Fania Fénelon tells her story of terror and survival at Auschwitz in Playing for Time. In German-occupied Paris, she had been a nightclub singer, well trained in both classical and popular music. The Nazis arrested her for aiding the French Resistance in 1943. Once they found out that her father, Jules Goldstein, was a Jew, they shipped her to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the combination work camp and death factory in occupied Poland. She survived the journey and the initial selection of deportees for the gas chambers, along with her friend Clara, and was recognized at the camp as a well-known musician. She had little choice but to audition by singing arias from Madam Butterfly, and she was assigned to the orchestra.
The Auschwitz women’s orchestra was made up of some forty inmates. Within the camp, they had a special position, with adequate clothing, shelter, and toilet privileges. Yet their food was the same as that of the regular prisoners, and they were subject to the same arbitrary roll calls, beatings, and abuse. They knew that if they did not please their Schutzstaffel (SS) masters, they might at any time be “selected” for extermination. To preserve their lofty position, the “orchestra girls” had to play march music for the work gangs as they trudged to and from their barracks, “welcome” tunes as new trainloads of prisoners arrived, and various concerts for the diversion of the SS officers who ran the camp. The prisoners in the orchestra had their own hierarchy. The concert violinist, Alma Rosé, was at the top as kapo, a combination camp police officer and conductor. Just below her was the tough and humorless Tchaikowska as blockowa, or barracks’ warden. Within this madness, Fénelon tried to provide some musical leadership and human kindness to those around her.
In early 1945, the orchestra was dissolved. Fénelon and some of the other Jewish members were transported in an open boxcar to Bergen-Belsen, in north-central Germany. Conditions were far worse there, with virtually no regular food, water, or shelter from the cold winter rains. She contracted typhus and was near death when the camp was liberated by British troops in April, 1945. She was again recognized, and she mustered enough energy to sing the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, for the British radio reporters accompanying the liberators.
Fénelon’s narrative of her year and a half in Nazi captivity skillfully combines stories of terror, tenderness, brutality, and courage. The German SS officers who ran the camp are rightfully denounced as brutes and murderers. Joseph Kramer, the commandant, is portrayed as a stupid butcher who liked to relax with a bit of musical entertainment to forget the “difficult tasks” that he faced running a death camp. Frau Maria Mandel, the chief of the women’s camp, was even worse. Fénelon describes her as a beautiful woman, capable of appreciating fine music, but one who coldly and fanatically dedicated herself to the exploitation and extermination of the “inferiors” under her control. At one point, she “rescued” a toddler from a trip to the gas chambers, dressed him up and played with him as if he were a doll for a few days, and then gave him back to the machinery of death in the next selection.
More interesting, however, is Fénelon’s picture of the divisions among the prisoners themselves. One might expect that they...
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