Few members of Nazi camp orchestras have been embroiled in as much controversy as Fania Fénelon, singer in the women’s orchestra at Birkenau. It was not her wartime actions that were central to the debates surrounding the French Jewish musician, but rather her 1977 memoirs, later made into a television movie starring Vanessa Redgrave. Fénelon’s memoirs outraged many former members of the women’s orchestra, particularly her portrayal of the conductor, Alma Rosé. Many also felt that Fénelon was unduly harsh towards the other musicians, and that she had offered a distorted account of their role in the camp and the dynamics between them. After her book, several other memoirs were written, including by the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, as well as a new biography of Rosé. Today it is generally accepted that Fénelon’s text is in parts fictional; several of the historical dates and facts are inaccurate, and dissenting voices have placed into doubt many of her assertions. Despite these disagreements, however, Fénelon’s memoirs remain one of the most powerful documents to emerge from the many musicians of the Nazi camps.
Fania Fénelon was born 2 September 1922 (the year is not conclusive) in Paris as Fanny Goldstein, the daughter of a Jewish engineer and a French Catholic mother. She studied at the Paris conservatory, specialising in piano and singing. In the 1930s she began to perform her own chansons under her stage name Fania. After the occupation of France by the Germans, she supported herself by singing in nightclubs for the German soldiers. After the war, she was to recall this career with mixed feelings: a sense of guilt for having entertained the enemy, along with the recognition that this work allowed her to participate in the resistance, collecting information from drunken officers. By 1940, her father had died and her two brothers were no longer with her, one having emigrated to the United States, and the other having gone underground as a resistance fighter. In 1943, she was arrested for being half-Jewish and for aiding friends in the resistance. After an initial nine-month stay in Drancy, on 20 January 1944 she was sent in a cattle-car to Birkenau.
Soon after her arrival, she was in her barracks when a Kapo entered and began shouting for any singers or musicians. Although in a weakened state, she volunteered. She was taken away to a warm room, where she auditioned for Alma Rosé with an excerpt from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Fénelon was moved to the musicians’ barracks, where Jewish and non-Jewish members of the orchestra lived together. According to Fénelon, there was a great deal of tension between the Jewish musicians and the anti-Semitic non-Jewish Poles. Here she was to live throughout her time in Birkenau, one of the two main singers, an occasional arranger of musical pieces, and even a temporary drummer, when the original drummer briefly took ill.
Like other members of the Birkenau women’s orchestra, Fénelon enjoyed a number of 'privileges' that set her apart from the ordinary prisoners. The musicians’ barracks had its own toilet, heater and practising rooms. Rosé had also managed to procure extra rations, freedom from work detail and better clothing. Such advantages, however, had a negative side as well. The musicians’ ‘privileges’ set them apart from the other prisoners, who were jealous and suspicious of them. Perceived as being the ‘lapdogs’ of the SS, the musicians had, above all, to suffer the anguish of using their art to aid and comfort their torturers.
Fénelon repeatedly expressed her confusion about the SS officers, especially camp leaders Kramer and Maria Mandel, both of whom loved music and yet were vicious killers. For example, Kramer
cried when we played the 'Traumerei' by Schubert. Kramer gassed 24,000 people. When he was tired from his work, he came to us and listened to music.
In addition to their primary job of accompanying the prisoners as they marched to and from work, and their regular Sunday concerts for the SS, the orchestra also put on performances for the Nazi officers, who could request a concert at a moment’s notice. Fénelon was also forced to perform as a solo artist. Prisoners, too, heard them play. Alongside the hated march music every morning and evening, the camp commanders regularly ‘invited’ groups of women inmates to listen to Sunday concerts. Fénelon also remembered a particularly raucous brothel party held by the high status prisoners, the so-called ‘prominents’.
Certainly for all of the musicians,
never before had we played so much and so often. Up to three concerts we gave every Sunday. During the day, and at night as well, SS officers come to our blocks and demanded their allowance of music. Music, again and again and again. In Birkenau music was both the best and the worst. The best: it swallowed the time and allowed us to forget, like a drug; afterwards you were numbed and sucked dry. The worst: our public – on the one hand, the murderers, and on the other, the victims. And us, would we also become executioners in the hands of the murderers?
In late 1944, Fénelon and the other members of the orchestra were transported to Bergen-Belsen. The camp was in chaos, with no real housing, no organisation and no supplies. Kramer was also transferred there, and forced several of the musicians to play for him and his family at Christmas. Due to the conditions, a typhus epidemic swept the camp, and the weakened Fénelon fell victim. She was barely alive when finally liberated by the British in April 1945. She nonetheless sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and the Communist hymn ‘The International’, a performance that was broadcast on the BBC.
After the war Fénelon travelled widely as a performer, in the 1960s settling down in the German Democratic Republic, where she became a successful singer and voice teacher. She gained much publicity with her 1977 memoirs and the subsequent movie, both of which were the subjects of controversy. Fénelon died in December 1983 in Paris.
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