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November 10, 2013

Playing in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, the ticket to survival

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 9:18 am
Anita Lasker Wallfisch is the woman on the right

Anita Lasker Wallfisch is the woman on the right

Caption on the photo above: Trudy Gold, executive director of education and Holocaust studies at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, with Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch and Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Picture: Polly Hancock

I read in the news today that Anita Lasker Wallfisch, a former Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz, is still alive, at the age of 88, and speaking to students about her Holocaust ordeal.

This quote is from the news article:

A surviving member of the Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz shared her experience in the concentration camp as a gifted cellist.

Imprisoned with her sister in the camp in 1943, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch told an audience at the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) of her time in the 40-piece orchestra that played marches as other prisoners left the camp every day to carry out forced labour.

During her time in the camp she had to use her musical talent in private concerts for SS officers, an ordeal that is thought to have saved her from being one of the 1.1million murdered there.

The orchestra was created under the instruction of the SS.

During the final stages of the Holocaust the group had to play while Jewish prisoners were sent to the gas chambers to put their minds at rest.

Anita, 88, discussed her traumatic experiences and the effect it has had on her relationships alongside her daughter, Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch, at the LJCC in North End Road, Golders Green, last Thursday.

Maya, a psychotherapist, specialises in helping those affected by the Holocaust and spoke of its importance and the impact it has had on their lives.

Audience members found it an intimate and personal evening that was said to have “brought mother and daughter even closer together”.

This news article resonated with me because, years ago, I wrote about Anita Lasker Wallfisch on my website.  This quote is from my website:

Another orchestra, consisting of 54 female prisoners, played at Birkenau for a year and a half; this was the only female orchestra commissioned by the SS during World War II. After the orchestra leader, Alma Rosé, died in October 1944, the other 53 women were sent to Bergen-Belsen where all of them survived.

Anita Lasker Wallfisch played the cello in the women’s orchestra. In an interview in 2008, Wallfisch told a reporter that she survived Auschwitz because she was in the orchestra: “As long as they wanted an orchestra, they couldn’t put us in the gas chamber. That stupid they wouldn’t be, because we are not really replaceable. Somebody who carries stones is replaceable.”

What kind of a genocide is it when you gas people who can only carry stones, but save the musicians to live another day?

I don’t know how Anita was selected for the orchestra, but I imagine that she was going through the selection line at Auschwitz, and Dr. Josef Mengele was whistling classical music, as usual.  She might have commented on his whistling and she might have identified the music, to prove to him that she was a musician.  That could be how she was saved from the gas chamber.

Men's orchestra playing for a Sunday concert at Auschwitz in 1941

Men’s orchestra playing for a Sunday concert at Auschwitz in 1941

Ruins of the undressing room for gas chamber #2 at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Ruins of the undressing room for gas chamber #2 at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The photo above shows the undressing room for the gas chamber in Krema II, which was called Leichenkeller 2 (Corpse Cellar #2) on the blueprint of the building. The victims entered the undressing room by descending the stairs shown in the background in the photo above. To the left in the photo are the steps of the International Monument which is between Krema II and Krema III gas chambers at the western end of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

The victims walked down the steps into the undressing room while an orchestra played classical music. The location of the orchestra was southeast of Krema III, outside the barbed wire enclosure and right next to the soccer field. This was the location where concerts were held for the prisoners while the gassing operation was in progress. The victims were told that they were going to take a shower, after which they would have a nice, hot meal.

The ruins of the undressing room for gas chamber #3 at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The ruins of the undressing room for gas chamber #3 at Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the background of the photo above is the green grass of the soccer field.  The orchestra was located near the soccer field.  Did the members of the orchestra know that the prisoners marching into the undressing room were going to their death?  If they did know, how could they live with themselves?

My very first blog post was about an Auschwitz prisoner, Tadeusz Borowski, who stuck his head in an oven and killed himself after the war, because he couldn’t live with himself.  He had been playing soccer while the Jews were marching to their death, as an orchestra was playing.  How could Anita Lasker Wallfisch live with herself?