It was January 1944, Birkenau, the extermination camp of Auschwitz, and Fania Fenelon, a young French singer and Resistance worker, was lying on a tier in a barracks, waiting to die. She was bleeding -- in a state of shock after learning that many of the prisoners who had traveled with her from France, two days before, were already dead. Her head was shaven, she had been tattooed.
But as she lay there, she heard something she could not believe; in the midst of the stench of dysentery and the noise of women who had gone mad, she heard a guard yelling for someone who could sing Madame Butterfly.
And within minutes, Fenelon, after running barefoot through the snow, found herself at the most bizarre audition of her life; she entered a room of nicely dressed young women who comprised a small orchestra and was ordered to sit at a Bechstein piano, her "dream." Accompanying herself, she sang Puccini's Un Bel di and Wenn Es Fruhling Wird (When Spring Comes) by Peter Krueder. She knew that if she failed her audition she would be sent back to her barracks, probably to die. She passed. She was admitted to the orchestra, and for the rest of her 11 months at Auschwitz, she was part of its macabre workings: in the mornings, playing marching songs for prisoners on their way to work, at other times giving recitals to the SS (one officer was fond of Schumann's Reverie, calling it "heart rendering") and sometimes giving concerts to prisoners in the camp hospital -- who might be gassed the following day.
In short, Fenelon survived. And now, 30 years later, she has written a book, "Playing for Time" (Atheneum), published both in the United States and Europe. If you ask Fenelon, in the mid-town Manhattan offices of her publishers, why she waited so long to speak, she will give you two answers.
"Because, I first wanted to have a life and I have had a very interesting life," she says, in fluent and heavily accented English. "And because I never have felt so acutely that Nazism is coming back, and I wanted to tell my story, to put a drop in that big ocean which is fascism."
She says this very exuberantly, very energetically, which is her style. For despite her time in the camp, the face Fenelon presents to the public, while pragmatic and political, is also quite sunny. The word she will use most often in a two-hour talk, besides "fascism," will be "amusing." "I will tell you an amusing story," she says, or, "My husband was an amusing guy," or even "I have had an amusing life."
She is very French, very charming, very feminine. Her hair has been white since the concentration camp so she covers it now with a pale blond wig. She takes time, before being photographed, to touch up the lavender at her blue eyes and powder her cheeks. She smokes nonstop, in the Parisian style: arm close to the body, hand at a sharp angle. The talk is emotional, punctuated with gestures. Petite, just 4 feet 11, Fenelon also is tough -- she tells stories of people she slapped for anti-Semitic or racist remarks. She also resists telling her age, which is 59. ("It's a sickness with you Americans with age; in France nobody would ask such a question.") And in talking about her life, she talks just as eagerly about love as politics. She carries a picture of her lover, now dead, in her handbag, and the first word she speaks at her interview has to do with romance.
"The man of my life was an American, an American Negro singer," she says. "He left the country in 1950 because of McCarthy and all those bastards; no, no, I cannot say his name because his wife will come and kill me. Of course she knew. Everybody knew, but it is quite another thing to put it in the newspaper, uhhh? How did we meet? In Paris, in 1952, on the anniversary of Polish liberation from the Nazis. He was singing and I was his accompanist. Ah, yes, it was love from the first. 'Algenbleich,' you would say in German. In French, 'Le Cap De Foudre.' Like a big storm."
Open as she is about her love life, about her personal politics she is guarded. "My politics is my own business," she says angrily. "This is what I told the American counsel in Paris when I applied for my visa for this trip, too. It is enough to say I am, of course, not on the right. I am not a Fascist, and I am always fighting, I have been fighting my whole life."
The daughter of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Fenelon (nee) Fanny Goldstein) had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. Educated at the Conservatoire de Paris, she graduated a trained soprano, with a prize in piano. She married at 18, was divorced later during the war and did not become political until the late 1930s under the occupation of France. In 1940 she joined the Resistance, singing in a cabaret frequented by German officers, photographing the contents of their briefcases when they became drunk. Discovered three years later, she was sent first to Drancy prison outside Paris, where she was tortured. She then was deported to Auschwitz. On the three day train ride to Auschwitz, she shared black market supplies, including pate de compagne, camembert, sausage, foie gras and champagne, with the other passengers.
"We had no idea where we were going, work camps we thought," she says. "Nobody knew about concentration camps. How could anyone think that there would be a place where they would gas people -- a thought like this is not for anyone with a normal brain."
Fenelon was two days at Auschwitz when she was transferred to its 46-member all-women orchestra, and old musical group dominated by violins, under the direction of Alma Rose, the niece of Gustav Mahler. Writing about Auschwitz, of the "privileges" of showers and warmth and food allowed orchestra, members, Fenelon seems tormented by guilt. "Despite all the wise lectures I give myself, having entertained an SS woman after filled me with the utmost disgust," she writes.
But in conversation, she forcefully denies guilt. "I have never felt guilty, never," she says. "Guilt is something one feels when you have a choice. But I had no choice. I can't feel guilty because I survived. And if anything, the orchestra survived because of me, because, for instance, I could orchestrate, without that they might have been disbanded.And even then, we could have been killed at any minute. One time, a German asked me if I needed anything and I held up a pencil that said, 'Made in England'; he could have killed me for that. But I wanted to do something unusual and to make the other girls. . . to make them feel something. They were always saying, 'Oh, we are going to die', Oh, what is the point?'"
They very nearly did die. After 11 months at Auschwitz, the orchestra was disbanded, and the women sent to Bergen-Belsen, where Fenelon contracted typhus. On April 15, 1945, the orchestra members were scheduled to be shot at 3 p.m. The British liberated the camp at 11 a.m. Too weak to walk, weighing 62 pounds, Fenelon was carried from her barracks by a soldier. Her first act was to sing the "Marseillaise."
"I thought the war would be an end of racism," she says. "But it was not. A few days after the liberation I was dancing with a black soldier and an MP told me to stop. I slapped him so hard, right across the face."
She worked after the war, first as an entertainer for GIs, then in Paris, doing concerts. In 1953 she settled in East Germany with her American lover. (He had been exiled from France because he supported the Rosenbergs.) In Germany, at the invitation of the German government Fenelon lectured on the holocaust, performed and also served as a professor of music in Dresden and East Berlin. But she was discouraged to find anti-semitism still existed.
"A government official once asked me how we could change the German young people's attitude about the war," she said, "And I told him, 'Kill all the grandmothers.' The children would come home, you know, and the grandmothers would tell them, 'Ah, it was much nicer in '37.'"
She recalls incidents of anti-Semitism in Germany. "In East Berlin, in '55, I was rehearsing with a big orchestra, it was going to be a big event, and the violinist gestured me over and said, 'What are those numbers on your arm? Your telephone number?' And I slapped him to death. And then I told the conductor I wanted the man fired, but first I wanted him to apologize to me in front of the orchestra. And on his knees. Or I would leave the stage that moment. And he did. He had to."
Another time, my conductor invited me to dinner at his home, with his mother. I was always a little anxious when I came into a German house. I was afraid I would see my furniture or possessions. . . And they prepared a horrible meal, they eat like pigs, and during this meal the mother leans to me, with a sweet smile, and she says, 'You were in Auschwitz?' And I say 'Yes,' and she says, 'Was that the place they killed some people?' and I said, 'Yes,' and she said, 'Ah, but they were only Jews.' And it was in that moment, I took the meal and I threw it in her face."
She stresses, however, that though she sees a return of Nazism in Germany, citing students marching with swastikas two years ago in a show called "Hilter Superstar," she believes Nazism and Fascism are also spreading elsewhere.
"In England they have the national front which is a Nazi Party. In Chicago you have the Nazi Party as well," she says.
Her stay in the camps has left scars. She still has nightmares about the camp and cannot sleep without pills. She had a cancerous growth removed from her leg 18 years ago, which doctors say was the result of the beating. She also never has had children, which she says is the only thing in her life she regrets.
"I was afraid," she says simply. "In the camp I had no menstruation, none of us did, who knows why, malnutrition maybe, or something they put in the food, and I also had typhus. I was afraid I would not have a normal child."
Yet, she says she has enjoyed her life, even what with her suicide attempt, once, over a disappointment in love, after the war. ("Pills," she says gaily. "I was not very original.") She has nephews and nieces by her two brothers, some in America, some in Paris, she has her little apartment in a low-class housing project because she finds middle-class homes oppressive, she still performs, she travels. Her apartment is filled with "books, books, books, books." She has a small Steinway. She is in "all the peace movements" in France, "all the movements against those people who want to take liberty from other people," but she repeats often she is "not a fanatic."
"I don't want to forget, but I don't want to live all my life there, either," she says. "Some people, they are still in the camps, it was the affair of their lives: they eat and they say, 'Ah, do you remember on the second of March, we had one potato?' Or they think, because they were in the camps, they were heroes; they were not heroes, they were victims, I was not a hero either; I resisted, in Paris, but I would not say I was a hero. I would just say I was an optimist, and I love life; I am most interested in life."