Cover from "Inherit the Truth, 1939-1945" by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (ISBN 9781900357012). Courtesy of Giles de la Mare Publishers
Photo of young Anita Lasker-Wallfisch playing cello.

One of three daughters in an assimilated Jewish middle-class family, born on 17 July 1925, Anita Lasker had a comfortable and happy childhood in the German town of Breslau.  Anita and her sisters all studied a musical instrument: Marianne, the eldest, played piano; Renate played violin; and Anita played the cello.  The girls grew up in a home filled with chamber music, as their parents held weekly musical gatherings with friends.

Only seven years old when Hitler came to power, Lasker became increasingly aware of the rise of anti-Semitism around her.  Although more and more of their Jewish friends chose to leave Germany, her parents initially refused; and even as they began to consider emigration, increasing restrictions made this more and more difficult.  As was the case for Jews all over Germany, the nationwide pogrom known as Kristallnacht on 9 and 10 November 1938 marked a turning point for the Laskers.  As the Nazis arrested Jewish men from all over the country, Anita’s father was  rescued by a non-Jewish friend.  At the time, Anita had been living in Berlin, studying cello with Leo Rostal.  Himself a Jew, Rostal emigrated to the United States shortly after the pogrom, while Anita returned home to be with her family.  Her sister Marianne emigrated to England shortly before the outbreak of the war, but attempts to send Renate to England, as well as to find refuge abroad for the whole family, were unsuccessful.

Anita returned to school in January 1941.  A year later, her parents, along with many other members of the family, were deported, and their apartment was sealed by the Gestapo.  Anita and Renate were reduced to living in a sort of limbo, staying with relatives, finding work in a factory and ultimately moving to an orphanage.  As both girls spoke French very well, they decided to escape to Paris.  On 16 September 1942, while they stood on the platform waiting for their train, they were arrested by the Gestapo and brought to prison in Breslau.  Their trial took place on 5 June 1943: the sentence was eighteen months for Anita, and for Renate three and a half years of hard labour.

In early December, the sisters were separated and Anita was sent to Auschwitz.  As a convicted criminal, she was not required to go through selections, but in every other sense she was treated as a normal prisoner, having her head shaved and forearm tattooed.  Exhausted and humiliated, while standing in the quarantine block she mentioned to a woman near her that she played the cello.  Upon hearing this, the prisoner left, telling Anita to remain where she was.  Anita remembered that suddenly

a handsome lady in a camel-hair coat wearing a head-scarf walked into the block.  I had no idea who it could be.  Was she a guard or was she a prisoner?  She was so well dressed that I was absolutely baffled.  She greeted me and introduced herself as Alma Rosé.  She was simply delighted that I was a cellist, and asked me where I came from, who I had studied with, and so on.

Lasker remained in the quarantine block for several days before being taken to the music barracks.  After two years without having laid hands on an instrument, she was given a cello, and several minutes to practise.  Summoning up her courage, she tried to play the slow movement of the Boccherini cello concerto, and Schubert's March Militaire.  Since the women’s orchestra had no bass instruments, a cello player was a crucial addition.  Rosé, the conductor, was delighted to have found her.

Having secured a position for herself as a musician in the Birkenau women’s orchestra, Lasker was transferred into the block where all the members of the orchestra, Jews as well as non-Jews, lived together.  As an orchestra member, her status at camp was one of relative ‘privilege’: she had her own bed, extra rations and showering rights.  Probably her greatest privilege was the status that ultimately allowed her to save her sister’s life.  Discovering by chance that her sister was at the camp as well, Lasker requested that she be given the desirable and relatively easy job of camp runner.  Anita’s important position in the orchestra won her the SS woman’s agreement and the sisters were reunited, to remain together until liberation.

Despite these relative ‘advantages’, of course, hers was a physically and psychologically harrowing experience.  The day started one hour before dawn, when several musicians would be chosen to carry the music stands to the gate of the camp.  After that was done, and roll call was completed, their main task commenced: playing at the gate during the departure and arrival of the workers.  The orchestra also gave Sunday concerts for prisoners and staff and was frequently summoned to play privately for the SS.  This work continued until the end of October 1944, when the camp was evacuated.  Together with other Jewish members of the orchestra, Anita and her sister were transported to Bergen-Belsen.

Although they no longer had their instruments, the orchestra players remained together as a group in Bergen-Belsen.  Upon their arrival, they were assigned a tent to sleep in, as there was no barracks available for them.  Conditions progressively worsened, and the SS began suddenly to disappear from the camp, abandoning the prisoners with no food, water or hygiene facilities.  On 15 April 1945, the camp was liberated by British troops.

After their liberation, Renate and Anita Lasker became interpreters for the British Army, living near the former camp in a wooden cottage.  Via the BBC, they managed to get in touch with their sister in England; they then managed to get to Brussels, and from there to England.  Anita Lasker was later to become a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra, where she played for many years.  During the trial against Franz Hössler, commander from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she served as a witness.  In 1952, she married the musician Peter Wallfisch, whom she knew from her childhood in Breslau. Their son Raphael is a fine cellist, and their two grandsons are musicians as well.  In 1996 she published her memoir Inherit the Truth 1939-1945.

Sources

Fénelon, F., 1979. The Musicians of Auschwitz, London: Sphere.

Lasker-Wallfisch, A., 1996. Inherit the Truth 1939-1945, London: Giles de la Mare.  

Newman, R. & Kirtley, K., 2000. Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz, London: Amadeus Press.