In the grainy black-and-white photograph the girl poses with her cello, gazing down towards the bow. It was 1938 in Berlin, shortly before Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass”, the first Nazi pogrom that led to the incarceration of Jews. Anita had grown up in a house in Breslau, which was then in the east of Germany, that was filled with music. Lying in bed, she would listen as her mother, Edith, started her violin routine with the opening octaves of a Beethoven concerto. Her father, Alfons, loved to sing. Her two elder sisters played the piano and the violin. She, too, started learning to play an instrument “very young”, as she recalled recently when we met at the JW3 Jewish community centre in London.
“I remember that my mother had such a small cello that she could hold it under her chin,” said Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who is now 90.
The Laskers’ quiet life soured after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In the street, children spat at Anita or called her a “dirty Jew”. Schools were segregated. The anti-Semitism became so pervasive that it was no longer possible to find a music teacher brave enough to take on a Jewish pupil.
Anita’s parents sent her alone to Berlin, a bigger city that offered more anonymity, and where they had found a tutor to help her master the cello – a skill that later saved her life. At that point her father, who had fought in the trenches for Germany in the First World War, winning an Iron Cross, believed that the Nazis “could not be so stupid” as to intensify their persecution of the Jews. Indeed, Anita began to enjoy her time in Berlin (“I was quite a good practiser but I preferred walking around the stores!”), but her stay was cut short when stormtroopers and civilians smashed thousands of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues on Kristallnacht. “From that day on, you knew there was no hope,” Anita said.
Her eldest sister, Marianne, emigrated to the UK shortly before war broke out, but despite their parents’ frantic efforts the rest of the family could not get out. The oppression mounted. In 1941, Anita’s high school was closed and she and her sister Renate were ordered to work in a paper factory, placing labels on toilet rolls. (In a letter to Marianne at the time, Anita wrote: “I have attained a dexterity at doing this which I’ll probably never be able to reach on the cello.”) Then, in April the following year, her parents received a deportation order and were given 24 hours to report to a transport point. They were taken to a village called Izbica in Poland, where Jews were forced to dig their own graves before being shot.
Though Anita and Renate were not on the deportation list they were being closely watched. At the paper factory, they had been forging leave passes for French prisoners of war and civilians who were forced to work in Germany. Realising that the Gestapo were on to them, the girls created their own travel documents and tried to board a train bound for Paris, but they were arrested at Breslau station. Anita was prepared: in her stocking was a tiny bottle of cyanide. She and Renate each swallowed half. Instead of bitter almonds, however, they tasted icing sugar. Anita’s friend who had given her the poison, had later secretly changed the contents, not wanting her to die.
Convicted of forgery, aiding the enemy and attempted escape, the sisters were sent to separate prisons. Then in December 1943 Anita was told she was being moved to Auschwitz. She was aware what that meant. “You knew about the gas chambers in Auschwitz long before one was in Auschwitz,” Anita told me.
When the packed cattle trucks arrived at Auschwitz an SS committee was usually on hand to select people to be gassed immediately. Anita’s group, though, was relatively small and consisted solely of Karteihäftlingen, “prisoners with a file”, which is to say those who had been convicted of a crime. This meant they could not be killed straight away, in case they had a summons to reappear in court.
“There was this division between the law – the old-fashioned law – and the Nazis, where the law suddenly did not apply any more,” Anita said. “I had ended up there as a criminal rather than as a Jew, and it was much better to be a criminal.”
She was made to undress, and had her head shaved and her left arm tattooed with the number 69388. Unprompted – she still does not know why she said it – Anita mentioned to the prisoner who was processing her that she played the cello. As she recalled in her 1996 memoir, Inherit the Truth, the woman grabbed her and said: “That is fantastic . . . You will be saved.”
Like some of the other concentration and extermination camps, Auschwitz had an official men’s orchestra. The SS commander of the women’s camp, Maria Mandl, a brutal woman known as the Beast, loved classical music (Puccini in particular) and ordered that a female orchestra should be set up, too. The orchestra leader when Anita arrived was the renowned violinist Alma Rosé, an Austrian Jew and niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé asked Anita to try out; her audition piece was Schubert’s “Marche Militaire”. The “band”, as Anita called it, had violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes and accordions, but no bass instrument, so a cellist was highly valued, and especially a good one. “There were only about five people in that orchestra who could play their instruments properly,” Anita told me.
She was assigned to the music barracks with the rest of the orchestra. During the day they would practise intensively under Rosé’s strict instruction, playing German hits, arias from operas and other classical pieces. “We never went out to arbeit [work] because we were too busy trying to learn.”
Though there seemed no hope of getting out alive – the smoking chimneys were daily reminders of the Final Solution – Anita knew she was fortunate compared to many other prisoners. Being “the cellist”, she had not completely lost her identity and her talent was worth something to camp officials. After she was reunited with Renate, who arrived at Auschwitz from prison in Jauer, Anita gathered the courage to ask Mandl if her sister could work as a messenger. With this job, Renate, who was in a terrible physical state, received slightly better rations and housing. The cello had prolonged Anita’s life, and now it saved her sister’s, too.
The band’s main role was to play marching music at one of the camp gates in the mornings and evenings as thousands of men and women were led to and from the nearby factories and fields. Forced to keep in rhythm, the slave labourers were easier to control. “The Germans like to keep things neat and tidy,” Anita said.
Many of the prisoners hated the music. In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi described the marching tunes as “infernal”. Anita said she understood the sentiment, and that the orchestra’s second function – the Sunday concerts – may have been even more offensive. (But she did add that some survivors said: “For ten seconds, we could dream ourselves out of our situation.”)
“People have asked me: ‘How could you play music in the camp?’ It wasn’t the situation that you come there and have a choice: you come there expecting to go in the gas chamber. Instead of that, somebody puts a cello in your hand. Well, you are unlikely to say, ‘No, I’m only playing at Carnegie Hall . . .’ You just sat there, you played, and you hoped you were alive the next day.”
The musicians had a third, unofficial function: playing for individual SS officers who, having spent the day deciding who should live or die, would enter the barracks and demand a solo performance. Among these was Josef Mengele, “the Angel of Death”, who performed lethal experiments on human subjects and specialised in identical twins. One of his favourite pieces was “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), a hauntingly beautiful piece from Schumann’s suite Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). “Mengele comes in [and says to me], ‘I want to hear the Träumerei,’” Anita said. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I didn’t even look at the guy; I thought, ‘I’ll play it as fast as is acceptable.’ It wasn’t unusual that they wanted to hear something. Germans are very musical people.”
In October 1944 the female musicians were told to line up, Jews on one side and Aryans on the other. Anita was sure they were going to be gassed. Instead, with the Russians advancing, they were being moved to Bergen-Belsen. As she wrote in her book, in Auschwitz, people were murdered: in Belsen they simply perished. When Belsen was liberated by British troops on 15 April 1945, most of the 60,000 prisoners, including Anita and Renate, were half starved or seriously ill. As many as 13,000 corpses lay unburied.
Anita testified against the SS commanders at the Belsen Trial in Lüneburg in September 1945. In March 1946, she was finally given permission to resettle in Britain, where she later co-founded the English Chamber Orchestra. Today, she lives in London but no longer plays. Instead, she gives talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, to help ensure that the lessons of history are not forgotten.
This month she visited Breslau, now known as Wroclaw and part of Poland, where she addressed a few dozen children aged 17 or 18. “I can’t expect young people nowadays to be terribly interested in someone’s horror story – how many horror stories are there in the world all the time?” she said. “I asked them, ‘Why are you interested in this?’ You know, this is miles away from them. They said, ‘Well, we just are: we want to know what went on.’”
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will discuss her life and experiences as a musician during the Holocaust at JW3, London NW3, on Tuesday 3 November (7.30pm). Details: jw3.org.uk