Die Presse, April 3, 2019
The cello saved Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s life during her imprisonment at the Auschwitz concentration camp. To commemorate the director of the Women’s Orchestra, 93-year-old Lasker-Wallfisch will be visiting Vienna.
London. A mighty birch tree stands in the garden of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. “I planted it 45 years ago, it was just a small seedling then,” tells the 93-year-old when the Austrian newspaper Die Presse visited her in her home in North London. The walls of her house are decorated with official documents such as her Member of the Order of the British Empire Honor awarded by Queen Elizabeth or photographs of conversations with Prince Charles. It seems that not only the birch tree has taken root.
After the end of the Second World War, Anita Lasker came to Great Britain in 1946, where she cofounded the renowned English Chamber Orchestra and married pianist Peter Wallfisch. Together they had two children who also became musicians; Lasker-Wallfisch’s grandchildren are musicians as well. “It is music that can lead people from the deepest abyss to the highest spheres – and these are inviolable," she says.
It was also music that saved Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s life. Born in Breslau, Lower Silesia (present-day Wrocław, Poland), in 1925 and raised in a middle-class Jewish family, her life dramatically changed after the Nazi takeover: “We had led a completely normal life.” After the November pogrom of 1938, which her family had experienced in Berlin, her father “desperately tried to get us out.” It was all in vain. In 1942, she lost track of her parents near the city of Lublin.
Anita and her sister Renate were deported to Auschwitz in December 1943 after having been caught with forged documents to escape to France. At the instigation of the Austrian chief supervisor Maria Mandl, who was responsible for the murder of thousands of prisoners and was executed after the war as the “Beast of Auschwitz,” there was a Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz. “I was lucky, nothing more,” Lasker-Wallfisch once said. “The orchestra urgently needed a cellist, and that was exactly the instrument I was playing”.
“A protection from going mad.”
The orchestra was led by the respected Austrian violinist of Jewish descent Alma Rosé, a niece of Gustav Mahler, whose 75th anniversary of death is currently commemorated in an exhibition at the House of Austrian History in Vienna, on the occasion of which Lasker-Wallfisch is coming to Vienna this week. “I am glad and happy that people are commemorating Alma and finally doing her justice,” she says.
Although Rosé saved the lives of the musicians as conductor of the Women’s Orchestra, she was regarded as a controversial hard disciplinarian for a long time. Against the background of the round-the-clock smoking chimneys of Auschwitz (“Nobody thought that we would leave this place other than through the chimney,” recalls Lasker-Wallfisch), the barking dogs and the barbed wire fences, she insisted on iron discipline: “One time I played wrong and I had to wash the floor as a punishment,” Lasker-Wallfisch remembers. “I howled with anger.”
Nevertheless, she has always defended Rosé vigorously: “She has managed to divert our attention from what was going outside our prison block. Maybe that was her way of protecting us from going mad.” Alma Rosé died of poisoning in Auschwitz on 4 April 1944. She was 38 years old.
When the Nazis finally evacuated Auschwitz months later, Lasker-Wallfisch was deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “In Auschwitz, people were systematically murdered,” she reports, “in Bergen-Belsen, they simply died.” Lasker-Wallfisch was liberated by British troops in 1945, and it was also precisely Bergen-Belsen that she visited when she first returned to Germany in 1994.
“Are you human?”
It was to be another turning point in her life. In her memoirs “Inherit the Truth” (“Die Wahrheit erben” in German, 1997), published two years later, she writes: “I wanted a normal life, and there was no room for the Holocaust.” In a letter to her daughter, she writes: “We never talked much about these dark times, and how come you didn't have grandparents?”
Since then Lasker-Wallfisch has been travelling almost relentlessly. She is not a bearer of pleasant messages: “It is not my business to forgive. I am not the good Lord.” She warns: “Once again the world is in trouble, should the Jews be to blame for everything again? It is such a scandal that one has to deal with anti-Semitism again today! It is said that Jews are everywhere. Yes, and why is that so? Perhaps because they were expelled from their homeland. People never think about that. We are the eternally persecuted, murdered, defamed people, because we have never been able to defend ourselves. Now, however, we have committed the most serious sin: We can defend ourselves. And that is a sin we cannot be forgiven for.”
Her message is clear: “Whether someone is Jewish, Christian or Muslim should be the last question to be asked. The first question must be: Are you human?” Her numerous encounters have given Lasker-Wallfisch little confidence, but she is not prepared to give up: “You must never give up. Sometimes, you might just turn somebody’s brain in the right direction here and there.”
A year ago, Lasker-Wallfisch spoke in the German Bundestag on Holocaust Memorial Day. When she paid tribute to the government for its “generous and courageous decision” to open the border to refugees from the Middle East in 2015, members of the far-right AfD party initially refused to applaud. Back then, the German newspaper “Die Welt” characterized Lasker-Wallfisch as follows: “Not for a second did you have the impression that there was victim in front of you who begged our sympathy. She was a fighter who, against all odds, succeeded in triumphing over the certainty of death.” Does Lasker-Wallfisch agree with this characterization? “Absolutely. Jews are not just victims. We are still here.”
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch talks to Presse editor-in-chief Rainer Nowak at the House of Austrian History (Neue Burg, Vienna) on Friday, April 5, at 7 pm. The evening is dedicated to Alma Rosé: The Viennese violinist was the conductor of the Women’s Orchestra in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where she died in 1944. Burgtheater doyenne Elisabeth Orth reads from Rosé's letters.