One Last Time

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 10:10am

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch had a lucky moment while being processed at the Sauna in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  One of the girls processing her asked her what she did prior to landing in that place of unspeakable horror. “I played the cello,” she answered. That surreal conversation, not far from the gas chambers at Birkenau, would save her life.  As a member of the Auschwitz women's orchestra, playing the cello meant respite from heavy labor.  

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will be present at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in London, where, as one of the last members of the Auschwitz orchestra still alive, she will remind the world of the irony that playing a cello in hell was all that would stand between her the ultimate intent of Birkenau in the Nazi's twisted world.

Music has continued in the Lasker-Wallfisch home. Not only did Anita continue her career in music, but many of her children and grandchildren have done likewise.  Simon, her grandson, will play at the London commemoration.  Benjamin, another grandson, is a Hollywood film composer and has written the music produced by Hans Zimmer to a brand new Steven Spielberg-produced short historical documentary of the camp titled, “Auschwitz,” which will premiere at the international commemoration at Auschwitz on Jan. 27.  

Benjamin Wallfisch and I share the experience of living as Britons in and around Hollywood.  We also both share an interest in those topics where the glitz of the entertainment industry meets the horrific reality of the world in which we live. Wallfisch, who composed additional music for "Twelve Years a Slave" and arranged and conducted the scores for "Anna Karenina" and "Atonement" is clear that nothing comes close to the honor of writing music about the place his grandmother overcame.  As such, he is musical director of a program for over a hundred Auschwitz survivors attending the commemoration in Poland form across the globe.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch told me over 10 years ago that she would never play her cello again, and in fact no longer owns one.  But this week, in memory of those who did not make it, and in gratitude that her grandson uses his musical skills to keep the memory alive, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch borrowed her grandson's cello to record the solo for “Auschwitz.”  While she speaks in London as an ambassador for peace and tolerance, the sound of her cello will be heard at Birkenau, one last time.

Stephen Smith
Stephen D. Smith served for twelve years as executive director of USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.