Friday 19 February 2016

Music and sunlight at Auschwitz

Memorial stones at Birkenau, a few steps from Crematorium III
I’m not sure what I expected from the weather at Auschwitz, but it isn’t this. Cloudless blue sky reaches across the huge space of Birkenau, falling behind the curtain of lofty birch trees at the camp’s western end that give the site its name. It’s beautiful and horrible all at once.

When I visited in 2015, frosty winds scoured the camp, which only seemed to add to the end-of-the-world feeling of the place. Some things, though, have a familiar effect this time round. The half-century old permanent exhibit at Auschwitz I (the smaller camp whose sign reads "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Work Makes You Free") still seems to me to focus too heavily on process and numbers at a time when personal stories are favoured by educators everywhere, but there are signs of change. Block 27, which I didn’t see last time, features a much newer exhibit with moving (in all senses) projections of pre-war Jewish life. Upstairs is a chilling procession of camp-children’s drawings which begin in happy times – all smiling families and rural scenes – and end with images thoroughly infected with the everyday horror of Auschwitz life. One drawing that remains imprinted on my mind features a row of hanging corpses, like some macabre mobile, with a guard kicking the stool from beneath the feet of the final victim.

I have a chance this time to visit the bookshop, which reveals the admirable continuing efforts of the State Museum to shine the light of scholarship onto areas still offering fresh perspectives. For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to a recent publication by Helena Dunicz Niwińska called One of the Girls in the Band: The Memoirs of a Violinist from Birkenau. Helena only published these memoirs in 2014, at age 99, and given that she saw the camp through adult eyes (she was 28 when sent to Brikenau in 1943), her account of Auschwitz’s strictures and realities is a particularly direct and prosaic. There’s also the sense of a story being set straight: Helena refers to a few previous published accounts of musical life at Birkenau that fell short of real veracity.

Helena’s account also reveals an undimmed admiration for Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler and director of the women’s orchestra (one of a number of ensembles at Birkenau). Rosé did not survive Auschwitz, succumbing to a sudden illness in April 1944, but Helena paints a portrait of a hugely accomplished musician for whom the highest musical standards in the most degrading conditions were a matter of dignity and survival. Rosé worked tirelessly on arrangements of music for the orchestra’s motley assortment of instruments (including lots of violins, mandolins and guitars, but few bass instruments), though much of that work is lost to time, living only in the memories of the few remaining witnesses to this ray of light in a hell on Earth.

I’m an inveterate botherer of tour guides, and as we wend our way through Birkenau, our expert guide Renata tells me about her friend Helena’s book. I admit to having bought it earlier in the day, given my interest in all things violin. “Well”, she says, “I have something for you”. At the end of the tour, Renata retrieves from her car one of a few remaining discs made recently featuring a reconstruction of music arranged by Alma and pieced together again from Helena’s memory. It’s Chopin’s Etude Op10/3. As a Pole, Chopin’s music was forbidden, but this piece was played only in rehearsal for the enjoyment of the musicians. Rosé’s instrumental ingenuity is here, in the careful use of violins and mandolins and the voice soaring above the bass-light texture. It must have seemed like a warm bath of memory and humanity to those who heard it, a momentary relief from fetid reality. And on this crisp sunny February afternoon, it’s another fleeting connection to the individuals who came to this place and, in most cases, did not leave.

Helena's book can be ordered from the Auschwitz bookstore. Their books are very reasonably priced and this volume is a sturdy hardback.

Update: A few days after I found that Helena is still with us, at age 101, the world learned that Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of Treblinka Death Camp, had died, aged 92. Witnesses to this history diminish in number every day.  

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