My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Monday 9th August 1999


My name is Anita Lasker-Walfisch. I was born in Germany. And in 1942, when I was 17, I was sent to Auschwitz, which is a concentration camp in Poland.I am Jewish. And the theme of the Nazis was to eliminate the Jewish race.

I remember I arrived at night. It was very cold - it was December. Within a very short time, you were reduced to an absolute nobody - starting with having your hair shaved, with a number tattooed on your arm, and your clothes being taken away. So there you are: stark naked, without hair, a number on your arm. You've lost all sense of identity - or dignity, for that matter. The girl who was processing me asked me: "Where do you come from, and what is the news outside? What did you do before the War?" And I casually said that I played the cello. I really thought it was rather a stupid thing to say at the time. And she seemed extremely excited about that, and said: "Oh, that is wonderful!" and told me to wait in a corner. So I stood there waiting - I didn't know what I was waiting for, really - and she went to fetch the conductor of the orchestra, who was Alma Boset, the niece of Gustaz Mahler. And, instead of being led to the gas chamber, I had a conversation about cello playing and music. It was totally bewildering. Alma was a very disciplined person. And she kept enormous discipline in the orchestra, which at the time we thought was absolutely crazy - but, which, in retrospect, was almost life-saving for us. Because we were so busy being frightened of her and whether we played the right notes that we temporarily put ourselves in another world. We didn't look out, if you understand what I mean. If you looked out of the window, you saw the chimneys and the smoke of burning people. And we, in an almost crazy way, concentrated on playing music, the right notes.

We had a job to do there. The job was to play marches, in the morning and in the evening, for the commandos that marched out into the factories. But the day, of course, came when we suddenly weren't needed any more. Because the Russians advanced and Auschwitz was being sort of cleaned up. The Jewish personnel in the orchestra were asked to come out of the block. That's when we thought that we would be sent to the gas chamber. But in fact they sent us to Belsen. We travelled in this cattle-truck. We were terribly cold. And there immediately started an atmosphere of helping each other. We tried to keep each other warm. We started singing. Washing in Belsen was a big problem. Because the washing possibilities were outside. You can imagine what it was like in the winter. You were already hungry. You were half-dead. But we knew that, the moment you didn't wash every day, it was the beginning of the end. So we used to wash each other and bully each other: "Come on".

We saw so many dead people that we didn't even notice them, especially in Belsen. Heaps and heaps of corpses stacked up. There was no way of burying them, getting rid of them. People died so fast and in such enormous quantities, we didn't even notice it. I think a way of survival is also just to let the shutters down and not see things. I mean, lots of people went mad, you know. How can you possibly survive this? You must be terribly tough or insensitive to actually survive. I think it's given me, certainly, a basic modesty of what I actually expect from life. I don't have to have everything, if you see what I mean. I have my life. And I actually have a family. I've got grandchildren now. I mean, for God's sake, who would have thought that fifty years ago?