One of the last living members of the women's orchestra at Auschwitz, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, is at 95 among the most prominent survivors raising her voice against hate.
But for four decades she kept her silence.
Even her two children were long kept in the dark about what their steely, stoic mother suffered at the Nazi death camp in today’s Poland and at Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated 75 years ago.
Born in 1925 into a Jewish family in what was then the German town of Breslau, today Wroclaw in Poland, Anita was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 while still a teenager. Her sister Renate was deported on a separate train.
Already an accomplished cellist, she was able to join the camp’s orchestra for women and girls — a fact she says likely saved her life.
The musicians were forced to play marches for slave labourers on their way to and from work each day, and for the SS guards.
But the scars left by those years were long her closely guarded secret.
“I didn’t want to overwhelm my children with my terrible past, I wanted to leave it behind,” she told AFP by telephone from London in an antiquated German, having spoken only English to her children.
‘Hung in the air’ –
That toxic silence in the intervening decades passed the trauma down to a second generation also scarred by their parents’ suffering and loss, her daughter said.
Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch is now a psychotherapist specialising in transgenerational trauma.
For years, there were no words for Anita to tell her daughter and son, the cellist Raphael Wallfisch, how their grandparents were murdered in April 1942, or how Aunt Renate returned from the camps “a skeleton with gaping wounds on her legs”.
Nor could she find a way to explain how she, reduced to the camp registration number 69388, played her instrument “a few metres from the crematorium, with an awful view of the selection ramp” for labour or the gas chambers.
The pain she carried with her “hung in the air”, Anita said, but she never spoke about it — not even with her husband, pianist Peter Wallfisch.
“We had other things to do, we had to begin our life again from zero,” she said.
Lasker-Wallfisch struggled with the burden of her memories but her children were not fooled. Maya said she knew all along that her mother guarded a dark, corrosive secret.
She grew up with “strange parents” who spoke German among themselves, a language their children didn’t understand, while hating everything that came from Germany.
Friends asked Maya why her mother had a “telephone number” tattooed on her lower arm. One day, rummaging through a drawer, she found shocking photos from Bergen-Belsen, where her mother and aunt were transferred in March 1944.
Secrets and silence “are never healthy”, Maya, 62, said. “I absorbed everything but of course without knowing what ‘everything’ was.”
“Trauma doesn’t go away, it is locked up… For some people, it is the only strategy to stay sane,” she said. “But the wounds of the past are deep and may come to haunt the next generation.”
Lasker-Wallfisch says she owes her life to music. It is also what led her back to Germany for the first time in more than 40 years, when she began to speak out about her experiences.
“I never wanted to return to Germany,” she said.
But “my curiosity to see Bergen-Belsen was too great”, she added.
In July 1989 she visited the camp where more than 50,000 people including Anne Frank lost their lives, to attend a concert of the English Chamber Orchestra she co-founded.
She also returned to her birthplace in Wroclaw, and to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Seeing the camp “empty, without a single person, was… unreal”.
Since then Lasker-Wallfisch has repeatedly denounced discrimination and the resurgence of extremism. Until the virus outbreak, she was a fixture on television and at schools across Germany.
In January 2018, on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, she delivered a fiery speech to the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
She was the first survivor to address the chamber since more than 90 members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party won seats there the previous autumn.
In an unwavering voice, she told the deputies that hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial were staging a dangerous comeback.
“Anti-Semitism is a 2,000-year-old virus that is apparently incurable,” she said.
“Hatred is simply a poison and in the end you poison yourself.”