Erna Falk Weiss

A Record Remastered and a Voice Brought Back to Life

“It’s very special, especially if you think about what the Nazis tried to do. They tried to diminish the voice – not just the people, but the voice of the people.” – Atara Zachor Dayan, Granddaughter of Erna Weiss-Falk

The tragedy of the Holocaust is often epitomised by the loss of young lives, whose creative contributions, talents and future successes were cut short by the murderous agenda of the Nazis and their collaborators. One such story is that of Erna Weiss-Falk, a talented, Jewish opera singer, who had a promising career ahead of her. Weiss-Falk and her family had lived in Cologne, Germany. In 1933, the family fled to the Netherlands. Following the outbreak of the war and Nazi occupation, they were deported to Westerbork, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Unfortunately, Weiss-Falk contracted typhus following her evacuation from the camp and subsequent journey on the infamous “Lost train”. She died a few days after her liberation in the German town of Tröbitz.

Her surviving family members kept a number of her invaluable personal items, including photographs, a performance diary, and a single record of music in poor condition. The record, then in the possession of her sister-in-law Yona Weiss, was provided to the Yad Vashem Holocaust World Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem as part of their “Gathering the Fragments” initiative in 2015. The record was restored, and excerpts of Weiss-Falk performing music was revealed for the first time since before the war. Her voice was, indeed, brought back to life. Hannah Wilson, Content Director for the Music and the Holocaust project, spoke with Weiss-Falk’s granddaughter Atara Zachor Dayan about this remarkable finding, and the experience of her family being able to hear her grandmother’s voice for the first time. This interview is available to watch below, following details of the life and legacy of Erna Weiss-Falk, and accompanied by a range of photographs and documents from her private collection.

Pre-war Life and Career

Erna Weiss-Falk (née Falk) was born to a secular Jewish family on 2 July 1893 in Krefeld, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. She had two older sisters, Selma and Betty, who eventually left for the United States during the war. For the first four decades of her life, she lived in Krefeld, close to Cologne, with her immediate family. Having trained professionally, she performed music from a very young age and received private piano lessons.

Family photograph of Erna (left) and her sisters, 1895. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

Formal portrait of Erna playing the piano as a teenager. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

She was already a well-established soprano opera singer when she met her future husband, Josef Weiss. Weiss, a staunch Zionist who was affectionately given the nickname “Jupp”, was a successful Jewish retail merchant born in Flamersheim, a village in North Rhine-Westphalia. Weiss worked as a top executive in a family owned department store, serving in the military for several years during the First World War. He and Weiss-Falk, who were the same age, married in 1922. In 1924 and then in 1928, the couple saw the birth of their two sons Wolfgang (Shalom) and Klaus-Albert (Aharon Zachor). The family lived comfortably in Cologne-Braunsfeld, and Weiss-Falk’s sister Selma went on to marry Josef Weiss’s brother, Jackob.

Weiss-Falk’s handwritten performance diary, which remarkably survived the war, recorded her extensive participation in musical events across the city, which she began writing in 1917. Many of these took place at the Cologne Opera house under the management of Otto Klemperer, one of the most renowned directors of the 20th Century. Weiss-Falk was also a regular guest on the Westgerman Radio program, amongst others. One of her radio performances included the role of Ernestine in the opera Herr Gewinnler gibt Gesekkschaft, written by Jaques Offenbach. She also collected photographs of her performances, which captured her beauty, elaborate costumes, and exuberant character. With a liberal and artistic attitude, the singer did not shy away from performing male roles, and embraced parts in well-known operas such as Madame Butterfly and Mignon, the French opera comique in three acts by Ambroise Thomas.

She also appeared in both local and international review publications and popular musical magazines, many of which were also preserved, including Allgemeine Muzikzeitung. A glowing review of her standout performance as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figario, published in the March 1 1930 issue of Musical Courier reported: “A charming, diminutive Susanna with a beautiful voice was Erna Weiss-Falk. Her singing of ‘Endlich naht sich die Stunde’ in the last act reminded one strongly of Claire Dux. Vocal tactic united with decided histrionic were very apparent. The other two guests were not so fortunate in their accomplishments.”

She was an important member of the Verband Kölner Frauenvereine (Association of Cologne Women's Associations), and was hired by the Cologne Women's Club and in 1931, was invited to sing "cheerful songs" for their members. Following the birth of her first son, Weiss-Falk’s schedule slowed down somewhat as she adjusted to motherhood, yet her popularity and passion for performance continued into the early 1930s. Even still, the Weiss-Falk family would shortly begin to feel the detrimental effects of rising Nationalism in Germany. Even before the rise of Nazism, Weiss had dreamed of taking his family to live in Palestine, yet his wife feared her career would be over if they did. By the time they realised that this might be their only chance for safety, it was simply too late.

Rising Antisemitism and Life in the Netherlands

Despite their affluent status and Weiss-Falk’s admirable musical career, Josef Weiss was first arrested by the Nazis in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor of Germany. Having started to smuggle money out of the country to various parties in the Netherlands, Weiss was charged with suspicion of activities “against the government”. Lack of evidence saw his release, but in the wake of this event, Weiss-Falk had taken their children to the Netherlands to escape further persecution; Weiss followed after. As logged in her diary, Weiss-Falk’s last recorded musical performance in Cologne 28th May 1933: a poignant and historical reminder of how life was tragically interrupted for German Jews during this time.

Until 1940, Weiss-Falk family lived on Dahlialaan 44 in Aerdenhout in the Netherlands. Weiss started a new business manufacturing women’s leather goods with his cousin, whilst she focused on raising their children in a new country. Weiss continued his Zionist activism, helping to smuggle refugees across the border, with his wife as his close aid. The pair quickly became members of the Dutch Zionist Union. During this time, Weiss-Falk stopped performing and recording publicly, having to focus more about the fate of her family and the outbreak of war. After the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands on 10th May 1940, the family were forcibly relocated to the district of Hilversum, and Weiss once again lost his business. In January 1942, Weiss-Falk, her husband, and their fourteen year old son Klaus-Albert were ordered to pack a small amount of belongings, and report to transports headed for the nearby concentration and transit camp, Westerbork. Wolfgang, the eldest son, was able to go into hiding. As German nationals, the Weiss-Falk family were brought to the camp prior to the mass round up of Dutch Jews that would follow.

Erna Weiss-Falk with her sons in Cologne, Germany, 1929. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.


Despite the difficult circumstances they found themselves in, Weiss and Weiss-Falk continued their activism and aid in the camp. The pair were given the responsibility of taking care of youths, including around 100 boys, many of whom were from Germany and had been brought to the camp without their parents, having also fled to the Netherlands prior to the occupation. As well as helping to continue their education, they accompanied them in their barracks in a small private room, and tended to their various social and emotional needs. Their son, Klaus-Albert, bunked with the boys. Josef Weiss later wrote: “The boys loved Erna like a mother, and I myself had an excellent relationship with the young people”. As a thank you for their work, several of the youths in “Room 2, Barrack 6” made a gift for Weiss and Weiss-Falk for Passover 5702: a beautifully decorated, handmade wooden plate for Passover, which remained in the possession of the family after the war, until it was donated to the museum and memorial at Westerbork. Weiss worked as the head of an inside welfare organisation in the camp, and arranged for clothing and other necessary items for prisoners interned in the camp. Unlike those who were given a notice of deportation, Dutch Jews were often rounded up in their pyjamas in the middle of the night, and were brought to Westerbork empty handed. The welfare organisation also arranged for warm clothing, blankets and necessities for Jews who were selected for transports heading to the East, without the knowledge that many would not have a chance to use them.

As a part of the wider opportunity for cultural activity in Westerbork, prior to their deportations Eastward, Weiss-Falk was even able to perform recitals in the camp alongside the cabaret ensemble. According to the published recollections of eyewitness Shlomo Samsson, such productions occurred once or twice a week and had no entrance fee. Willy Rosen composed many of the hits and played the piano, some of which started to be sung across the camp. High ranking SS officers often attended, including the camp commandant. Falk-Weiss was even photographed during one of her performances. Samsson notes that the performances were prepared with “much diligence and effort”, with a considerable cost for costumes and props. As such, they were of a very high standard, and often include comedic performances by Max Ehrlich and Erich Zeigler. German researcher Hans-Dieter Arntz, who has written extensively on the life of Josef Weiss, states that the performance captured in the photograph took place in 1942, and was held in the camp’s “concert hall”, together with several other musicians. Next to Weiss-Falk, on the hall’s simple wooden stage, is Mark Velt, who accompanied her on the piano and cellist Judah Swaab.

Weiss-Falk’s husband recalled a concert evening during which she was accompanied by the Westerbork camp symphony orchestra (“Symphonieorchesters – Lager Westerbork”) as conducted by Heinz Neuberg. Arntz has noted that this was most likely Weiss-Falk’s last performance, and the couple were acutely aware of this fact. The program for this concert was also preserved, and documented two soloists: Erna Weiss-Falk as soprano and Mendel Rokach as baritone. It noted that the performance would begin at 20:00, and listed inmate Eugen Frankenstein as being responsible for the hall’s design, layout, lighting and technical service. Rokach, who was the chief cantor of the Great Synagogue in Rotterdam, perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. The program, which features in Samsson’s book, also presents the songs of Franz Schubert that the soloists performed that night. The large symphonic orchestra of the camp also performed the overture to the opera Oberon by  Carl Maria v. Weber, and the Symphony in C minor (the "unfinished" Symphony) by Schubert. Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork survivor Shmuel HaCohen referred to this performance in his postwar memoirs, recalling how moving it had been:

“I remember the concert, they played beautifully (try to play Schubert when your life is hanging by a thread!) That evening a famous cantor, named Rokach, who had a mighty baritone voice, also appeared. He sang, accompanied by the orchestra, the famous aria from "Pagliacci" by Leoncavallo. He sang, as the Dutch expression says, "at the cost of his life." I also remember a lady singer, she was upstanding and she flourished, while she sang Schubert's song "Faith in Spring". "Die Welt wird schöner mit jedem Tag, Man weiss nicht, was noch werden mag, Das Blühen will nicht enden." ("The world is going to become more beautiful every day, Nobody knows what might still happen, The blossoming does not want to end. ") and then: "Nun muss sich alles, alles wenden." ("Now everything, everything has to change.")....When she uttered these words, the hall trembled."

Erna Weiss-Falk on the Westerbork concert hall’s simple wooden stage, with Mark Velt, who accompanied her on the piano and the cellist Judah Swaab, 1942. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

Indeed, one can only imagine how much comfort her voice must have brought in such a setting, and for an audience who had no clue about their fate. As her granddaughter Atara commented: “We got the photograph after the war. She loved to sing Schubert, and I know she sang Schubert that night. In her plain clothes”. In September 1944, the cabaret ensemble was suddenly disbanded, and all participants were send to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Bergen-Belsen, Liberation and Death

The family stayed in Westerbork for approximately two years. Weiss was recognised by the SS administration as being an “economically valuable Jew”, and was placed on a Zionist transport list to the so-called “Star residence camp” in Bergen-Belsen alongside his wife and child. The “Star camp” was a unique part of Belsen in which Jews with foreign nationalities, certificates to emigrate to Palestine or with economic and political connections were housed, and could be used for “bargaining” by the Nazi administration looking to exchange for money, supplies, or German POWs held in captivity by the allied forces.

In the “Star Camp”, Weiss became a “Jewish elder”: a highly regarded and well-known figure amongst the other prisoners, and was responsible for the internal administration of Belsen’s subcamp network. Separated at night, Weiss-Falk had daily contact with her husband and son, who were accommodated together. Having fallen ill for the first period of her time in the camp, after her recovery she was able to care for the children and sick in the camp infirmary. In letters that Josef Weiss wrote to family in the United States, England and Palestine, he recognised the support and resilience of his wife as he took on emotionally difficult duties to improve life for their fellow inmates. According to contemporaneous materials and studies on Weiss’ role as an Elder, he became a source of great strength for others and risked his life time again to help others. For instance, he would withhold death registrations of prisoners who had perished in order to redirect food rations to those who were sick, and would work secretly at night with a prisoner who was a plumber to open the water supplies. He often succeeded in persuading the camp commanders to change their decisions on collective punishments, and prevent further deportations to Mauthausen. As an organiser of Jewish affairs, Weiss was also able to save lives by falsifying lists and allegedly having contacts with the Vatican. He encouraged the celebration of Jewish life and religious holidays, as a form of spiritual resistance in the face of the hellish campscape of Belsen. In 1945, he also smuggled several lists of thousands of names of people who had died in Bergen-Belsen - including Margot and Anne Frank - passing the information onto the Red Cross. These lists would later prove invaluable in understanding who had arrived and died at the camp during the Holocaust and, although some were lost in the chaos of those final days, Weiss tried to recreate what he could from memory.

Shortly after the war, Weiss wrote about the very special Seder evening that was held in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. He and Weiss-Falk had been invited to the celebration in the children’s barracks, but first he was asked to give a speech to every other barracks in the “Star camp”. Hesitant to do so, given the bleak nature of those last months in the camp, Weiss-Falk told her husband: “But that is exactly why you have to speak,” in her “customary quiet and persuasive manner.” At this celebration, a lovingly handcrafted meal which consisted of dishes made almost entirely of turnip, including turnip “Seder wine”, was served. During their time in Belsen, Weiss-Falk and her husband lived almost exclusively on a diet of turnip and beets, and in relation to this particular meal Weiss declared: “only once did I appreciate the value of the turnip”. Hymns were also sung by the children, as Weiss remembered: “The second part of the Seder was as solemn as the first. The Passover hymns were chanted by the children. Never had I heard them sung more beautifully than by these young voices. [...] We left the children’s barracks deeply moved, and returned to the ‘real world’”.

Regardless of Weiss’ high status in the camp, the war ravaged on. In April 1945, as the impending defeat of the Nazis drew closer, Weiss-Falk, her husband, and son were put on the second of three trains that were intended to transport prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Theresienstadt, as Allied troops approached the camp. Their specific transport would later become known as the infamous “Lost Train” which, along with 2,400 other prisoners, travelled aimlessly through unoccupied parts of Germany, unable to fulfil the route as planned. Weiss contracted typhus during the journey and was cared for by his wife and sister, who continued to record the names of those who died on the way, and where they had been left. The train finally stopped near the Brandenburg municipality of Tröbitz, where those on board were liberated by the Red Army on 23rd April. The family found temporary housing until they could figure out their next move.

Regrettably, liberation came too late for Erna Weiss-Falk. Having endured two concentration camps and a gruelling, inhumane journey in an overcrowded transport with little food or water, she succumbed to typhus. Her freedom lasted for only a matter of days, during which she suffered with fever and hallucinations.On 6th May 1945, she passed away at the age of 51, and was buried in the cemetery of Tröbitz. Weiss, who was only starting to recover himself, was so weak from the journey that he could barely walk during the burial, but managed a few steps. In a letter addressed to his surviving family dated 25 July 1945, Weiss painfully recalled the event of his wife’s passing: “ is very sad, our dear wife and mother is no more. [...] Erna told me, “If Wolfgang is still alive and well, we will have been unbelievably lucky.” 2: 15 am, Erna died peacefully. She was as serene during her illness as she had been all her life. The funeral was at noon. I got out of bed for the first time, and managed to walk behind the bier for three steps. It was dreadful.” Once he had recovered, he returned to her grave and was photographed by author and fellow Bergen-Belsen survivor Werner Weinberg. on a found camera with some spare film. Her grave was also sketched by an artist known as “Sajo”, which was later donated to Yad Vashem. This drawing depicts the grave as being surrounded by beautiful flowers, when in reality, it was only the headstone and soil.

Josef Weiss at Erna’s grave. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

Eventually, Weiss and Klaus-Albert were able to emigrate to Palestine, having reunited with Wolfgang who survived in hiding in the Netherlands. Once he was able, Weiss arranged for his wife’s body to be brought to Jerusalem, and was finally laid to rest. Weiss remarried Belsen survivor Helena Kaufman Soep (then Weiss) who was widowed with two daughters. He died in 1976, and was later buried next to Weiss-Falk. Between Wolfgang, who later became known as Shalom Weiss, and Klaus-Albert, who became Aharon Zachor, five grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren were born over the following years.

Post-war Memory and Inheritance of Collection

Like many Jewish families who were forced to leave their homes, the Weiss-Falk family entrusted many of their belongings to friends and co-workers, once informed of their deportation. Weiss left most of their things with a coworker, bringing only small and necessary items to the camp. After the war, he returned to the Netherlands to retrieve these items, only to realise that almost all of them had been sold by the trustee, who was certain his Jewish colleague would not survive. Weiss was able to search the house and, thankfully, under a pile of coal found a collection of photographs, articles and documents: materials that were unworthy of selling, but that were all the more valuable to the family. This included numerous photographs of Erna Weiss-Falk performing, her performance diary, magazine clippings, and her personalised Ex-libris stamp in which she holds a white falcon - the symbol of her German surname. Weiss contacted the Cologne Opera house for archival materials on Falk, but the building was completely destroyed during the war.

Ex-Libris Stamp. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

A page from Erna's performance diary. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

Following Weiss’ passing, this precious collection was passed on to his sons. Atara, their granddaughter and daughter of Aharon (Klaus-Albert), recalls growing up surrounded by these items in the family home, and a longing to meet the exuberant and talented grandmother that she never knew. For her, Weiss-Falk had always been a strong presence and a figure of admiration: “Those pictures – I used to just look at them and just feel my grandmother, who I never knew, for me she was like a film star, she is so beautiful. How can you not connect or relate, even if you don’t know the person? She looks very artistic and I think I got some feminist ideas from her; she looked like a career woman in the 20s and 30s. But this made it even more of a shame not to know her”.

Remastering of Record and Voice of Erna Weiss-Falk

Perhaps the most special item in the recovered collection was a record, in such poor condition that it could not be played. The family did know, however, that it contained recordings of two songs performed by Erna Weiss-Falk, recorded in pre-war Germany. Yet, they could not hear it.

In 2011, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem launched their nation-wide campaign “Gathering the Fragments”, to encourage people who have Holocaust-era documents, artefacts and photos to deposit them with the museum for preservation and safekeeping.

Of particular interest was Weiss-Falk's vinyl record, which at the time was in the possession of her husband's stepdaughter, Yona (Joke) Weiss. Along with other family items, including many photographs of Weiss-Falk that had to be scanned, Yona made the record available to Yad Vashem in 2015, who had suggested that it could be repaired in its high-tech labs, which specialise in the conservation of all kinds of personal items, thereby significantly extending their lifespan.

A vinyl record of two songs performed by Erna Weiss-Falk, recorded in pre-war Germany. Courtesy of the family of Erna Weiss-Falk.

The restoration was a remarkable success. Yad Vashem then returned the record to Atara and, for the first time, Erna Weiss-Falk’s voice was heard by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She remembers:

“There was a small risk that something might happen to the record while they do it, and it took a few months. It was very symbolised that the record came to us, the restored one, in the night of Seder eve, Passover. So we met together, me and my cousins, my aunt. So, we gathered everyone and before reading the Haggadah, we sat down, and put on the record and listened and for the first time, we heard this clear recording of her. It was very moving, we cried. It is an interesting symbol because my grandfather wrote a small but moving story called ‘Seder night in Bergen Belsen 1945’, he wrote this story in her memory. So, there’s some kind of connection about Passover. It’s very special – especially if you think about what the Nazis tried to do – they tried to diminish the voice – not just the people, but the voice of the people.”

Atara has since shared the recording publicly for the rest of the world to hear, with over 50,000 listeners worldwide, noting: “I want her beloved crowd to hear her again, she deserves that. It was like a performance in modern times”. The recording is deeply emotive and captures the beauty and strength of Weiss-Falk’s operatic soprano; to hear her voice in such a way is as though time is standing still. One can now freely listen to the two excerpts from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro performed by opera, accompanied on piano by the musician and composer Wilhelm Rettich (1892-1988). In all, the remastered recording perfectly commemorates Weiss-Falk’s musical legacy, which has now been preserved for future generations. As Atara concludes: “The Nazis tried to erase the culture, to erase how Jews contributed to European and global culture, not even the Jewish culture for itself. Telling Erna’s story is bringing this back to life. This is the most important thing about projects like this, and hearing her voice again”.

Below, you can watch the interview with Erna Weiss-Falk’s granddaughter, Atara Zachor Daya conducted by Music and Holocaust Content Director, Hannah Wilson.

This article is dedicated to Erna Weiss-Falk, Josef Weiss and their family.

By Hannah Wilson


Weiss-Falk Family Archive

Shlomo Samsson, Between Darkness and Light: 60 Years after “Kristallnacht, Jerusalem: Rubin Mass Ltd, 1998. p. 157.

Hans-Dieter Arntz, Der letzte Judenälteste von Bergen-Belsen. Josef Weiss- würdig in einer unwürdigen Umgebung, Helios Verlag Aachen, Germany, 2012.

Shmuel HaCohen, Like Silent Stones, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem. page 197.

Frühlingsglaube, D 686 (Faith in spring) All translations provided by Malcolm Wren