We Sang in Hushed Voices
The small acts of courage were what made it possible to survive. One evening, for example, we were made to stand for hours and hours in the Appellplatz for roll call. When we were finally released, some of the women who needed to go to the bathroom went straight to the barracks to relieve themselves in the latrines. When they got there, however, the doors were locked. A few of the poor women were truly in agony after holding it in for so long. Not being allowed to empty their bladders was torturous. This was the last straw for some of us, and we began to shout in resistance, “Let us pee!” over and over again. “Don’t let them suffer!” I called out. “Don’t torture people so much!” One of the female SS guards heard us yelling and came to the barracks.
The guard must have recognized my voice because she came directly over to me, as if I were to blame for the rebellion. The other women were sure that I would be killed. Then, something unexpected happened. A friend of mine from Mukačevo, a woman named Hilda, came to my aid. I had known her before the war, and she was normally very quiet and reserved. Yet, she rallied everyone together and encouraged them all to shout. All seven or eight hundred women in the area began shouting so loudly and with such intensity that the female SS guard grew afraid and left.
There was another way that we could resist – with hope. As we sat on the hard wooden bunks in our barracks, with only our thin, torn dresses to cover us, we still hoped that we would survive. Some of us even tried to learn new languages. By that time, I had already learned some English and spoke it quite well. I also still remembered Hebrew from high school and taught Hebrew words to my friends. It was a time of emptiness, pain and desperation, a time when it was impossible to imagine a way out. There was no way out. But I often thought about miracles.
An extremely important part of our resistance was singing. Although it seems paradoxical to talk about music and Birkenau in the same breath, singing was a key part of our existence. When our work was done and the guards weren’t present, we could find safe moments to sing Hebrew songs. We had to be careful never to sing in front of the SS because they would have beaten us to death. I couldn’t sing well, but it didn’t matter. None of us were really singers. I would teach my friends the words to songs I had learned in school and the women with good voices would figure out the tune. Together we combined words and voices, our voices hushed so that no one would hear us. It gave us encouragement and lifted our spirits; in those moments, we didn’t speak about death and killing.
These were not the only music events in the camp. There were also concerts organized by the SS – although these were hardly happy occasions for the Jewish prisoners. I recall one concert that was spontaneously arranged under orders from the camp administration. We were called out to the Appellplatz and commanded to sit on the ground. What we saw in front of us was a group of men in their filthy, striped prison uniforms, emaciated from hunger, each one holding a violin, a cello or a wind instrument. They were told to take their places on a platform and began to play – and, oh, how beautifully they played. Starving and ill, the musicians played waltzes by Johann Strauss II while the SS guards danced to the music.
I began to cry. I cried inconsolably because those musicians were playing music that had been created to make the world a more harmonious and beautiful place. Yet, these men, imprisoned and starving, were forced to play through suffering and humiliation. Strauss’s waltzes and operettas, which brought joy to listeners for a hundred years, had nothing in common with Hitler and his ideology.