In the early 1930s, at the height of her career, Camilla Spira was a star of the film world. She seemed to have been born to be a star: her father, Fritz Spira, was one of the greatest actors of German silent film, her mother Lotte Spira was also a successful actress, and her only sister was to become one of the stars of the East German film industry after the war. The last thing she or her husband were considering was her father’s Jewish origins. When the Nazis came to power, Spira did not want to leave Germany, convinced that Hitler would not last more than a few years at most. Although financially secure for the time being, she wanted to perform, and began working for the Kulturbund. Suddenly, there were only Jews in her audience. In 1938, she and her husband were scheduled a short business trip to the United States. They were, Spira remembered, the only people on the Dutch ship who wanted to return to Germany. Her time in the US did not impress her: she was unprepared for the segregation and anti-immigrant sentiment that she encountered. One might as well, she thought, go back home to Germany.
It was on the return voyage, however, that the family heard over the radio of the Kristallnacht pogrom. They were shocked by the news of burning synagogues, public humiliation of Jews, and mass round-ups and deportations. Although they had sent their luggage ahead to Berlin, they decided to stay in Holland. The safety they found there was only temporary, however, and they were eventually sent to the transit camp Westerbork in 1943. There again Spira performed for all-Jewish audiences, helping them to forget for a brief time the reality that surrounded them.
In Westerbork, Spira worked with the many great cabaret artists imprisoned in the camp, including Max Ehrlich and Willy Rosen. Already well known through her career in film and on stage, she was a great success, performing the songs from her hit movies and revues to great acclaim. The audiences
laughed and clapped – it was as if we were in Berlin, on Kurfurstendamm. We were suddenly somewhere totally different. You can't imagine it. The people there, they forgot everything in those two hours.
This 'career' in Westerbork was to be short lived. Non-Jewish friends managed to buy the family freedom in the same year that they arrived in the camp. (It was in the same year that both of her parents died, her father at the hands of the Nazis.) In addition to large bribes paid to the appropriate officials, Spira’s stage charm aided in their eventual release. The actress gave her farewell performance in Westerbork in October.
Spira and her husband were finally able to return to Germany; in 1947 she returned to Berlin, where she built up a successful movie career in both East and West Germany. Her career stretched into the 1990s, and included dozens of films and television appearances. She died in Berlin in 1997, at the age of 92.
Broder, H.M. & Geisel, E., 1992. Premiere und Pogrom: Der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933-1941, Berlin: Siedler.
Jelavich, P., 2001. Cabaret in concentration camps. In Theatre and war, 1933-1945: performance in extremis. Balfour, Michael (Ed). New York: Berghahn Books.
Rhode-Juechtern, A. & Kublitz-Kramer, M. eds., 2004. Echolos: Klangwelten verfolgter Musikerinnen in der NS-Zeit, Bielefeld: Aisthesis-Verlag.
Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.