Stephen Fry meets Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Writer, broadcaster and actor Stephen Fry met Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch at her home in north London. As a member of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, Anita played cello for the notorious Dr Mengele. Stephen and Anita had already met once before, and he was keen to explore the idea of music and evil – and whether art can survive the worst of human atrocities.

Here is Stephen’s piece of writing in response to Anita’s story – first an excerpt, and then the full essay further down the page.

“In the end we can get lost in the history and lost in the search for meaning. That is why people like Anita matter so much.

I come from my meetings with Anita having learned three lessons. First that a lack of self-pity is amongst the finest and noblest of all human attributes. Anita does not want to repeat and relive the story of how she suffered and what suffering she witnessed. That, for her, is not any kind of answer. The answer is to remember not so much what happened as how it happened. The years of propaganda that led perfectly ordinary people to perform acts of perfectly extraordinary evil. Second, she would add too I think, there are problems that arise from the pliable obedient nature of a people who do not question authority. It is more than a good thing to question authority, it is a necessary thing. How appalling an irony of history it is that the people who gave us Immanuel Kant should have turned its back on his enlightenment and dived into so dreadful a darkness.

Third, if there are to be no more death-camps, gas chambers or machete genocides then we must keep our ears alert to the language of hatred, the mad language that allows pitiless killing, the language that dehumanises both the victim and the perpetrator. 

If that leans us towards a politically correct intolerance of racial, sexual or any other kind of abusive language, well then so be it.”

When Stephen met Anita

Art – Music – Life: Stephen’s full written response to meeting Anita

I met Anita Lasker Wallfisch for the Memory Makers project for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015. But it was not our first encounter. I first met her in 2010 while I was making a film called Wagner and Me. This was a documentary about my life-long obsession with the genius and monster Richard Wagner and my desire to see his works performed at Bayreuth, the theatre he created in Bavaria. How could I square being a Jew with loving the works of so vile an antisemite? Not just an antisemite, but one whose poison influenced the most destructive antisemite of them all, Adolf Hitler, who visited Bayreuth as an ambitious young politician, encouraged and flattered by Wagner’s family. I needed permission to go. I needed a blessing.

It seemed only right that I should seek it from Anita, a woman who as a teenager had survived a whole year in the Auschwitz death camp. She survived through music. There can be no doubt that her talent saved her life. Her parents and other members of her family had disappeared in Poland, never to be seen again. She lived through the worst extermination camp in history and a move to Bergen-Belsen. She came and settled in Britain where she became a founder member of the great English Chamber Orchestra.

At Auschwitz Anita was the only cellist who played in the dchenorchester von Auschwitz, the Auschwitz Girls Orchestra. Anita insists that it was less of an orchestra and more of a kapelle, a word for which there is no clear translation but which means something like ‘band’. There was a string section supplemented by accordion, mandolins, flutes and percussion. The band played next to an inconspicuous gate at the Birkenau camp, where the Birkenau inmates trudged out from on their way to forced labour in factories and fields.

This side gate at Birkenau was not the notorious gate just down the road at Auschwitz 1, with its superscription of those dreadful words Arbeit Macht Frei, ‘Work Makes Free’. Were such a camp to be set up in an English speaking country — not an impossible thought given how close Nazi Germany came to invading Great Britain — it would probably have had set in iron lettering above its gate the more English formulation ‘Work Will Set You Free’, losing the German pun on Macht, which also means Might, Force, Power and Strength, a single word which could be said to embody the very mission statement of fascism and all it worships and glories in.

This female band played under the strict baton of Alma Rosé, a professional violinist who was the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s sister Justine. She had been named in honour of her uncle’s wife Alma Mahler, née Schindler (no relation to Oskar of the Ark and List).

Their task was to play marches as the slave-worker gangs went to and from their day’s labour. They could be heard by new arrivals who went straight from train to gas-chamber without even undergoing Eichmann’s gruesome triage of typewriters and form-filling. The general view is that the music calmed the victims down, stopped them from panicking, allowing the SS, and the Jewish prisoners forced into the role of Sonderkommandos, to set about their work more easily. With less stress.

This I knew before my first meeting with Anita. I was ready to find myself in the presence of somebody who had been there. A living witness to … it. A fellow Jew, she could set my mind at ease on the thorny subject of Wagner.

Oh no. Musik Macht Stark. Music Makes Strong. Anita was not going to let me off the hook for a moment.

“Why do you need to go to Bayreuth? Can’t you just listen to the music at home?”

“Well, it is the home of Wagner’s music. The theatre is made for his music…”

“But the people who go? Do you think you will like them and feel at ease with them?”

It is true that Bayreuth is filled to capacity every year with dinner-jacketed men and evening-frocked women of intense German-ness and high seriousness. I deflect the question.

“Anita, one has the image in one’s mind of Wagner being played as the victims made their way to the gas chambers. Did you play a lot of his music?”

“Oh good heavens no. None at all. We were just a kapelle. We didn’t have the resources for Wagner. No brass section.”

“Oh. Were records of his music played on the PA systems?”

“I can’t remember hearing a single note of Wagner in all my time there.”

Well, this was a relief…

“As a matter of fact Maria Mandl preferred Puccini.”

Maria Mandl. A name that will always inspire dread. The utterance of it invokes a bogeyman. A bogeywoman. The Beast. SS Lagerführerin of Auschwitz and Birkenau with control of the female sub-camps Hindenburg, Lichtewerden and Raisko too. They say that this neat, blond Austrian woman was personally responsible for half a million female deaths. They say that she stood at the gates of Birkenau waiting for any new inmate to turn and look at her. They say that if they did they were taken out of the line and never heard from again. She was hanged for war crimes in 1948. But how she loved her music.

How extraordinary to think that one owed one’s life to a genocidal murderer.

If having the name of Maria Mandl conjured into life were not enough, Anita told me this story.

“I expect you have heard his name, Josef Mengele…”

Oh my God. Mengele! The doctor who sewed baby twins together, who injected colours into the eyes of his forced subjects. The man who, searching for proofs of his insane racial theories, added screaming torture, pain and intense suffering to already inevitable death sentences. The man who, even by SS standards, stood out as a remorseless, cruel and barbarous psychopath. Only history could create a Mengele, fiction could never imagine such a horror: in the morning smiling, ruffling children’s hair, giving them sweets, calling himself Uncle Mengele, in the afternoon whistling nonchalantly while cutting into them without anaesthetic. The next day cheerfully signing for them to be gassed and burned.

“You can imagine…” said Anita puffing at yet another cigarette.

“So one day he came into our Block. He wanted to hear the Träumerei“.

“What did you do?”

“What do you think? I played the Träumerei.”

One of the most transcendentally lovely pieces ever composed. From Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen. ‘Scenes from Childhood.’

I tried to fix this impossible image in my mind. Waves of enchanting cello music rising up from the bow of a beautiful, brilliantly talented child while waves of smoke rose up from furnace chimneys behind her. And an educated, intelligent and obscenely evil man transfixed by the almost intolerable beauty of a melody that evokes childhood, its innocent sweetness recalled through the yearning mind of an adult composer. As ever when contemplating the imponderable depths of the Holocaust words words words do not have colour, texture or tone enough to paint the image.

“And how did it end?”

“When he had heard enough he left the Block.”

It was at this point that I let myself down. I revealed that, for all the books I have read on the suffering, the torment, the industrial scale and the grim ordered brutality of the genocide, I still had not really grasped the truth, the painful and most important truth of all. For I now asked Anita a question of monumental stupidity.

“Did he thank you?”

Mengele was, after all, a scholar, an academic, a man with a vain idea of his own artistic intelligence and taste.

Anita shook her head, a great smile spreading across her face. “Did he thank me? Oh you poor man. You still don’t really understand. Do you thank your telephone after you have used it? Do you thank your music system? Do you thank your dishwasher? We were not people! We were Untermenschen, subhuman. You don’t thank an animal or a machine.”

Of course. I knew this. Inside I knew it. But I had not properly turned it over in my mind. I knew it without understanding it.

A doctor, with a good brain (certainly not a genius. Not a brilliant or even a very good doctor, but nonetheless intelligent enough to pass his exams and publish his papers on the inherited characteristics of the hare lip and cleft palate and other such racially inspired nonsense), a doctor who operates on children, twins most especially, for those same revolting and preposterous racial reasons, who can see that Jewish and Gypsy children are composed of the same corporeal matter as Aryan children, who can hold in his head two insanely opposing truths. A) Jews’ bodies are absolutely identical to Aryans’ bodies. B) Jews are not fully human, they are subhuman.

So when a Jewish girl has shared her gift of music and summoned up the soul of childhood through the music of Schumann you do not think for a moment to thank her.

So, is this how it is done? Is this how you can perform such bestial and cruel acts? Not saying thank you takes on rather a huge importance. My mother was right about manners all the time.

For over a decade Josef Göbbels, Julius Streicher and others bombarded the German people with images of Jews as vermin. Rats, parasites, lice, sucking the blood of the true German people. A whole generation heard this calumny repeated and repeated and repeated. Jews are not people, they are not people.

The same language was used in 1994 on the radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda. Hutus were urged to bring about the Final Solution to the Tutsi problem. “The Tutsis are cockroaches. Kill the cockroaches.” This message was ceaselessly broadcast for months before the killing and all throughout it.

Some humans can kill any number of humans without remorse or excuses or ‘permission’. We call these people psychopaths. But there are never enough natural born psychopaths in one population to achieve the genocide of another. And so language is brought to bear. Propaganda is relentlessly poured into the ears of the weak-minded, the self-pitying, the resentful, the angry, the obedient, the pliable and the ambitious. After enough years they can look at another section of their population … Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, infidels, Muslims, Christians, communists, capitalists, heretics … as less than human. Now the killing can begin and only when their killers’ army and regime is defeated will they rub their eyes, blink in amazement and whimper their innocence. They were under a spell. It wasn’t their fault. Up the ladder we go from the SS guards to the commandants, to the local governors, to Adolf Eichmann, to Reinhard Heydrich, to Heinrich Himmler, to the Führer himself.

Anita and I share a fascination for a book called “Those Were The Days” or “The Good Old Days” – Schöne Zeiten. It is the best study of evil I have ever encountered. It lists no atrocities, catalogues no crimes. It is a collection of letters home from death camp soldiers, commandants, doctors and bystanders. It is here that Hannah Arendt’s famous ‘banality of evil’ can most clearly be witnessed. The gloopy, hideous sentimentality of officers writing home to their wives, proud of their men’s uncomplaining completion of a day’s “special action”, enclosing bottles of plum wine and imploring little Hansi to pay more attention to his Latin homework or my goodness he’ll find his ears boxed!

These letters written by men fresh from supervising the Kapos as they have sprayed down the excrement and blood in the ‘shower rooms’, fresh from hearing the dying screams of the ‘Muslims’ as they dubbed the Jewish women (ha!), fresh from laughing at the sad attempts at dignity performed by the men running naked to their deaths, their genitals covered, all hope gone.

The thought of Mengele and the fact that his sick mind could daily witness the physiological congruence of Jew and Gentile while still believing some fundamental, but of course utterly specious difference brings to mind Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice — not just its statement of physical sameness but its cry for vengeance too.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Yes indeed. But Vengeance is not a dish best served cold. Ninety year old Germans, Byelorussians and Ukrainians being led shakily to the dock cause nothing but sadness. Only in the white heat of the horror might vengeance serve.

Mengele lived out his life in South America, drowning in 1979. By all accounts, including his son’s, he felt no remorse whatsoever. The logistical mastermind behind it all, Eichmann, was of course hanged in Israel in 1962, which I suppose must have given satisfaction to many. The prime architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated by British-trained Czech partisans in Prague in 1942. His immediate superior Heinrich Himmler evaded trial by biting down on a cyanide capsule while being interrogated by the British in May 1945. The author of it all had shot himself more than three weeks earlier in his Berlin bunker. Squalid, pathetic men idolised by the shrivelled, the deformed and the mentally disfigured. “When I think of Hitler I think of nothing,” someone once said. But when the Nazi lie was alive it was potent, monstrous, huge and seemingly unconquerable. They are shrivelled now, but they were huge and grotesque then.

How do we stop that happening again? That is the only question that counts. The rest is sophistry.

It only takes a boy pointing at the naked emperor, a crowd sneering at the Ceausescus on their balcony, for the malignancy of the lie to dissolve. But the timing has to be right. That is the devil of it. No amount of pointing or sneering would have done any good in 1933. When was the time, 1928? Around the time of the beerhall putsch? Earlier? Can we honestly believe that history is inevitable? Is that not a counsel of despair?

In the end we can get lost in the history and lost in the search for meaning. That is why people like Anita matter so much.

I come from my meetings with Anita having learned three lessons. First that a lack of self-pity is amongst the finest and noblest of all human attributes. Anita does not want to repeat and relive the story of how she suffered and what suffering she witnessed. That, for her, is not any kind of answer. The answer is to remember not so much what happened as how it happened. The years of propaganda that led perfectly ordinary people to perform acts of perfectly extraordinary evil. Second, she would add too I think, there are problems that arise from the pliable obedient nature of a people who do not question authority. It is more than a good thing to question authority, it is a necessary thing. How appalling an irony of history it is that the people who gave us Immanuel Kant should have turned its back on his enlightenment and dived into so dreadful a darkness.

Third, if there are to be no more death-camps, gas chambers or machete genocides then we must keep our ears alert to the language of hatred, the mad language that allows pitiless killing, the language that dehumanises both the victim and the perpetrator.

If that leans us towards a politically correct intolerance of racial, sexual or any other kind of abusive language, well then so be it.

While on the subject of political correctness: I duly completed my film Wagner and Me and made my way towards the office of Richard Klein, then head of BBC Four, and the commissioner of the piece.

“I hear that you have a contributor who smokes on camera?” said Richard.

“Ah, yes, but she’s amazing, she’s utterly …”

“You are aware that it is strict BBC policy. No one can ever be seen smoking.”

“But, but …” I thrust the DVD into his hands. “Watch it, please watch it, then decide.”

I paced furiously for an hour while Richard watched it. He came out looking thoughtful.

“Well?” I said, “what about Anita Wallfisch?”

“Not a single frame of that is cut out. Not one single frame,” said Richard.

If you survive a year in Auschwitz you can be allowed a cigarette I think.

Memorandum

Holocaust Memorial Day is about memory. I finished this little piece and sent it to Anita. Corrections came back. I had misremembered much of what she had told me. As she said, “it is important that these things are absolutely correct.”

If I am foolish, impudent and woolly-headed enough not to remember a few conversations and stories told me over the last five years, then – we might think – what hope is there for future memorialising?

The hope lies with Anita. The hope lies with proper scholarship and record-keeping. The hope lies with you. 

Anita’s story

Image of Kristallnacht courtesy of the Wiener Library

Smashed shopfront after Kristallnacht, image courtesy of the Wiener Library

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was born in 1925 in Breslau, which was German then and is Polish now. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a violinist. Anita had two sisters and they all learnt to play an instrument – Anita played the cello.

After Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) in 1938 Anita’s family made frantic efforts to emigrate but it was impossible to find a safe haven.

Eventually Jewish schools closed and Anita was conscripted to work in a paper factory. Her family had to leave their home and move into a flat with Anita’s aunt, which was already hopelessly overcrowded. Then the deportation of Jews started.

Anita was just 16 years old when her parents were deported – she never saw them again.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Stephen Fry at her home in North London

Stephen and Anita at Anita’s home

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch deep in conversation with Stephen Fry

Anita deep in conversation with Stephen

On 9 April 1942 Anita’s parents were deported and sent on a transport to the east of Poland. Anita and her sister Renate’s names were not on the list, and her father refused to allow his daughters to join the transport. Anita never saw her parents again.

Anita forged papers to help French prisoners of war to escape.

Anita’s aunt, uncle and grandmother had also been deported and she and her sister were now completely alone, working in the paper factory. Anita involved herself in clandestine activities – forging papers for French prisoners of war to escape with. Eventually, she tried to escape with her own fake papers.

She only got as far as the railway station. Anita had been watched by the Gestapo for some time. She was arrested and sent to prison. Committing a criminal offence actually helped her rather than hindered her. It permitted her to stay in prison for over a year, postponing her arrival at a concentration camp. When Anita was eventually sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, she did not have to go through the usual selection on arrival at the notorious ramp, where the SS chose who should live and who should die in the gas chamber. She was a prisoner with a file, and they did not get gassed automatically. It was preferable to arrive at Auschwitz as a convicted criminal rather than an innocent citizen.

Anita survived for nearly a year in Auschwitz thanks to her musical talent.

Anita survived nearly one year in Auschwitz because she became a member of the camp orchestra. Their task consisted of performing every morning and evening at the gate of the camp so that the outgoing and incoming work commandos would march neatly in step to the marches they played. They also had to be available at all times to perform to individual SS staff who wanted to hear some music after sending thousands of people to their death. She once played the Träumerei of Schumann to the infamous Dr Josef Mengele.

Although they were somewhat privileged, Anita had no illusions that they would end up in the gas chamber eventually. It did not seem remotely possible that anyone would come out of Auschwitz alive. But as the Russians advanced, they were shunted westwards to Bergen-Belsen.

Bergen-Belsen was different from Auschwitz – here people simply died of starvation.

Bergen-Belsen was very different from Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, people were murdered in the most sophisticated manner. In Belsen, they simply perished of starvation and disease. There was no orchestra there. They sat about and waited and watched each other deteriorate. The last weeks in Belsen saw the arrival of the death marches from all over Germany. They had been marching for days and the half-dead people who dragged themselves into the camp were just the remnants. The rest had died on the way.

There was no food or water and typhus was rampant. Soon the dead bodies started piling up. Corpses became so much part of the landscape that the inmates no longer noticed them as anything unusual. It was very hot that April and the effect of the temperature on the mountains of bodies was horrendous.

It was about 5pm on 15 April 1945 when the first British tank rolled into the camp. Anita and the other survivors did not greet their liberators with shouts of joy. They were silent with incredulity.

In March 1946 – 11 months after the Liberation – Anita and her sister managed to come to England. Anita became a professional musician, and a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra. She married the pianist Peter Wallfisch in 1952 and had a son and a daughter.

Stephen Fry interviewing Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Stephen Fry talking with Anita

Stephen Fry is a much-loved writer, broadcaster and comedian. He began performing in the Cambridge Footlights before graduating to television with a role in Jeeves and Wooster, and has become a national celebrity with appearances on popular programmes such as QI.

Stephen is also renowned for his writing and has produced several novels, memoirs and works of non-fiction. In addition to his creative and broadcast work, he has campaigned publicly on a number of social issues, including LGBT rights and press regulation. By meeting with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and contributing the Memory Makers project, he hopes more people will mark Holocaust Memorial Day by reading and listening to the testimony of Holocaust survivors.

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