How the Cello Helped My Grandmother Survive Auschwitz

The Nazi's recognised the potency in music and used it as weapons of torture, propaganda and suppression. They appropriated and distorted the legacies of composers such as Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven and presented them as examples of German-Aryan superiority.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the cello saved my grandmother's life. When I was very young, I remember asking her (Anita Lasker-Wallfisch) about her survival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. One story she told me was as follows:

Shortly after her arrival at the camp, when she was lying ill with typhus fever in the 'Revier' two SS men came in making selections for the Gas Chamber. They stopped at the feet of the seventeen year old girl, lying in rags with shaved head and a number tattooed on her arm. "Das ist die Cellistin" ('That is the cellist') one of them said, and they moved on. As simple as that.

Now, seventy years later, the cello pervades our family life. Music is everything in our family and the subsequent contribution of the Wallfisch family to musical culture in the UK is a testament to how immigration can be an enriching and wonderful thing for the host country. As a cellist and singer myself I feel strongly that music is one of the most powerful ways to connect people across cultures and political differences. The Nazi's recognised the potency in music and used it as weapons of torture, propaganda and suppression. They appropriated and distorted the legacies of composers such as Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven and presented them as examples of German-Aryan superiority. Inconvenient facts that link artists such as Johann Strauss to his Jewish ancestry were airbrushed out. Wagner's 'Meistersänger' was practically Hitler's number one opera of choice. Composers of Jewish origin (Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn) were categorically eliminated from the concert hall. (I can highly recommend amongst other works: Patrick Bade's excellent book Music Wars to gain a better understanding into the complexities of these issues.)

In 2009, whilst still a vocal student in Leipzig, I sang for the Bayerische Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) Production, the small role of 'Soldat' in Viktor Ullmann's opera: Der Kaiser von Atlantis (written under diabolical circumstances in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. It was never performed there). My casting for this role took place long before the production team realised my rather unique family history. When the penny dropped, my grandmother was promptly invited to Germany as honoured guest and was present at six out of the eight performances. She became beloved of the entire cast and everyone called her 'Unsere Oma' ('our granny'). She continues to travel far and wide to hear members of the family perform concerts, on one occasion battling against terrible snow conditions driving for six hours to hear my recital. On another occasion in 2002, then in her mid seventies, driving me 200 miles, even changing a tyre on the way to get me from one morning engagement playing at a friend's wedding in London to an evening playing Elgar's Cello concerto in an outdoors fireworks concert in deepest Sussex (of course, it rained but the audience still sat under umbrellas eating their picnics).

In April 2014, I spent an incredible week leading a course focusing on the lives and works of composers Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa and Gideon Klein, and exploring the historical facts surrounding their incarceration in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, and the macabre cultural richness that was allowed to bloom within the Ghetto walls, with talented young artists from the 'Aldeburgh Young Musicians' (held at Snape Maltings where my Grandmother often played with Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra in the 1960's). I invited my Grandmother to talk to the students about her life as a young cellist trying to study in Nazi-Germany, her time playing in the Auschwitz women's orchestra and her post-liberation desperation to continue her studies in the UK.

My personal feeling is that the music of Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein (suffocated in the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz in October 1944) and Erwin Schulhoff (killed in Wülzburg concentration camp in August 1942) should be heard across the world, alongside other mainstream composers, without the need to present them within the context of their terrible fates. Yes, we need to know what happened and why, but, let's take the example of Ullmann: His music should be played and heard on its own merit and not solely under the umbrella of 'Holocaust Music', or even 'Entartete Musik'. As long as we continue to brush these artists with such a colour, even with the best of intentions, we are on some level, continuing, even validating the work of the Nazis. The greatest triumph over Nazi suppression would be to hear Ullmann, Klein, Schulhof or Krasa in the concert hall as part of standard repertoire as we would hear a Beethoven, Mahler or Dvorak Symphony, and without a second glance at the programme notes.

As a musician I feel lucky to live in a world where I can travel and work freely in several countries, and I am accepted as an artist with no label other than the instrument I play or voice I sing. Where we start to go wrong is when we attach labels to people: 'The Jewish conductor', or even: 'The female conductor'. Even reference to age or country should be considered odd.

Aside from music, in every day life we read headlines such as: 'Immigrant criminal', or 'religious fundamentalist'. As long as people continue to foster a feeling of 'them and us' there is every chance a legalised mass-discrimination along the lines of the anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany could be repeated.

Casual racism and xenophobia; blaming 'others' for our own problems or personal frustrations, is the first rung on the short ladder to disaster. If there is one thing I have learnt from my Grandmother's story is that things can change in an instant and without much warning. Within a matter of months, several members of my family had gone from normal life to being shot dead into a hole in the ground. We must nurture and support each-other, not close doors in suspicion. Everybody is responsible, all of the time, to guard against all forms of prejudice. We must judge one another on our actions, not our accents.

In the words of somebody much wiser than myself: 'The Holocaust will either be a warning or a precedent.'

Simon Wallfisch will perform in this evening's Holocaust Memorial Day event on BBC Two, 7pm


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