In 1943 Jewish concert pianist Natalia Karp (1911-2007) arrived at Poland's Plaszow concentration camp expecting to be executed by the German soldiers in command. Instead, her musical talents saved her life. The camp's commandant summoned Karp to play for him and was so impressed with her piano playing that he halted her execution. Karp survived the war, then resumed her musical career. By the 1950s, Karp was playing with the London Philharmonic and touring Europe, where she earned recognition for her mastery of Chopin. She continued public performances into her 90s.
Earned Reputation as Child Prodigy
The gifted pianist was born Natalia Weissman on February 27, 1911, in Krakow, Poland. She was the second of four children born to the Weissmans, an upstanding Polish-Jewish family. Her father, Isidor, was a successful businessman. He owned a knitwear factory and several properties scattered throughout Berlin. With plenty of wealth, the family enjoyed vacations at some of Europe's leading spa resorts. Karp developed her interest in music from her mother, who sang opera arias to her children at home. Karp taught herself to play the piano by ear, and by the time she was four, the child's musical abilities were known throughout her neighborhood. When Karp was a youngster, a woman came to the door, saying she had heard rumors there was a musical prodigy living at the address. She offered to give Karp lessons. Later, Karp studied with the brother-in-law of famed Polish pianist Arthur Rubenstein.
Karp attended Hebrew school and at 13 decided that she wanted to make a career out of the piano. Her musical grandfather helped persuade her parents to let her go to Berlin to take lessons with Austrian classic pianist Artur Schnabel. Karp had to audition for Schnabel before he would take her on as a student. After hearing Karp play, Schnabel agreed to tutor her and at 16, she relocated to Berlin. Schnabel's son taught Karp about harmony and musical theory. What she yearned to study, however, was technique, which Schnabel did not cover, so she switched teachers and began studying under Georg Bertram.
In 1929 the teenage virtuoso, playing alongside the Berlin Philharmonic, wowed Germans with a performance of Chopin's E minor concerto. Karp's career was just taking off when her mother became ill and died of kidney failure, forcing Karp to return to Poland to care for her younger siblings. In 1933 Karp married a lawyer and fellow pianist named Julius Hubler. He recognized her talents but discouraged her public performances, preferring that his wife stay at home.
The War Began
By 1939, World War II was heating up as German forces invaded Poland. Hubler left at the start of the war, answering a call to join the Polish Army. He died when his train was bombed, though Karp did not know she was a widow until after the war ended six years later. As German soldiers moved into Poland, the Jewish population faced increasing persecution. Karp's father and brother fled Krakow.
In time, Karp and her sister, Helena, relocated to Tarnow, a predominantly Jewish city 45 miles east of Krakow. Karp thought it might be safer there, out of the big city and in the company of fellow Jews. At the time, thousands of Jewish refugees were fleeing to Tarnow. Tarnow, however, was eventually turned into a ghetto surrounded by a high fence and patrolled by German troops. There was scarcely enough food. Routinely, German troops came in to round up Jews for deportation to labor camps—or death camps. During the “selection” process, soldiers randomly gunned down Jewish people. Karp witnessed the massacre of thousands of Jews. Over the course of one single day, she watched as German soldiers shot 5,000 people in the square.
If they were to survive, Karp and her sister knew they had to leave. Accompanied by two friends, the sisters fled Tarnow in 1943, after dying their hair blonde, hoping to hide their darker Jewish features. Once outside the ghetto walls, they headed for Warsaw and obtained false papers, which they thought would get them out of Poland and into Slovakia. Polish police captured them, however, and turned the sisters over to the German Gestapo. They were sent to the Plaszow concentration camp outside Krakow, knowing full well that they would likely be shot upon arrival. Plaszow had a reputation for mass shootings. The Plaszow concentration camp was built on a Jewish cemetery and the Germans had removed the gravestones, using them to pave the roads.
After Karp's arrival, the callous commandant, Amon Goeth, got wind that a talented pianist was among the prisoners. He summoned Karp. It was December 9, 1943, the commandant's birthday, and he needed entertainment for his party. “A hairdresser did my hair, and they took me past screaming inmates to the villa,” Karp recalled in a 1994 article in the London Guardian. “There was a party, uniformed German officers, women in evening dresses, Goeth in a white dinner-jacket, drinking and food. I was so frightened, and I hadn't played for so many years because of the war that my fingers were almost stiff.”
Karp chose to play Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor. She was frightened during the entire performance, knowing that at any moment Goeth might pull a gun and kill her. She made it through the piece, and afterward Goeth declared, “Sie soll leben”—she shall live. Karp asked that her sister be spared, too, and Goeth agreed. Over the course of the war, Goeth was responsible for some 10,000 Jewish deaths. Steven Spielberg's 1993 haunting epic Schindler's List featured the Plaszow camp, with Ralph Fiennes portraying Goeth.
Survived the Holocaust
While at Plaszow, the sisters were forced to labor in a factory that made goods to support the German war effort. Other times, they spent entire days doing meaningless manual labor, like moving rocks in the nearby quarry. After about ten months, the sisters were stuffed into a crowded train and shipped to Auschwitz, a concentration camp where 75 percent of the prisoners were executed. Auschwitz was the largest World War II death camp, a place where Hitler carried out mass murders as part of his forced annihilation of the Jewish population. When she arrived at Auschwitz, Karp was branded with the number A27407 seared into her arm. After being branded, she knew she was not immediately going to the gas chamber. Her clothes were taken and she was issued a short, black dress and wooden clogs.
At the camp, Karp and her sister were given one meal a day, consisting of bread and potato-peel soup. They worked all day long, beginning at 5 a.m. It was cold and miserable and Karp knew that any day she might be selected for death. In a 2005 interview with David Cohen of the London Evening Standard, Karp described the experience this way: “My sister and I clung to each other. We scavenged for any food we could find. We hardly interacted with the other prisoners. It was the bleakest place on earth—everyone weak and starving, with empty, staring eyes—and you did what you could to survive.” Karp spent each day listening to the constant screams of children and their parents being separated. Upon arriving at the camps, young children, unable to do labor like adults, were usually executed. During this time, Karp prayed that the Allied Forces would bomb the camp to end their suffering.
Toward the end of the war, the sisters were transferred to another camp, in Sudetenland, an area of western Czechoslovakia that was occupied by the Germans. She was set free in May of 1945. Weighing 35 pounds less than she did before the war, Karp returned to Poland with her sister, but things were not the same in Krakow. Karp never found her brother or father or learned what had happened to them. Speaking to the London Times, Karp described the surreal experience this way: “One was walking in the streets like in a strange place because before the war Cracow had had 65,000 Jews … so when you went out to town you met people you knew all the time. But now you didn't meet anybody.”
Revived Music Career
After the war, Karp assisted orphans in Krakow and experienced a renewed interest in music. She scrounged a piano from a bombed-out house and began practicing. Her first post-war performance, in 1946, was broadcast on Polish radio, with Karp playing alongside the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. For this event, she performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. “I chose it because it is one of the hardest and needs the strength of a man, and I wanted to show the Poles and Germans that they didn't destroy me,” she told the London Evening Standard. She married Josef Karpf in 1946 and the couple moved to London, where he worked in the Polish embassy. They had two daughters, Eve and Anne. Anne Karpf grew up to be a journalist and wrote a 1996 book, The War After, which included firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors, including passages from her parents. Eve Karpf took an interest in music, becoming a voice actress.
After settling in Britain, Karpf Anglicized her name, dropping the “f” and using Karp as her stage name. By the 1950s she was playing extensively, giving recitals at London's famed Wigmore Hall. Over the next 20 years, she gave hundreds of concerts for the BBC and played alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony. Karp toured Europe and earned a reputation for her mastery of Chopin's music, although she also played Beethoven and Schubert. While performing, Karp played in an impersonal, direct manner, believing the music should speak for itself and come through the performer. She thought the performer's personality should be secondary to the music. When performing, Karp was known to place a pink handkerchief on her piano. This plain piece of fabric, purchased for a nominal fee after the war, served as a reminder of the luxury and femininity that was lost during her years in the concentration camps. Besides performing with orchestras, Karp played with a small ensemble that included Regina Schein on cello and Henriette Canter on violin. The musicians, who performed under the name the Alpha Trio, recorded a disc of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio for German-based Vox Records.
As Karp grew older, she was dismayed that genocide and war continued around the globe. According to the London Independent, Karp lamented, “When we came out of the camps, we thought, ‘Now we'll never need any passports, there will never be any more wars,’ we were sure of it. What a disappointment that so many Holocausts happen again in the world, like Rwanda and Yugoslavia …. When I see the ethnic cleansing and how the refugees cry and leave and go with the bundles—exactly the same as the Jews during the war. I see the same pictures again, and I can't believe it repeats itself.”
Karp continued performing into her 90s. She died July 9, 2007, in London. Her husband preceded her in death in 1993. She was survived by her two daughters.
Daily Telegraph (London), July 11, 2007.
Evening Standard (London), January 19, 2005.
Guardian (London), February 17, 1994; July 11, 2007.
Independent (London), July 17, 2007.
Times (London), July 14, 2007.