The cello has accompanied Anita Lasker-Wallfisch through hell and back. At age 17, she played marches in Auschwitz while prisoners burned next door. Less than a decade later, she became a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra.
“It was always music that helped me survive [until] the next day,” Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch, the last known living member of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, said in a telephone interview from her home in London last month.
If it were not for her skills as a cellist, she might not have been spared in World War II. Becoming a member of the band shortly after her arrival at the concentration camp in 1942 entitled her to privileges such as extra food and ensured her eventual escape.
On Saturday, Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch, 95, is to speak about the role of music in her life at the Salzburg Festival’s lecture series “Reden über das Jahrhundert” or “Talking About the Century,” at the festival’s famous Felsenreitschule theater. (Because of her age and current risks associated with travel, she will appear by video recording.) Her speech will be framed with cello works by Paul Celan and Bach, performed live by the soloist Julia Hagen.
The sold-out event, part of a modified program to accommodate coronavirus restrictions, sets out to reflect on 100 years of both festival history and European history through four speakers, of which she is the third.
Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch had been slated to give the inaugural speech for what was planned as a sprawling centenary edition with 200 — as opposed to the current 110 — events. The festival’s artistic director, Markus Hinterhäuser, said he was not willing to forgo her lecture under any circumstances, saying it was the festival’s duty to counteract anti-Semitism and denial or relativization of the Holocaust.
“It is one of the most horrible crimes in human history,” he said. “And if there is someone who survived this hell — and only survived it because she played cello — then it is a very important moment when she speaks to us.”
Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch’s speech has particular relevance at the Salzburg Festival given that both its founders, the dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the director Max Reinhardt, had Jewish roots. Mr. Reinhardt emigrated to the United States upon the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938.
That same year, Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch witnessed Kristallnacht in Berlin, where she had been sent to pursue her cello studies at age 13. Her family — liberal, educated and assimilated in Breslau, a city in modern-day Poland — was soon torn asunder as persecution of Jews escalated: While she and her two sisters would miraculously survive, her parents were deported in 1942.
“We lived from one day to the next,” she said of her time in Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen, a camp liberated by the British in 1945. “Today I’m alive; tomorrow I might be dead. That’s how it was.”
It was not until 1996 that she told her story, in the memoir “Inherit the Truth.” She described how, after having her head shaven and her arm tattooed, being recruited for the orchestra allowed her to maintain a shred of human dignity.
“Hope is perhaps not the right word here,” she wrote. “One knew mentally that there was no way out of his hell — except through the chimney. And nonetheless one continued to fight ….”
The orchestra’s leader was the violinist Alma Rosé, whom Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch describes as “relentlessly strict” but also the “incarnation of this will to live.” The daughter of Arnold Rosé — a concert master with the Vienna Philharmonic who escaped to London — and the niece of the composer Gustav Mahler, she died of poisoning at Auschwitz, although the exact circumstances remain unclear.
“She had to produce something out of nothing,” Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch said of Alma Rosé’s work with the women’s orchestra. “I don’t know how she managed it.”
After she was freed, Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch faced her own uphill battle as she set out to forge a career as a professional musician in London, where she said she was “eight years behind everybody else.” She studied with William Pleeth, another émigré who also taught the star cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and eventually entered a circle of young musicians who would become the English Chamber Orchestra.
Her son, the cellist Raphael Wallfisch, credits her resilience to “a very strong constitution” but also the ability to look forward and not back. “There was no such thing as post-traumatic stress therapy,” he said. “She just wanted to get on with her life.”
Since the 1980s, however, Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch has returned to Germany to lecture at schools and universities. Last September, she received the German National Prize for her efforts to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination. In 2018, in a speech to the German Parliament, she called anti-Semitism a “2,000-year-old virus” which is “apparently impossible to heal.”
Mr. Wallfisch, who in recent years has dedicated a recording series to forgotten Jewish composers, said it was critical to consider “the fact that there are so few witnesses left. People forget quickly that history is often repeated. In this situation, it certainly cannot be.”
While centuries of European Jewish tradition were nearly obliterated in World War II, music has created an unbroken line in the Wallfisch family. Raphael’s father (the pianist Peter Wallfisch, who died in 1993), his wife and their three children are all musicians. “It keeps the candle alight to what my mother’s family stood for,” he said.