Legendary Cellist and Conductor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch at the Salzburg Festival

In celebration of the Festival's 100th anniversary, the last surviving member of the Women's Orchestra at Auschwitz, now 95, spoke by video about the role of music in her life.

Her remarks are part of a lecture series “Reden über das Jahrhundert” (“Talking About the Century”) at the Felsenreitschule Festival Theater. The speech will be accompanied J.S. Bach Suites for Solo Cello played by Julia Hagen, and readings from Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan, also a Holocaust survivor and considered one of the greates poets in the German language.

What follows is an interview with Lasker-Walfisch when she was in Vienna in 2014, for a concert reading as part of a series of events memorializing Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: Music Amid the Memories of Horror 

by Dardis McNamee and Cynthia Peck  | December 2013 

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch had arrived by normal train to Auschwitz in September of 1942, but not in a cattle car. Although she was a Jew, her job in a paper factory had protected her – until she and her sister were arrested for forging travel documents for French prisoners of war.  So they were considered criminals, and sent to Auschwitz. She was 17 years old.

The induction had been surreal: Name, address… And what had she done before the war?  She remembers blurting out, “I played the cello,” and thinking, how stupid! 

As it turned out, the cello saved her life. Lasker-Wallfisch, now 88, is one of the last surviving members of the Women’s Orchestra at Auschwitz. A renowned cellist and founder of the English Chamber Orchestra, she was in Vienna for a concert-reading at the Wiener Konzerthaus. It was the second of three events to commemorate Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, the coordinated attacks against Jewish property in Germany and Austria in November, 1938. 

Accompanied by her daughter, psychotherapist Maya Jacobs Wallfisch and her cellist-son Raphael Wallfisch, who was to play, she would read from the memoir she wrote for them, Inherit the Truth (1996).

It was Saturday afternoon, November 9th, – 75 years to the day – when we met in a rehearsal hall at the Konzerthaus.  Somehow anniversaries bring things closer. For decades, Lasker-Wallfisch rarely talked about her experience. But not because she didn’t want to. 

“That’s what people think,” she confirmed. “People made a terrible mistake in saying we didn’t want to talk about it. Nobody asked any questions. We wanted to talk … nobody wanted to know.” 

With a wry laugh she went on, “In Germany it’s understandable. But in England people are very discrete. What are they going to ask, ‘I hear you’ve been in a concentration camp? Tell me, what was it like?’” 

“No, no, there was total silence, which we found very shocking really.” 

In the Women’s Orchestra, she played under Alma Rosé, violinist and daughter of Arnold Rosé, until 1938 concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic.  “Alma came from musical aristocracy, … a very proud person, very dignified. So dignified that even the Nazis called her ‘Frau Alma’.” 

And very demanding. “In her mind I don’t think Alma ever left Vienna. It was about the music, and music had to be at a good level.” 

For the musicians, it meant switching off. “People are always asking, ‘how did you feel?’,” said Lasker-Wallfish. “Feelings? You left that outside.” Anti-Semitism was nothing new. 

“It had been existing for centuries. But it wasn’t stubenrein(house-trained) to be anti-Semitic. The big problem is, now, people have an excuse, because of Israel. You know, it’s niceto be able to be anti-Semitic again!.” 

An interviewer looked up. Did it really feel that way to her? “Yes.” It was a simple statement. 

Then she told of being called to Germany “on a moment’s notice” for a TV program on the resurgence of open anti-Semitism. “I mean, it’s only in little pockets – but it’s a poison that can…” She didn’t finish the sentence. 

It has been said that without the Jewish traditions, culture in Europe would never have become what it was or what it is. The music world of Vienna before the Shoah was rich with Jewish composers, musicians and music enthusiasts. The departure of Jews in 1938 left Viennese concert halls half empty. 

For the concert, Rafael Wallfisch had prepared works by Viennese Jewish composers nearly forgotten today: 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Suite Viel Lärm um Nichtsop. 11 (1918, originally for violin) and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1891), sophisticated, lush and appealing in their lateromantic idiom.  The cello sonata (1932) by Polish Jewish composer Szymon Laks, also an Auschwitz survivor, with its rambunctious vivacity and jazz-like blue notes, was particularly surprising and delightful. 

At the end of war, with the Red Army moving across Poland, Lasker-Wallfisch was moved to the Belsen concentration camp in Germany. In a matter- of-fact voice, she described the camp’s liberation.  Half dead of starvation, she sat on the ground, leaning against a barrack with no strength to move, piles of dead bodies in front r and behind. 

Then she heard the words: “Do not be afraid. It is the British army. You are free.” 

It was 15 April 1945; Lasker-Wallfisch was 19 years old. She has no illusions about music being a guarantee of civilization. “To play a musical instrument doesn’t necessarily stop you from being somebody like [Reinhard] Heydrich,” she had told us. One of the main architects of the Holocaust and organiser of what is now referred to as the November Pogroms, Heydrich was also a passionate and accomplished violinist.  The Germans were clever; they didn’t dirty their hands. It was the “small man”, who believed that “orders were orders”. 

“This is a terrible danger in Germany, in Austria, I still feel it to this day – less perhaps, but it’s still there – the respect for Obrigkeit[authority],” she said. “If I’m told to do something by someone who is höherals ich, above me, I’ll do it. This is the danger, stupid obedience, without thought.” 

“It’s very difficult for youngsters,” she went on. “It’s this fear of the unknown. The only hope is to be open minded, Not to be proud, that they were born in Germany, say.” 

“Ich bin auch Deutsch, aber wie deutsch bin ich?,” she mused. “I am also German. But how German am I, really? It’s enough just to deserve to be called a human being.” 

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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