Memories of Music in Extremis

Zdenka Fantlová (1922-2022)

One of the last remaining witnesses to the artistic events of the Terezín ghetto, Zdenka Fantlová, died in November 2022. Over the last couple of decades, she spoke to writer and documentary film maker Simon Broughton about her memories from Terezín and her acting activities after. In this article, Broughton presents some of her most fascinating recollections, including the composition and performance of music as part of life in the ghetto.


The ”Five Lives” of Zdenka Fantlová

“I’ve lived five lives and I think that’s enough for anybody”, said Czechoslovak-born Zdenka Fantlová with weariness and resignation. Aged 100, Fantlová died on 14th November , 2022. She was a valuable witness to the remarkable musical and theatrical life in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto and camp, and features in the award-winning BBC documentary The Music of Terezín. She was also a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and several other concentration camps. In 2011, she published an account of her Holocaust experiences in her book The Tin Ring.

Fantlová’s “first life” was in pre-war Czechoslovakia. She was born in 1922 to Czech Jewish parents in the town of Blatná, where her father Arnošt Fantl was in the metal business. Her “second life” started with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Early one morning, her father called her to the window in Rokycany where they lived at the time. The German army, comprised of soldiers on motorcycles with steel helmets, were heading east towards Prague. The following five years, which provided to be life-changing for her and her family, took her to Terezín, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, all of which she was able to survive.

Fantlová’s “third life” began in Sweden following her liberation from Belsen. Her “fourth life” started when she emigrated to Australia in 1950, married her husband Charles Ehrlich, and worked in a theatre company. Her “fifth life” came with her relocating to London in 1969, where she spent the remaining years of her life.

Performances and Artistic Activity in Terezín

After the Nazi occupation, most of the Jewish population of the Czech Protectorate was sent to the ghetto created in the fortress town of Terezín, north of Prague. Fantlová’s transport, along with the rest of her family, left on 20th January 1942. At the time, she remembered looking forward to getting there as her boyfriend Arno had been sent a few days before; she hoped they would be reunited upon her arrival.

Terezín, originally built to house as few as 5000 people during 1780, was packed with over 50,000 Jewish prisoners, and served as a holding station before further transports to the east. It functioned as a hybrid of both camp and ghetto. Under Nazi supervision, it was administered by a Jewish administration. With many musicians and artists amongst the inmates, concerts were organised and encouraged. “We were quite ignorant of what was in store for us, only the Germans knew,” Fantlová recalled: “They knew we were sentenced to death, so they let us get on with it and we were just dancing under the gallows.”

Fantlová did, in fact, find her boyfriend Arno in Terezín, and was able to run down to a hidden cellar with him: “We rushed in, closed the door and, of course, everything. You name it, yes!” Arno gave her a tin ring, the inspiration for the title for her book, just before he was deported from Terezín in 1942 as one of 2000 men taken in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader in control of Bohemia and Moravia. They were all shot, although Fantlová did not discover this until several years later.

One of Fantlová’s most vivid Terezín memories was of meeting the composer and pianist Gideon Klein. “He was about two or three years older than me. A very good looking man,” she said. “I had one lovely experience with him. After a cabaret performance in the Dresden Barracks, there was a grand piano and Gideon Klein came in and he said ‘don’t go, let me play something for you’. And he went up to the stage and in the semi-darkness he played the Chopin C minor Etude: ‘De, dah, de, dah…’”.She imitates the melody of the so-called Revolutionary Etude, reflecting: “And I was sitting there mesmerised and I thought ‘Where am I?. I’m here in a barracks all alone in the darkness and this man is playing for me - it’s unreal. And it was. But in Terezín these things could happen. We lived normally, or we tried to, in abnormal conditions. We were oblivious to what was going on outside, Terezín was the centre of our lives. In Terezín we were more free than we would have been outside.”

Fantlová’s assigned job was working in the kitchen, where she was stirring soup alongside the future conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Karel Ančerl. In her spare time, she took part in some satirical cabarets, written by Karel Švenk: “I was in one called ‘Ben Akiba Didn’t Lie or Did He?’ Ben Akiba was a legendary Rabbi who said there is nothing new under the sun, everything has been here already. I was in the second scene - on Olympus. At a long table with all the gods. Zeus was presiding. I was playing Aphrodite and instead of being charming and flirting I was being rude and interrupting everybody. It was supposed to be like the Jewish government [in Terezín] - where everybody was talking and people couldn’t agree.”

The ghetto self-administration was led by a Jewish elder and Council of Elders in a very bureaucratic structure. The first leader was Jakob Edelstein from Prague, the next was Paul Eppstein from Berlin who was placed above Edelstein, and another prominent leader was Benjamin Murmelstein from Vienna. He was the only one of the elders to survive the war. Fantlová referred to them as “Edelstein, Eppstein and the-other-Stein,” with a chuckle. “The last scene was with Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II on a cloud looking down on Terezin with binoculars. They are trying to understand what’s happening down there until a fresh soul floats up from Terezin going up to heaven and tries to explain to Her Majesty what’s happening. But they don’t get it and send her off.” Her point being that nothing like this had ever happened before.

Another of Karel Švenk’s shows was called The Last Cyclist. “Svenk was a very committed communist,” Zdenka explains, “but in the right way. So his cabarets were always politically coloured.” The political cabarets were performed by a different cast and, while Fantlová was not involved directly in this performance, she vividly remembered laughing at it. In The Last Cyclist, a leader tries to pacify his people by blaming the cyclists: “They are the source of all the trouble and danger because they are internationally connected and we have to get rid of them. Although there was an exception for those who two generations before were pedestrians…”One can assume that this was reference to the Nuremberg Laws, which determined that even an individual with a grandparent who had converted to Christianity was still considered a Jew by the Nazi regime.

There were also straight theatre performances in Terezín without musical accompaniments, and Fantlová had particularly strong memories of a director called Gustav Schorsch: “He was young, in his twenties. He was assistant director at the National Theatre. He came to Terezin and refused to have anything to do with theatre [feeling it wasn’t appropriate]. But people tried to persuade him and in the end he changed his mind and felt it was even more important to do theatre in Terezín. He prepared Gogol’s The Marriage. He had the best actors, the best production, decor and costumes. The performance was so mesmerising that if they took it lock stock and barrel and put it on today in the West End it would be a great success.”

In the Terezín Ghetto Museum, one can find a poster for Esther on display, which is described as an ‘Old Czech Folk Play by an Unknown Author’. It was a strange biblical tale about overcoming anti-Semitism in which the King and Queen quarrel; she is exiled and the King chooses Esther, who is Jewish and, after some other distractions, saves the day. Fantlová played Queen Vasta, and had vivid memories of the stage setting and costumes created by Frantisek Zelenka, a talented designer who also did the staging of Terezin’s most famous production, the children’s opera Brundibár.

The cast and characters for the Terezin performance of Esther in which Zdenka Fantlova played Vasta.

Frantisek Zelenka's costume design for the King in Esther.

Frantisek Zelenka's costume design for Vasta, played by Zdenka Fantlova in Terezín.

“Franta Zelenka had his own workshop, but there was a lack of materials,” Zdenka described. “He had paper, sheets, straw - that kind of thing. But in reality the costumes didn’t quite match his illustrations. For the King he used a big sheet and cut out a hole in the middle for the head and on the bottom of the sheet he put empty tins so when he walked it made a noise - clanging a bit, as a sign of importance. There was reddish coloured straw on his arms and on his head. Queen Vasta was dressed in a black sheet with a white one underneath. There were holes cut out like eyes in the black one so the white showed through.”

The production of Esther also featured music by Karel Reiner, a pupil of quarter-tone composer Alois Hába, who accompanied the performers on a harmonium under the stage. Fantlová remembered a stage direction she was given when she had to sing a sad song at the end of the first act: “He said you should look like a Baroque angel over a grave - and that’s what I did.” [Fantlová introduces and sings the song]. It was an ingenious production, not realistic at all, but very stylised.”

Deportation to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Liberation

Fantlová’s transport departed from Terezín to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, on 17th October 1944, carrying most of the aforementioned musicians and composers, as well as her family. Upon her arrival at Auschwitz, Fantlová, her mother and sister, stood in a line in front of the notorious SS Doctor Joseph Mengele. Her mother was directed left, which meant to the gas chambers,, and Fantlová right, meaning she would be assigned labour. She grabbed her sister to go with her. Naked and shaved, she was thrown a green evening gown with pearls and sequins round the neck, previously confiscated from another Jewish victim. This outfit is what she wore for the next six months - in Auschwitz, Kurzbach, on a death march to Gross-RosenMauthausen and, finally, Bergen-Belsen where, on the point of death from typhus, she was rescued by a British medical officer.

Emigration and Post-war Theatre Company

After recuperating and working in Sweden, Fantlová emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1949 and married German Jewish Charles Ehrlich in 1950. One day, on a street in Melbourne, she unexpectedly met Hana Pravda who she had known in Terezin. Pravda (née Munková) had also starred in the performance of Esther., and was later married to actor George Pravda. Fantlová “The three of us decided to open a theatre company as she’d studied under Stanislavsky [in Moscow in 1937]. She was Russian educated and was a very good director. We mainly put on Russian plays, including Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. We also did Strindberg’s Miss Julie. As most of the plays were foreign our Czech accents didn’t matter!” Other productions were by Turgenev, Ostrovsky, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams.

They called the company Tana - active from 1951 to 1956, which according to one of their programmes, “means in aboriginal language a ceremony or feast connected with joy and awe which are some of the fundamental ideas of theatre.

Zdenka Fantlová and George Pravda performing in the play Musical Chairs by Ronald Mackenzie. Courtesy of Simon Broughton.

Remembering Zdenka Fantlová

Zdenka was a compelling speaker, who talked openly and candidly about her experiences in Terezín - and believed passionately that it was important to do so. She once gave a talk in a school in Germany, about which she said: “In Germany they take the Holocaust very seriously and are very informed. A boy put up his hand and said ‘After 60 years do you think we need to talk about the Holocaust anymore?’ I said first of all we need to tell people that it really did happen - and some of us are still here. The Holocaust was not a natural disaster and it was created by people and people don’t change, so it can happen again. So how can we ordinary people fight against it? The only weapon we have is tolerance in this world of so many millions of people - regardless of race, religion, nationality and colour. That’s why the Holocaust is important. Not just to remember, but as a warning

The way Zdenka Fantlová talked about Terezin was always matter of fact and without any portentous tragedy, although we know where most of the inmates ended up. “It was the people that made the place, it was humming” she said. “We were free from daily worries - we didn’t have to go shopping, we didn’t pay rent, we didn’t pay tax. We were free to create art, freer than we would have been outside. And I was able to meet people I never would have met in my normal life. It was the most cultural atmosphere for everybody to remember where they came from and hoping they will go back to it.” That was the irony of Terezín.

Simon Broughton


Simon Broughton, Interviews with Zdenka Fantlová, (1992, 2019, 2020)

Zdenka Fantlova, The Tin Ring, (Northumbria Press, 2011)

McNidder & Grace published a new edition of Zdenka’s book The Tin Ring in 2022 to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Simon Broughton is a writer and documentary film maker based in London. He is currently editor in chief of the world music magazine Songlines and programmes Songlines Encounters Festival. He worked many years for the BBC and then freelance for the BBC and other companies. Several of his films have involved music in extreme political circumstances - Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan (BBC 2002), about the return of music after the fall of the Taliban (BBC 2002), Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam (C4 2006) and The Music of Terezín (BBC 1993), about the Jewish ghetto during WWII. It was preparing this award-documentary that he first met Zdenka Fantlová and found he had a key witness for the film. Over the years he visited Zdenka regularly and spoke to her several times about her experiences in Terezín and beyond. 

Uno de los últimos testigos de los acontecimientos artísticos del gueto de Terezín, Zdenka Fantlová, falleció en noviembre de 2022. El transporte de Fantlová partió de Terezín hacia Auschwitz-Birkenau, Polonia, el 17 de octubre de 1944, llevando a la mayoría de los músicos y compositores mencionados, así como a su familia. Retrato de Zdenka Fantlova en la embajada checa, 1946. Cortesía de McNidder & Grace.