Fénelon, Fania

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Nationality: French. Born: Fania Goldstein, Paris, 2 September 1918. Education: Paris Conservatory of Music, 1934. Career: Professional singer, piano and voice teacher. Member, French resistance, 1940-43; prisoner, Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, World War II; conductor, women's orchestra, while imprisoned in Birkenau, 1944-45. Awards: First prize in piano, Paris Conservatory of Music, 1934. Legion of Honor. Agent: Opera Mundi, 100 Avenue Raymond Poincare, 75016 Paris, France. Died: 19 December 1983.



Sursis pour l'orchestre, with Marcelle Routier. 1976; as Playing for Time, 1977; as Musicians of Auschwitz, 1977.


Film Adaptations:

Playing for Time (television), 1980.

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Fania Fénelon, a Parisian cabaret singer, was arrested and sent to Birkenau for being half-Jewish and for helping the resistance by serving as a courier and allowing resistance members to sleep in her apartment. In her riveting memoir, Playing for Time, she remarked that no five minutes in Auschwitz-Birkenau were the same. Her life there was constantly in a state of flux, from the beginning of her internment to her ascension as a prisoner with some privileges as a member of the women's orchestra to being shipped to Bergen-Belsen to being rescued by the English as she lay dying of typhus.

Fénelon's autobiography, which was transformed into a movie by Arthur Miller and starred Vanessa Redgrave, is a significant Holocaust memoir. It is a testament to the indomitable spirit and stamina of Holocaust survivors, who remained strong emotionally because they possessed the will to survive. Fénelon became an unofficial leader of the Jewish women who performed in the only all-female orchestra in the concentration camps, guiding the other women morally and emotionally. For instance, she helped fellow prisoner Clara, risking her life by agreeing to join the orchestra only if Clara could also. She also offered guidance to Clara when she discerned that Clara's obsession with food was corrupting her morally, inducing her to sell her body.

Fénelon's account is very detailed, perhaps because the horrors to which she was an eyewitness were so shocking that they remained frozen indelibly in her mind, even decades later. Although many years passed from the atrocities of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the writing her autobiography, her descriptions are so lucid that it sometimes seems as if the events occurred more recently. One example is her vivid depiction of the escape, capture, and death of Mala and Edek, lovers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fénelon called Mala a legend, and Little Irene, another orchestra member, labeled her their hope of salvation. Mala enjoyed special privileges because of her role as an interpreter and her vibrant spirit; she and Edek managed to escape the camp with false papers she obtained, with Edek wearing an SS uniform and Mala in men's clothing. Fénelon's longing for freedom is apparent in the passage in which she relishes vicariously their liberty. When Mala was captured by a Gestapo agent in a cafe, Edek allowed himself to be taken prisoner also, not wanting to survive without her. Although the Nazi officers could have killed Mala and Edek on the spot, they chose to return them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fénelon observes that the Nazis made a big spectacle of the escape and the capture, forcing the other prisoners to stand in line during a long roll call because of the escape and later forcing them to watch the murders of Mala and Edek. Fénelon effectively undercuts the intentions of the Nazi officers who demand that the prisoners observe the killings; she points out that Mala and Edek, having been returned to the concentration camp, actually inspired them to be strong: Mala stated to the prisoners, "Revolt! Rise up! There are thousands of you. Attack them—they're cowards and even if you're killed, anything's better than this, at least you'll die free! Revolt!" Fénelon also points out that although the Nazi soldiers wanted to kill Mala in front of the prisoners, she slashed her wrist with a razor—an act of defiance against the Nazis by attempting to control her own destiny.

Fénelon's memoirs manifest the learning process that a prisoner underwent after arriving in the camps. She and Clara were relieved upon their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau because they spotted the Red Cross trucks and thus believed that they would be well treated. Fénelon even tried unsuccessfully to get a ride in one of them so that she did not have to walk to the barracks. Her attitude changed, however, when she discovered shortly thereafter that the Red Cross trucks were a ruse to lull the Jews into a false sense of hope—and to prevent them from panicking—and that these trucks transported Jews to the crematoria.

Fénelon's autobiography is informative and demonstrates how music kept her alive, both physically and emotionally. The author points out clearly a telling irony that she observed in Auschwitz-Birkenau: the Nazis maintained a love of culture and spared some Jews simply to entertain them, yet they mercilessly and cruelly destroyed millions of innocent people.

—Eric Sterling

See the essay on Playing for Time.