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Europe: Auschwitz 60 Years On -- The Cellist Whose Music Saved Her Life

Sixty years ago this week, advancing Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, one of the most notorious Nazi death camps. As many as 1.5 million people -- mostly Jews -- were murdered in the camp's gas chambers or succumbed to disease and starvation. Amid the horror and cruelty, there was also music. Auschwitz had a women's orchestra, which was made to play in front of prisoners and SS officers alike. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was its cellist -- an experience she says saved her life.

Prague, 24 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was born in Breslau, then in Germany but now Wroclaw in Poland. Culture, she says, was written "in very big letters" at home. Her mother was a violinist, and the young Anita went to cello lessons:

"It didn't seem a problem to be Jewish until I had my first anti-Semitic experience in the small school that I visited. I was about eight years old and wanted to wipe the blackboard and someone said, 'Don't give the Jew the sponge.' Then it gradually became very obvious what it meant to be a Jew in Germany in those days," Lasker-Wallfisch says.

When war broke out, the family was trapped. Lasker-Wallfisch's parents were taken away -- and likely shot -- in 1942.

Lasker-Wallfisch and one of her sisters stayed behind, as they had been conscripted to work in a factory. There, they started forging papers to help some prisoners of war escape, but the authorities soon became suspicious.

"We decided to escape ourselves, but we got no further than the railway station, where we were arrested by the Gestapo. But in a crazy way it was lucky to be arrested in these circumstances because it made us into criminals as well as Jews and it was better to be a criminal than a Jew. We stayed in prison for over a year, which we soon realized was a safer place than a concentration camp. But eventually we were sent to Auschwitz," Lasker-Wallfisch says.
Playing nice tunes at Auschwitz to everyone who wanted one was, she says simply, a "ludicrous situation."

On arrival there, an unlikely conversation saved Lasker-Wallfisch's life.

"We knew what was going on in Auschwitz, so it was a matter of preparing yourself to be stuck in a gas chamber. In my particular case something completely crazy happened, which was I told the person who was shaving my hair and tattooing a number on my arm that I used to play the cello, in course of conversation. And she said, 'That's fantastic, there's a band here.' So I became a member of the women's orchestra in Birkenau, which was a temporarily life-saving affair," Lasker-Wallfisch says.

The orchestra was led by Alma Rose, a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler, and made up entirely of women prisoners.

"Our main job was really to play marches for the prisoners that walked out into the factories every morning and came back in the evening, because Auschwitz or Birkenau were surrounded by big factories and the people in the camps were used as slave labor," Rose says.

The orchestra also played for the SS officers. Lasker-Wallfisch once performed a Schumann solo for the notorious doctor of Auschwitz, Josef Mengele.

"It was obvious that as long as they wanted an orchestra there they are not going to put us in the gas chamber, but the moment they were not interested in having an orchestra any more then the thing was finished. Life was completely lived from day to day and according to the whim and fancy of whoever was in charge of us," Lasker-Wallfisch says.

As the Soviet Army advanced in 1944, Lasker-Wallfisch and her sister Renata were among thousands put on a cattle truck to the Belsen camp.

Several months later Belsen, too, was liberated, and Lasker-Wallfisch emigrated shortly afterwards to Britain.

There she resumed her cello studies and helped found the English Chamber Orchestra. Her son Raphael is now also a cellist.

Lasker-Wallfisch is used to talking about her experiences, but says it's hard to convey what it was like in the camps.

Playing nice tunes at Auschwitz to everyone who wanted one was, she says simply, a "ludicrous situation."