We have just remembered the brave men and women of WWII and witnessed the great flyover in Normandy. It seems only fitting that we should also remember those who spent much of the war in concentration camps as well as the brave people who tried to save the Jews and the Jewish children.
We will start with the fact that some of the Jews survived because they were accomplished musicians…and the Nazis liked music. They liked being entertained. Perhaps for some of the German soldiers, who were caught up in this terrible time of German history, it was the only thing that helped them keep their sanity…especially when they knew what was going on in the death camps.
Music and musicians had a distinct place in the death camp of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Not as much is written about the musicians who often had to play as people were executed.
The following is an account of some of the musicians in the concentration camps where millions of people were killed and more than ninety percent of whom were Jewish. When I took students through Auschwitz, we saw crosses scratched into the walls of the torture areas. Christians and those who opposed politically were also part of the camps. Catholic nuns and other non-Jewish families hid the Jewish children as long as they could, giving them different identities and birthdates.
“In addition to the orchestra, there was a variety of other SS-sponsored music at Auschwitz. Some SS officers employed individual ‘musical slaves’, who were required to play or sing whenever commanded to. One such prisoner was the Italian tenor Emilio Jani, whose memoirs are titled ‘My Voice Saved Me’. Another was Coco Schumann, who recalled years later that
“the music could save you: if not your life, then at least the day. The images that I saw every day were impossible to live with, and yet we held on. We played music to them, for our basic survival. We made music in hell.”
(Taken from Music and the Holocaust)
Let me introduce you to a woman named Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who played the piano to survive.
Anna’s story: “The day after Christmas, the Jews were ordered to prepare for transportation.”
Dawson says her father knew they were all going to die when he saw the trucks go north. There was nothing to the north. It was a road to Dobritsky Yar, a road to the unthinkable. Dobritsky Yar had two giant pits like the ones at Babi Yar near the city of Kiev, where the Nazis killed 34,000 Jews in two days, most machine-gunned in the back.
Dimitri Arshansky, Anna’s father, pulled out his gold pocket watch and flashed it in front of a young Ukrainian guard. He told the guard his family wasn’t Jewish; to please let his little girl go. Dawson says her father realized that he could not save both his girls — two of them running would be too much commotion. He knew Zhanna, or Anna, the adventurous, free-spirited one named after Joan of Arc, had a chance to survive. As the guard took the bribe and looked away, she fell out of line and ran like the wind.
“I don’t care what you do,” her father told her. “Just live.”
A few days later Dawson found her sister. With the help of friends, the two girls made it to an orphanage and were able to obtain fake, non-Jewish identities. For the rest of the war, they were no longer their father’s daughters. She had to repeat the following as her new identity: “My name is Anna Morozova. I am from Kharkov. My sister Marina and I are orphans. Our father was an officer on the Red Army and was killed in action. Our mother died in the bombing of Kharkov.” Dawson said it so many times during the rest of the war that it echoed endlessly in her head.”
A piano tuner at the orphanage heard her play one day and offered her and Frina jobs with a musical troupe that entertained the Germans. It was a frightening prospect, but Anna kept thinking of her father’s last words — just live…JUST LIVE!
They played for Nazi generals and in front of German audiences in the city of Kremenchug: Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Brahms, Chopin.
Years later people asked her how she could have done what she did. Was it not like the musicians who played as Jews walked into gas chambers in the concentration camps?
And her music, she says, was the only spot of beauty in that bleak atmosphere. Music provided a psychological cocoon. Without it, her spirits might have broken… “We were a precious commodity for the Germans,” she said. “We were more valuable alive than dead.”
When the Germans began retreating, they took the musical troupe with them, back to Berlin. There, the Jewish Arshanskaya girls walked past Gestapo headquarters and even Adolf Hitler’s bunker after the Allied bombing began…When the war finally ended in 1945, they were taken to a displaced persons camp…” ( Mona Basu CNN )
Turn up the sound. Video made by her son after Zhanna made it to America. You will hear her playing the piano in the background.