Monday, 6 April 2015


“We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” - Martin Luther King Jr

One of the most distressing chapters in the history of WWII is the Holocaust with the mass extermination of millions of people by the Nazis. Not just the Jews, but also gypsies, blacks, communists, homosexuals, and other “undesirables”. As Niemöller said after his epiphany:
“In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, but I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me…”

Martin Niemöller was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, founder of the anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) in 1934, and a president of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968. Niemöller was a commander of a German U-boat in World War I. Something that changed his moral outlook, which he related in many public speeches later in his life, occurred when he commanded his submarine crew not to rescue the sailors of a boat he torpedoed, but let them drown instead. His conscience and his humanity woke up in him and he became a chief critic of the Nazi regime so that in 1937 he was arrested because of his outspoken sermons, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1941 he was moved to Dachau, where he stayed until the end of the war.

The literature that surrounds the Holocaust is considerable and a wide sample of genres can be found within this broad group of writings. Factual accounts, biographical notes (“The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank is a prime example), memoirs (e.g. “On Both Sides of the Wall 
by Vladka Meed”), historical treatises, novels (“The Man from the Other Side” by Uri Orlev; “Schindler’s Ark” by Thomas Keneally), letters, poems, and many more. Literature spawned many films, and some very successful and moving films are:
Schindler’s List” (1993)
Life is Beautiful” (1997)
The Pianist” (2002) and so on...

One of the books in this genre that I found particularly engaging is the 1986 novel “The Musicians of Auschwitz” 
by Fania Fénelon (= Fanny Goldstein 1918?-1983). This is a famous book that describes the amazingly potent effects that music had as an anodyne, a healer and as a means of intellectual escape in Fania Fénelon’s troubled life. Fania Fénelon was one of the Jewish musicians who played in the orchestra at Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp. She would play, arrange music and occasionally she would compose music for the orchestra that amused the SS officers who lived in the camp.

The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz, described by Fénelon was created in June 1943 by a Polish music teacher, Mrs. Zofia Czajkowska, by order of the SS. The members were protected from being gassed in the gas chamber, or from being worked to death. Czajkowska was eventually replaced as conductor by Alma Rosé, niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé had been the conductor of a women’s orchestra in her hometown of Vienna. As well as entertaining the SS, the orchestra played at the gate when the work gangs went out, and when they returned. During the final stages of the Holocaust, when the mass deportations of Jews from Eastern Europe occurred and large numbers of Jews were sent directly to the gas chambers, the orchestra played in order to put the minds of the victims at ease. The music preserved the illusion that the Jews were being transported “to the East”, and allowed the SS to kill more efficiently.

Fénelon’s book describes the horrors of the camp, but at the same time it is a joyous document of survival, of hope and resilience. She maintains that her all-consuming passion in the creation of music emptied her mind, lifted her soul and gave her undying hope. Although Fania and the other musicians played for their SS captors under the most soul-destroying circumstances, their songs were secretly subversive, joyful and hopeful without the German soldiers’ realisation. The orchestra would transform traditional Jewish music and delighted in performing classical pieces that were banned by the Nazis.

Alma Rosé died in 1944 of unknown causes; poisoning was suspected by Fénelon and others, but according to Newman and Kirtley the cause was likely to be either botulism or typhus. After Rosé the orchestra was conducted haphazardly by Sonia Vinogradovna, a Russian prisoner, but in January 1945 Auschwitz was dismantled by the Nazis and the orchestra was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Two members, Lola Kroner and Julie Stroumsa, died there. The rest survived, though Ewa Stojowska was badly beaten and Fania Fénelon nearly died of typhus. Fénelon wrote that remaining members of the orchestra was scheduled to be shot to death on the same day as the liberation by British troops. She was interviewed by the BBC on the day of liberation and performed “La Marseillaise” and “God Save the King.”

Fania Fénelon’s book has also been made into a television show, “Playing for Time” (1980), screenplay written by Arthur Miller, and starring Vanessa Redgrave. I haven’t seen this, but according to the International Movie Database reviews it is an excellent show.

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