Playing for Time (Sursis Pour L'Orchestra)

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PLAYING FOR TIME (Sursis pour l'orchestra)

Memoir by Fania Fénelon, 1976

Fania Fénelon's autobiography tells the story of her imprisonment in Birkenau from January-November 1944 and in Bergen-Belsen from November 1944-April 1945, as well as her subsequent rescue by English soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. It originally appeared in French in 1976 as Sursis pour l'orchestra and was published in English translation the following year. Fénelon's story is unique among memoirs by Holocaust survivors because she stayed alive by working for the female orchestra in Birkenau, hence the title of her autobiography. She begins her memoir with a climactic moment: her rescue as she lay dying of typhus. Despite being ill and dehydrated, and weighing a mere 62 pounds, she sang songs such as "La Marseillaise," "God Save the King," and the "Internationale." Her songs moved the liberating soldiers to tears and were heard on BBC radio. In fact, her cousin, who was living in London, was listening to the radio and discovered simultaneously that she had been captured by the Nazis and liberated by the Allies. The first chapter is significant because it shows the love and respect that the other prisoners had for her; she was their inspiration, their friend, and their leader. Even Irma Grese, the sadistic Nazi officer at Birkenau, pleaded with her not to die; this fact suggests how special Fénelon was because Grese rarely exhibited any concern for Jews and enjoyed torturing them.

After this opening chapter, Fénelon goes back in time to her deportation and her initial meeting with Clara, a spoiled prisoner who initially befriends Fénelon but then becomes selfish and egocentric. Upon earning her place in the women's orchestra, Fénelon risks her life in order to save Clara's—demanding that the Nazis allow Clara, who had a lovely soprano singing voice, to join also. Members of the women's orchestra enjoyed valuable perks, such as taking showers and obtaining shoes, better clothes, bedsheets, and soap. She risks all of this to help Clara, but a month later, her friend turns against her. Clara becomes obsessed with food, sleeping with kapo s for a small container of jam or a little sugar. Clara, who had insisted previously that she and Fania share a box that they "organize" (the word they used for accumulating possessions), changes her mind and uses separate boxes after she starts to gather a stash of food. Because Clara is pretty, has large breasts, and is obese in a camp in which almost all of the women are quite thin from malnourishment, the kapo s find her very desirable. Subsequently, Clara becomes the girlfriend of a kapo and eventually, in Bergen-Belsen, a brutal kapo herself. Fénelon expresses that she felt betrayed by Clara's actions, and the text manifests her belief that the desperate situations imposed by the Nazis in the camps led weak people such as Clara to sacrifice their morals and values in order to survive.

Fénelon's moving and introspective autobiography dwells on the women's orchestra, which was unique; there were male orchestras in other camps, but not female orchestras. She describes in great detail the other members of the orchestra, including Alma Rosé, the daughter of the first violinist in the Berlin Opera orchestra and the niece of notable composer Gustav Mahler. Fénelon discusses her frequent attempts to break down the emotional barrier that Rosé created between herself and the other members of the orchestra. The author also discusses other members, such as Marta and her love for little Irene (homosexuality was prevalent in Birkenau), the friction between the Jewish and Polish women prisoners, and the struggle to perform well enough to please the Nazis, knowing full well that their lives literally depend on it. The orchestra plays for the inmates as they leave for work in the morning and when they return in the evening, as well as concerts for Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler and Josef Mengele.

Fénelon scrutinizes the comportment of the Nazis in Birkenau as well as the behavior of orchestra members. The chief of the camp, Lagerführerin Maria Mandel, is seemingly a harsh woman and a strong advocate of Nazi ideology. One day she encounters a sweet, beautiful baby and desires the boy for herself. She separates the baby from his grieving mother, who is gassed. For a week she takes the baby everywhere and falls in love with him. Deciding that keeping the baby violates her sense of Nazi purity, however, she personally brings the boy to the gas chamber and then mourns his death. Fénelon hypothesizes that Mandel's devotion to Nazi ideology supersedes her love of the boy and humanity.

—Eric Sterling