The Musicians of Auschwitz is Fania Fenelon’s autobiographical account of her life and experience in the Birkenau concentration camp, which was the female “camp” in Auschwitz, and later of her time in the Bergen Belsen camp. This book was written thirty years after she gained her freedom, on the 15th April, 1945. The account is quite extraordinary, as it is really a dual autobiography – that of “die kleine Sängerin” Fania, and also the “autobiography”, if you will, of the life and existence of the orchestra of camp inmates she played and sang in.
This book also gives a terrifying insider’s view of the humanity and inhumanity, and of life and death, inside these concentration camps. The book is extremely well written in its own right, and Fania was assisted in the writing of it by Marcelle Routier. Hers is a nightmare tale of deprivation, starvation, cruelty and insanity but also of hope.
Fania was clearly an extremely talented musician, if not a musical genius, and it was this talent which saved her life, as well as the lives of the other orchestra’s members. Upon arrival in Birkenau, Fania was plucked from the dormitory blocks which would have meant manual labour, the infamous Auschwitz selections and probable death, to find herself the leading light in a macabre orchestra run by Alma, a German Jewish inmate. The orchestra was composed of other female inmates, most of whom had exceptional musical talent. The orchestra was under the auspices of Maria Mandel, otherwise known as “The Beast”. This tall, blond-haired young Beast was a camp boss, who oversaw the deaths of over 500,000 women and children in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Paradox is a strong theme throughout this book, and in one of the greater paradoxes, Mendel had a real fondness for her orchestra, and especially for Fania. The orchestra, although living in inhabitable barracks and having a modicum of food provided daily, often played or practiced between 15-17 hours per day, and were subject at all times to the viscous whim of the SS.
The orchestra were tasked with playing daily for fellow inmates who were on death-marches, during selections (where the SS picked people for instant gassing), and during the arrivals of new deportees en route to the gas chambers. They also served another purpose, which again raises a paradox – that of musically soothing the SS, usually after they had just returned from murdering countless people. In many vivid and incredible descriptions, Fania describes SS seemingly paradoxically moved to tears at the orchestra’s music, which was music they appreciated and loved, yet played by the very people they were exterminating. The paradox is understood though, with the aid of one of Fania’s typical astute insights. She comes to realize that they are after all human, the murderous SS, and that they cannot totally separate themselves from what they are doing. Therefore the murder and torture they are committing takes its toll, and they need soothing or “unwinding” – some drank, some raped, as Fania details, and some came for solace to the musicians.
Throughout this book, we meet many of the chilling notorious figures from the history of the Nazi death camps: Dr. Mengele (the Dr really should be in quotes), Maria Mandel, Graf Bobby and Himmler. Fania deals superbly with mentioning and discussing these people, as she never explicitly describes who they were, or what atrocities they were guilty of during the narration – she leaves their acts, which we discover in the natural course of the book, as she experiences them during her camp-time, to speak for themselves. Graf Bobby’s perverse selections as described were particularly hard to fathom and stomach, and you really get a sense for how truly monstrous these people were, when reading about their actions in the day-to-day setting that Fania places them.
As mentioned, Fania sticks rigidly to her method of only describing what she witnesses, or hears of first-hand – this is particularly noticeable with her depiction of Maria Mandel, “The Beast”. She never mentions during the book that Mandel was responsible for over 500,000 deaths, so you would be forgiven for wondering if in fact Fania is “letting her off lightly” by not doing so. The answer is a resounding “no”. Through subtle characterization traits, and mood effects, she builds an ominous yet ambiguous picture of this Beast. Mandel was capable of keeping the orchestra safe under her patronage (in fact it was her leaving the camp that resulted in the orchestra being split and moved to Bergen-Belsen), yet at the same time contrived to commit murder on an almost unimaginable scale. Fania devastatingly picks one poignant instance of her murderous behavior to illustrate Mandel’s true nature to us. This was Mandel’s saving of a toddler from the gas chambers one day, and her subsequent “adoption” of the boy for a week afterwards, where they were inseparable, with Mandel doting on him and feeding him treats, really acting as a mother to the child (his actual mother had just been gassed to death). This motherly behavior continued right up until the day Mandel walked hand-in-hand with the two-year old to the gas chambers, and had him killed. I think you will agree that particular episode captures the hideous paradox that Maria Mandel was. In an eerie coincidence, this exact “theme” was also mentioned in Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka. In Chil’s memoir of the Treblinka death camp, he describes an infamous commandant as similarly sparing a child, treating and doting on him for a week or so, before killing the child. It tells us something about human nature perhaps, I’m just not sure what. I also wonder whether either of these two incidents were the inspiration for Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, where the barbaric Judge behaves in exactly the same manner with an Apache child?
On the other side of the equation, certain characters cut a magnificent stride through this book, and none more so than Mala Zimellbaum. Mala positively shines through the pages, and was a testimony to the paragon of heroism. The keeper of the ledger of death, the Nazis gave her the job of recording the names of all murdered by them. A Jewish inmate, Mala intimidated the SS even at the highest level, and used her position in the camp to constantly aid her fellow inmates. She was a person who raged against the Nazis and SS, and escaped for a second time along with her equally courageous boyfriend Edek Kalinski, but was tragically recaptured. Both resisted the horrific interrogation, yet even facing certain death Mala urged the prisoners to overcome the “cowardly” SS, before slashing her wrists so as not to grant the SS the satisfaction of executing her. Ironically, they did all they could to save her from dying of blood-loss, before killing her themselves – another tragic echo of Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka. Fania does not give praise lightly in this book, and they genuinely must have been an amazing pair, Mala and Edek, for Fania to remember them as she did.
Whilst reading this book, it was comforting for me to know that she survived this ordeal – it is hard to see some times how, and also how she and other survivors did not despair. Her hope never died, and her will to survive and record the events she witnessed seemed always paramount in her mind, and a spur to keep on living. As may be evident from this review, Fania’s amazing and insightful character studies of many of the people close to her during this period, is the real strength of this work. Interestingly though, she never really shines this light of analysis specifically on herself, but prefers rather to let the book paint us a consistent picture of a woman with an unquenchable thirst for freedom and justice, and above all of a person in possession of a dazzling beacon of hope, even in the very darkest of places.