Arts & Books Books

Surviving Nazism with help from Bach

As she endured death camps, Zuzana Růžičková kept remembering a Bach melody

Michael White on a musician's triumph over totalitarianism

One Hundred Miracles
By Zuzana Růžičková (with Wendy Holden)
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £18.99/$25

Holocaust survivor stories follow a regrettably (in every sense) familiar pattern, so you tend to know what’s coming next. And it’s not usually a comfort read. But these are stories that demand persistent telling, if only to remind us of how fragile our collective claim to civilised society can be.

And though One Hundred Miracles may not, as literature, rank high among the landmarks of the genre, it’s a worthwhile addition for anybody interested in music because it tells the story of the camps through the experience of a woman who survived them to become a world-class keyboard player.

Zuzana Růžičková, who died two years ago at the age of 90, was a Czech harpsichordist who took up the instrument in times when it was still an exotic pursuit; there were many people in many parts of the world who barely knew what it was, except as a museum piece.

A natural successor to Wanda Landowska who, in the first half of the 20th century, pioneered a somewhat romanticised rediscovery of what the harpsichord could do, Růžičková took a similarly free-spirited approach to its repertoire that was maybe old-fashioned by comparison with the “historically informed” expertise that rules in concert halls today.

But she was not without significance – especially in Eastern Europe, where she was confined by politics for much of her performing life. And she won universal recognition as the first to record the entire harpsichord output of JS Bach – an achievement that fed through to generations of younger players, including the charismatic Mahan Esfahani, who went out to Prague to study with her and absorbed some measure of her maverick, anti-“historical” outlook. All of which is a fine and happy tale.

But behind it lay the fact that at the age of 13, Růžičková and her family were herded by the Nazis into concentration camps. As Czech Jews, their first destination was Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt), the “model” camp presented to the world as Hitler’s benevolent gift to Judaism and a place where, after a fashion, music and the arts flourished (at least when cameras were around), thanks to the large numbers of educated, literate inmates who were “invited” –such was the terminology – to go there.

They weren’t only Jews: many homosexuals were forced on to the “invitation” list. And one of the most moving moments in the book – which is a first-person narrative pieced together from Růžičková’s talks and writings by the author Wendy Holden – is an account of Fredy Hirsch, a gay man in Terezín (and later Auschwitz) who organised a makeshift school for the child inmates and who was, for Růžičková, “the spirit of morality in these camps. It was Fredy who taught us not to lie, cheat or steal in a place where people could be killed for a piece of bread or ladleful of soup … He was an ideological figure who kept us in another world, separate from the horror, a place where humanity and decency were still important.”

No less important, Fredy Hirsch kept her alive as she too passed from Terezín to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen – he was practical as well as inspirational.

But music played a part too – in particular a sarabande by Bach that Růžičková played repeatedly in her mind like a talisman as the horrors unfolded. “It didn’t weigh anything and the Nazis didn’t even know it was there. They couldn’t steal it from me and it was mine alone”.

After the war, when she returned to Prague to study music, Bach became the centre of her life. But life in Czechoslovakia under the Soviets proved only marginally better than in Terezín under the SS.

As the narrative of this book cuts back and forth between the respective miseries of the two regimes, the reader can only wonder at the fighting spirit of this harpsichordist (not a calling you might think especially heroic) as she struggles with what she describes as “a shy faith”. “I am a typical Jew,” she says, “always asking my God questions like ‘Why this? Why does it have to be like this?’ ” And it’s interesting that the closest she gets to an answer comes not from Judaism but from Bach the Lutheran. “God is everywhere with him,” she says. “With Bach there is always solace. He gives us something eternal that surmounts being human. He gives us grace.”

And for Růžičková, it’s the grace to see her past not as a nightmare but as the one hundred miracles that give the book its name. “Bach’s music,” she declares with an unchallengeable wisdom, “is order in chaos. It is beauty in ugliness. I have seen enough of both in my life to know what I’m talking about.”