to become violinist in the renowned LaSalle Quartet.

Born in Dresden, Germany, Meyer was a child prodigy, who performed as soloist with the Kulturbund Orchestra in 1937 in Breslau. Lasker-Wallfisch played in that orchestra, which was created for Jewish musicians when Hitler took power.

During World War II, Meyer was in the men's orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The two musicians' paths never crossed.

"Henry Meyer seems to go through my life in a funny sort of way," says Lasker-Wallfisch, who re-established ties with him after the war.

After her experience in Rose's orchestra, Lasker-Wallfisch, and her sister Renate, who also survived, were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they were liberated in 1945.

In 1946, Lasker-Wallfisch immigrated to England, where all three sisters were reunited. Their parents and grandmother, who had been deported in 1942, were never heard from again.

"I just had one thought only in my mind, that was to become a cellist and to study and to be normal. To catch up with eight years that were stolen from me," she says.

In 1949, she became a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra. Her son, Raphael Wallfisch, is a professional cellist, and her grandson, Simon, will perform on the cello in today's concert.

Story for her children

Lasker-Wallfisch decided to tell her story after helping to narrate a documentary about the camps in 1985. When she took her children to the preview, they said, "You never told us about this."

"So I said, OK I'll try and write something down," she says. "It was so long after the event, it was like putting a film backwards. I really wrote this for my children. It was only by accident that it became my book."

She hopes that people will not forget what happened to her and millions of others at the hands of the Nazi regime.

"We should not forget, and we should be worthy of being called human beings and be a dignified person," she says.


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