Speech by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends and family,
Thank you for inviting me to say a few words here in the Bundestag. I am one of the rapidly dwindling number of eyewitnesses to the catastrophe which befell us all those years ago.
No other genocide is as comprehensively documented as the Holocaust. There are hours of interviews with survivors, countless reports that you can read, should you wish to. And yet there are still the deniers, people who claim that all the accounts are fabricated and that the Holocaust never happened. They even send someone to Birkenau to scratch at the walls in the ruins of the gas chambers in order to produce proof that none of this is true. The reality is different. In January, 73 years ago, Auschwitz was liberated and the crimes against innocent people – way beyond imagination – gradually came to light. The scale of the catastrophe simply defied comprehension.
Six million is a number too big to grasp. it is easier to identify with an individual fate. So if I may, I would like to describe, in a few key words, our career as survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Renate and I were born in this country, so we are German. Our father was a lawyer and notary at the Oberlandesgericht – the Higher Regional Court – and our mother was a gifted violinist. We were three daughters, and we all learned to play a musical instrument. I played the cello with great enthusiasm. My sister Renate with somewhat less enthusiasm the violin.
There were some family rules which, as a child, I did not understand at all and, to be honest, found rather stupid. On Sundays, for example, we would only speak French. On Saturday afternoons, my family would come together to read the classics and my father would recount his experiences of fighting at the front in the First World War, when he was awarded the Iron Cross, and we would play chess. We owed it to our family name, for my uncle Edward Lasker was a Grand Master in America.
And then it all came to an abrupt end. Radical exclusion. There were notices everywhere: “Jews not welcome”. We were no longer allowed to use the swimming baths or sit on park benches, and we had to hand in our bicycles. Jewish men were required to add the name “Israel”, and women “Sarah”, to their names. We were forced out of our home. Then, into the Middle Ages: we had to wear a yellow star, and I was spat at in the street and called a dirty Jew. Our father, an incurable optimist, could not believe what was happening. Surely the Germans cannot go along with this madness?
In the museum at Auschwitz, there are vast glass cabinets full of human hair, toothbrushes, eye glasses and even prosthetic limbs. Where did they come from? From Jewish soldiers who had fought at the front. This was the thanks they got from the Fatherland.
Then in 1938, there was Kristallnacht and one knew that one cannot stay here.
But it was too late. We were trapped. The mass shootings of Jews began soon afterwards, in 1939, with the occupation of Poland; then in 1942, the infamous Wannsee Conference took place. Supposedly cultured men sat around the table and discussed, in earnest, how best to rid the world of millions of people – millions of Jews. The only problem apparently concerned those of mixed blood – what to do with those who were only half Jewish? Should they be murdered too?
By now, there were regular deportations of Jews from all the territories under German occupation. People were being sent to Auschwitz from as far away as Greece. Our parents were deported on 9 April 1942. Of course, we wanted to stay together, go with them. But our father wisely said no. “Where we are going, one gets there soon enough.”
Needless to say, we never saw them again. I was 16 years old.
So, my sister and I were now alone. We were sent to an orphanage, absolutely determined not to let it break our spirit, not to wait for somebody to take us away to be murdered simply because we were Jews. We were conscripted to work in a paper factory. There were French prisoners of war working there as well. We soon made contact and that’s how our career as forgers began, making counterfeit papers that the French POWs used to escape.
When we realised that we were being watched, we decided to try to escape as well. Our aim was to reach the unoccupied zone in France, travelling on forged papers - an absolutely absurd idea when I look back now. But what had we got to lose? Nothing at all.
Of course, this last desperate attempt was bound to fail. We made it as far as Breslau railway station but were arrested by the Gestapo as we attempted to board the train. I’ll be brief. We spent an entire year in prison. It was extremely lucky not to be sent straight to Auschwitz. We were to be tried in a Sondergericht – a special court. I think we have one of my father’s former colleagues to thank for that, a certain Dr Lukaschek, if I remember right. By then, the Buergerliches Gesetzbuch, the Civil Code, no longer applied and under the new rules, it was better to be classed as a criminal than a Jew. Because criminals were given a trial; Jews were fair game.
We were tried on charges of attempted escape, helping the enemy and forgery. The public defence lawyer didn’t show up and as strange as it might sound today, we didn’t want anyone to defend us anyway. The longer the sentence, the better. We already knew that prison would be preferable to a concentration camp.
It wasn’t very pleasant, it’s true: we were locked in our cells 24 hours a day, the only break from the monotony a half-hour shuffle round the prison yard in total silence, hands behind our backs, but prisoners were not murdered, at least not as a rule.
The sentence was three and a half years of hard labour for Renate and eighteen months in prison for me. We didn’t serve out our sentences. After a while, we were sent to Auschwitz separately. It’s hard to believe, but I was required to sign a document saying that I was going to Auschwitz voluntarily!
By then, people were aware of what was going on in Auschwitz but one simply did not want to believe it. Alas it was true.
So when I arrived in Auschwitz, I tried to prepare for the worst – an almost impossible task.
But events took a different turn. I was not sent to Auschwitz on one of the mass transports of Jews, who were sentenced to live or die on arrival at the ramp. I arrived in Auschwitz as a convicted criminal. And it was better to be a criminal than a Jew. We were Karteihäftlinge – we had criminal records. My head was shaved and the number 69388 was tattooed on my left arm. Anita Sara Lasker no longer existed.
It is hard to believe, but there was music in Auschwitz and it was urgently needed to find someone who could play the cello. So I became a member of the camp orchestra in Birkenau. The director was Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler and daughter of Arnold Rosé, the leader of the Vienna Philharmonic for many years until he was “dismissed”. Why? Because he was a Jew.
The orchestra was based in Block 12, close to the end of the road into the camp, just a few metres from Crematorium I and with an unobstructed view of the ramp. We could see everything: the arrival ceremonies, the selections, the columns of people walking towards the gas chambers, soon to be transformed into smoke.
In 1944, the transports from Hungary arrived and the gas chambers could no longer keep pace. As Danuta Czech describes in her remarkable book Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945: ‘The camp commandant Höß ordered 5 pits to be dug for the burning of corpses. So many transports arrived that sometimes, there was no space in Crematorium V for all the bodies. If there was no room in the gas chambers, people were shot instead. Many were thrown alive into the burning pits. This I also saw with my own eyes.
Even if you were not sent straight to the gas chamber, no one survived in Auschwitz for long – the most you could expect was about three months. But if they needed you for some reason, you had a tiny chance of survival. I had that chance – I was “needed”.
We played marches at the camp gate for the prisoners who worked in the nearby factories – IG Farben, Buna, Krupp etc. – and we gave Sunday concerts around the camp for the people who worked there or anyone else who wanted to hear us play. For many, hearing music being performed in this living hell was the ultimate insult. But for others, perhaps, it was a chance to dream of another world, if only for a few moments.
Renate had been sentenced to hard labour and arrived in Auschwitz later than I did. We managed to find each other, completely by chance and against all the odds: Birkenau is unbelievably big. I can hardly describe the state my sister was in: a skeleton with open wounds on her legs, which simply never healed. Of course, we all had typhus. There was no escaping the lice. I will not even talk about the hunger. In some ways, a quiet death would have been a merciful release. Amazingly, she survived.
Suddenly, we were told: “Line up!” Jews on one side, Aryans on the other. That could only mean one thing – the gas chamber. But we were mistaken. We were loaded into a cattle truck. Renate quite simply came with us. We were determined not to be separated again. We were driven west to Bergen-Belsen.
Auschwitz was cleaned up and the gas chambers were dynamited, albeit not entirely successfully. Who would have believed that we would ever leave Auschwitz alive and not as smoke?
Was it any better in Belsen? Well, all I can say is that it was different. In Auschwitz, people were murdered in the most sophisticated ways; in Belsen, people simply perished. We existed, surrounded by rotting corpses, and waited for it all to end. And then on 15 April 1945, the British arrived and we were liberated. I was 19 years old.
I often talk about my experiences to young people in schools here – and not only the young. One of the best questions that I’m always asked is, what happened next? Did you go home? No... Home no longer existed. We were that new species – Displaced Persons, with all the problems that this entails. What was to be done with all these people? I don’t need to spell out the answer.
In 2000, the international conference was held in Stockholm – and a decision was taken to make 27 January the official Holocaust Memorial Day and provide mandatory Holocaust education in schools. The mood was one of great hope for a better future.
It is now more than seventy years since the Holocaust, and the perpetrators’ generation is no longer alive. We cannot really take it amiss if today’s young people refuse to identify with these crimes. But to deny that this is part of German history as well?
That must not happen.
More to the point, cannot happen. And as for talk of drawing a line: what are we meant to draw the line under? What happened, happened, and it cannot be expunged by drawing a line. And it is not about feelings of guilt; they are quite out of place. It is about making certain that it can never – never ever – happen again here.
The eminent historian Professor Yehuda Bauer said in his address to the Bundestag that people seldom learn from history and that the Holocaust is no exception – but that the Holocaust introduced a new dimension that had never been seen before: industrial mass murder. Human beings were, quite literally, recycled.
After the cataclysm that was the Holocaust, Germany’s conduct was exemplary. There was no denial. Anti-Semitism was no longer in vogue. Now, times have changed and today’s world is a world of refugees. For us, all those years ago, the borders were hermetically sealed, whereas now, they have been opened thanks to an incredibly generous and courageous humanitarian gesture made here.
Today, we remember the millions of innocent victims. But we should also remember the courageous helpers. There were some – not enough – but there were some: people who put their own lives at risk by helping others. We should not forget that either.
Anti-Semitism is a virus which is two thousand years old and apparently incurable. It mutates to take on new forms: religion, race. Only today, one does not necessarily say ‘Jews.’ Today it is the Israelis, without really understanding the context or knowing what is going on behind the scenes.
Jews are criticised for not having defended themselves, which simply confirms how impossible it is to imagine what it was like for us back then. And then the Jews are criticised for defending themselves. It’s scandalous that Jewish schools, even Jewish kindergartens have to have a police guard.
We should be asking why.
There are no excuses and no explanations for what happened all those years ago. All that remains is hope: the hope that ultimately, one day, reason will prevail.
I have been invited to come to Germany many times over the years and have very positive contact with young people. On my last visit, I had a less positive experience. I was in Bavaria, in Rosenheim. Two truly admirable history teachers, both women, had organised a reading tour to schools in Traunstein, doing so with great enthusiasm and no official funding at all. The plan was for two very different eye-witnesses to speak. One was Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, Governor-General of occupied Poland, also known as the Jew butcher, and myself.
We met in the restaurant at my hotel and talked about the forthcoming visits. A man nearby had obviously been listening and was furious. He came over to our table and complained that we were spoiling the pleasant atmosphere with all this talk of Auschwitz. And so on. Something like this would maybe not have been possible, five years ago, let’s say – so be careful.
Sometimes, I think that the orchestra in Auschwitz was a kind of microcosm, a society in miniature that we can learn from. All the nationalities were represented. It was a Tower of Babel. Who can I talk to? Only to people who speak German or French. I can’t speak Russian or Polish, so I won’t talk to them. So instead, we eye each other mistrustfully and automatically assume that the other person is hostile; we don’t think to ask why the other person has ended up in Auschwitz as well.
Many years after these events, I am in close contact with one of these other prisoners, a Polish woman, a pure Aryan who played the violin in the orchestra. We never spoke to each other at the time. But thanks to an incredibly badly written book about the Women’s Orchestra, we came into contact again and met up in Krakow. We still have problems finding a common language but we talk and write to each other in English. In short, we have become friends and have found that we have far more in common than that which divides us. Perhaps this can serve as an example for today’s problems. Talk to each other. Build bridges.
And as for the resurgent anti-Semitism: ask yourselves who are the Jews? Why do we come across them everywhere? Is it perhaps because they were driven out of their homeland two thousand years ago and dispersed across the world, and have been searching ever since for a place where they hoped to live in peace and not to be murdered? “Jews” does not work as a collective term. Jews are just people – people with a very unusual history, it’s true – so often the scapegoat, persecuted, murdered, defamed.
What is positive is that on the 18th of this month, this House unanimously adopted a resolution stating that anti-Semitism must be combated resolutely. We can only hope that you win this fight. The future lies in your hands.
Eight years ago, Shimon Peres, the then President of the State of Israel, gave an address to this House in which he said this: “While my heart is breaking at the memory of the atrocious past – my eyes envision a common future for a world that is young, a world free of all hatred. A world in which the words ‘war’ and ‘anti-Semitism’ will be dead words.” – Utopia?
There were endless difficulties to overcome before we could leave Germany; it took almost a year, and I swore that I would never set foot on German soil again. I was consumed by a boundless hatred of anything German. As you see, I broke my oath – many, many years ago – and I have no regrets. It’s quite simple: hate is poison and ultimately, you poison yourself.
I shall take my leave of you now, with many thanks for your invitation and appreciation for the dignity and openness with which you mark this day of remembrance every year.
(Sustained applause – Audience rises to its feet)