Title: The Violinist Of Auschwitz
Author: Jean-Jacques Felstein
Publisher: Pen & Sword
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biographies, Memoirs, History
Release Date: 30th November 2021
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Arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, Elsa survived because she had the 'opportunity' to join the women's orchestra. But Elsa kept her story a secret, even from her own family. Indeed, her son would only discover what had happened to his mother many years later, after gradually unearthing her unbelievable story following her premature death, without ever having revealed her secret to anyone.
Jean-Jacques Felstein was determined to reconstruct Elsa's life in Birkenau, and would go in search of other orchestra survivors in Germany, Belgium, Poland, Israel and the United States. The recollections of Hélène, first violin, Violette, third violin, Anita, a cellist, and other musicians, allowed him to rediscover his 20-year-old mother, lost in the heart of hell.
The story unfolds in two intersecting stages: one, contemporary, is that of the investigation, the other is that of Auschwitz and its unimaginable daily life, as told by the musicians. They describe the recitals on which their very survival depended, the incessant rehearsals, the departure in the mornings for the forced labourers to the rhythm of the instruments, the Sunday concerts, and how Mengele pointed out the pieces in the repertoire he wished to listen to in between 'selections'.
In this remarkable book, Jean-Jacques Felstein follows in his mother's footsteps and by telling her story, attempts to free her, and himself, from the pain that had been hidden in their family for so long.
The cover first attracted me to this book, with its attractive violin, marred by the yellow star the Jewish were made to wear when the Nazis came into power giving a stark contrast for what the instrument is used for making beautiful music. When you really think about it in really simplistic terms the violin epitomises love whereas the yellow star really does symbolise hate.
The book begins with quite a long prologue by the author Jean-Jacques Felstein about his at time problematic relationship with his mother Elsa. Jean-Jacques explains he always felt a distance between them. The very fact that his mothers “before”, her history and what she went through during the Holocaust and her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau was never mentioned to him at all. As a child he grew up knowing not to mention it. His parents were divorced meaning it was rather like he had two lives, the one when he was with his father and then the one, he had when he was with his mother. Jean-Jacques describes seeing the numbers on his mother’s arm and knowing what they represented and that her memories of the tie around her having those numbers was not a good time for his mother to think about, never mind speak about. He also had the knowledge that sometimes a hug & kiss from him to his mother, could chase away her nightmares of her time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, if only for a little while. Jean-Jacques remembers talk of the family members that never made it through the journey his mother, Elsa did. Such as his Aunt Lydia, the one in the old photo’s whose old books he loved and read but was never talked in length about as she was from the time “before” the time in “Auschwitz-Birkenau”.
Unfortunately for Jean-Jacques all this mystery and the sense of tragedy about what had happened to his family, made him very insecure and he had awful nightmares where he searched for his parents in burning buildings and then when his parents separated, he was sent to a children’s home and that is where he first heard the truths and horrors about WW2. Jean-Jacques settled more when he realised, he could leave the children’s home to visit his parents. When visiting his mother, Jean-Jacques would see her in her cosmetic salon, Paris-Beaute in Cologne.
It was during school that Jean-Jacques learnt of the real horrors of the Holocaust. His headteacher read the final chapter of the book, The Last Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart, which told him about the true horrors of the men, women and children that were sent to and killed in gas chambers disguised as a shower room. One of his classmates would talk about “Chvitz” and Jean-Jacques began connecting all the little things he hard learnt, seen and perhaps overheard over the years and his nightmares flared again. The one time his mother Elsa ever really told him anything about the Holocaust was when she took him to see the film “The Diary Of Anne Frank”, she explained to him how Anne had almost died in Bergen-Belsen of Typhus, but that was all she ever told him about the awful time in her own history. The other sort of “nod to before” was when Elsa remarried and went on to have a daughter whom she called Lydia after the mysterious “Aunt Lydia” from the past.
It is after Elsa’s death that Jean-Jacques inherits part of her “pension compensation money” from the government and during an argument with his grandmother utters that her daughter had not rotted in Auschwitz for him to do whatever he felt like with that money! Jean-Jacques was 35 years old when he discovered his mother had been part of the Birkenau Orchestra. In fact, it was being selected for this Orchestra that saved her life, though she truly suffered throughout her imprisonment. Jean-Jacques sets about tracing the other women of the Orchestra and the book goes on to tell the story of the “present” where he is going to meet other survivors some remember his mother better than others but all share their own stories with him. The book goes back to the time “before” as the survivors reveal the daily horrors, humiliation and punishments they endured.
This may sound like the wrong thing to say but I hope you understand, I honestly enjoyed reading this book, despite it being about an horrific period in history. It is so well put together, Jean-Jacques goes to great lengths to explain his at points very distanced relationship with his mother Elsa who coped with what had happened to her and her family by not speaking about it. Different people deal with such gruesome histories in their own particular way, her were to leave it behind her, to not speak of it at all, yet she was so clearly deeply affected by it throughout her life, so much so it impacted her own son too. Its so sad that the way he learnt about the Holocaust was via his headteacher at school and a classmate.
I’ll be honest I had expected Jean-Jacques to just be telling his mothers story, which yes, he does learn about the day-to-day realities of his mother existence in Auschwitz-Birkenau but he also tells the stories of the other members of the Orchestra. The survivor’s individual stories, as well as the collective story of the Orchestra. The survivor’s before the Holocaust, how they ended up in Auschwitz, how they survived, who they lost and how they coped and recreated lives after when they had their freedom back.
My immediate thoughts upon finishing this book were that it was a very moving read. I feel it was as much about Jean-Jacques, his mother Elsa, and the other survivors as well as the ins and outs of how the Orchestra was formed and what those women were expected to do, all in equal parts.
Summing up, this book begins as a record of a rather fraught relationship between a boy, then man with his mother. A mother that had been through a horrible time whilst being held prisoner in Auschwitz-Bikenau. His mother Elsa is so traumatised even years and years later that she can never bring herself to speak to her son about what went on there. So, after his mother’s death, he sets himself the task of tracing and contacting the other women that played in the Birkenau Orchestra. Jean-Jacques travels to meet these other strong women who survived who are willing to tell him their own story, as well as what they remember about the Orchestra and his mother Elsa. If you are fascinated about this dark, era of history, then this book is a must read for you, it is so much more than a memoir.