Fénelon, Fania (1918–1983)

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Fénelon, Fania (1918–1983)

French singer and activist in the French resistance, whose experiences in Auschwitz chronicle the mixture of suffering and solidarity that made up her daily routine as a death-camp prisoner. Name variations: Fanny Goldstein; Fania Fenelon. Pronunciation: FAHN-ya FAY-ne-lawn. Born Fanny Goldstein in Paris, France, on September 2, 1918; died in Paris on December 19, 1983; daughter of Jules Goldstein (an engineer and a Jew) and Marie (Bernier) Goldstein (a Catholic); graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with a first in piano, 1934; never married; no children.

Became a music-hall singer following graduation from the Paris Conservatoire (1934); joined the French underground after Germany occupied France (1940); arrested as a member of the resistance (1943); sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and became a member of the orchestra led by Alma Rosé (January 1944); liberated from Bergen-Belsen (April 15, 1945); published Playing for Time, about her camp experiences (1977), which was dramatized by playwright Arthur Miller for television (1980) and produced on stage in England (1985).

Fania Fénelon's life in a German Nazi death camp during World War II embodied the juxtaposition of one of humanity's most noble intellectual creations, music, with the almost inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust. She experienced this bizarre incongruity of beauty and evil every day, as a prisoner whose very existence depended on her continuing to perform as a musician and thus keep her captors entertained. Late in her life, the singer finally chose to tell her extraordinary story of a small group of women within the dreaded Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Millions now know it through her memoir, Playing for Time, and the play and television drama based on her work.

Fanny Goldstein was born into a Parisian bourgeois family, the daughter of Jules Goldstein, an engineer, and Marie Bernier Goldstein , a gifted singer. The child's talent for music was evident early, and by age ten she was enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1934, she graduated, with a first prize in piano. At age 16, she had a pleasant soprano voice and considerable stage presence, when she adopted Fania Fénelon as her nom de théâtre and set out to become a music-hall chanteuse. By the late 1930s, she was barely into her 20s and enjoying a successful career.

But Fénelon became increasingly aware of the pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic attitudes that gradually became accepted in France. The Nazi occupation which began in the late spring of 1940 radically changed her life. She found herself classified as a "non-Aryan" because her father was a Jew. In June 1940, when she witnessed a triumphant and gloating Adolf Hitler on his brief tour of a prostrate Paris, the humane values learned from her parents made Fénelon eager to "destroy this plague."

Before the end of 1940, Fénelon had secretly taken up arms against the German occupiers by joining the French resistance movement. As a singer in cabarets frequented by German officers, she found many opportunities to spy on the enemy. While German soldiers were drunk or occupied with a woman, she would photograph the contents of their briefcases and pass the film on to her associates in the underground. On two occasions, she was arrested and interrogated but released for lack of evidence.

In early 1943, betrayed to the Gestapo by a Russian member of her resistance cell, 25-year-old Fénelon was arrested. Though all of her compatriots were executed, she alone was kept alive in order to be interrogated and tortured for a period of months. She was then transferred to Drancy, a house of detention outside Paris.

We weren't saints. We did what we had to to stay alive.

—Fania Fénelon

On January 20, 1944, in the dead of winter, Fénelon was loaded along with 120 others into an overcrowded railroad car, where there was insufficient ventilation and no room to lie down. As sanitary conditions deteriorated, the prisoners were left filthy and further humiliated, and some of the weaker deportees died standing up during the journey. After almost three days, the train arrived at its unannounced destination, where many of the prisoners were relieved to see vehicles marked with red crosses. In the dark, some entered them with relief that they would not have to walk to the nearby camp, while others, exhausted by the horrendous journey, were now marched a distance of about two miles through the bitterly cold night to a gate bearing the slogan "Arbeit macht frei." Their destination was in fact Auschwitz-Birkenau and the "fortunate" prisoners chosen to ride in the Red Cross vehicles had actually been selected to be taken immediately to the camp's gas chambers from which their bodies would be removed and burned in the nearby crematorium.

Fénelon spent 48 hours in the quarantine section of the camp, where she and her fellow deportees were stripped, shaved, and tattooed on their arms; her number was 74862, with a tiny inverted triangle in blue ink. Soon afterward, she found herself addressed in Polish by a well-dressed woman, obviously a prisoner-trustee. All Fénelon could make out were the words for "Madame Butterfly." The thought that sprang to her mind was that all indeed must be lost, to find talk of music in such a hellish place as Auschwitz. Then a girl appeared and translated the woman's request: a musician was wanted who could play the piano and sing Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

Intrigued, but unsure what the request might signify, Fania soon found herself in a surprisingly warm and well-lit room in Auschwitz's Camp No. 2, complete with a Bechstein grand piano. Also in the barracks was a group of rather well-clothed women, all with musical instruments. Fénelon performed before the conductor of the ensemble, an attractive young woman with a slight Viennese accent, who proved to be none other than the young Viennese musician, Alma Rosé , a niece of the great composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, and daughter of Arnold Rosé, a brilliant violinist who was for many decades concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Frightened but ready to take advantage of the situation, Fénelon sang arias from Puccini's beloved opera as well as a popular hit song by Peter Kreuder, "When Spring Arrives" (Wenn es Frühling wird), and passed the audition with flying colors.

The origin of the Auschwitz-Birkenau women's orchestra was in many ways typical of the appalling fusion of culture and brutality that was the norm in the National Socialist German Reich. The commandant of the women's division, Maria Mandel , and the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Josef Kramer, were enthusiastic music lovers, who wanted personal orchestras for themselves. They believed such ensembles would entertain both the prisoners and the SS guards of the various camps within the vast Auschwitz complex. Once it existed, the orchestra performed almost without interruption. Alma Rosé and her musicians practiced and performed from morning through night—17 hours in an average day. The 47 women in the group were a veritable League of Nations, from ten different countries. Another vocalist besides Fénelon was from Hungary, and another was the German singer Lotte Lebeda , who had been a successful singer at the Prague Opera House. The orchestra performed under varying conditions and for many different kinds of audiences; sometimes they played for as few as three or four SS men gathered for the concert.

When Alma Rosé conducted her musicians in the women's block, the performance was almost invariably a grim occasion, for the audiences who listened to a concert in the morning were customarily marched off to the gas chambers that same afternoon. Some mornings, the orchestra played charming waltzes of Franz Lehar for infirm prisoners, knowing the fate awaiting them a few hours later. They were also required to play for visiting dignitaries, including Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the commander-in-chief of the vast empire of death in the Nazi camps. The response of the listeners to these performances varied greatly. Some sang along with the music and even smiled, obviously moved; others, worn down by starvation, torture and knowledge of their impending deaths, appeared utterly indifferent. Some were doubtless envious of the musicians who seemed to have discovered the secret of indefinitely prolonging their existence in the world of suffering and extinction.

For virtually all camp prisoners, the highest priority was not comfort or abstract dignity, but pure and simple physical survival. Against this standard, members of the Auschwitz women's orchestra were in fact a truly privileged group. Whether it reflected their cultural respect for music, or their awareness that the ensemble required some degree of self-respect in order to perform up to a competent musical standard, the Nazi commandants saw to it that the musicians benefited in ways denied their fellow prisoners. Although Fénelon and her fellow performers suffered from the near-starvation food rations common among the inmates, they enjoyed daily showers (others prisoners could shower every three weeks) and better toilet facilities. They were also relatively well-clothed compared to those who endured the frigid air in thin and inadequate garments. The musicians' barracks boasted individual beds, a stove, and an adequate supply of wood.

To calm his nerves, Josef Kramer insisted on hearing the orchestra's rendition of Robert Schumann's "Träumerei" from the Romantic composer's beloved and tender "Scenes of Childhood." Decades later, in a 1980 interview for a German newspaper, Fénelon noted the grotesque contrast between the murderous daily activities of the camp commandant, in which he oversaw the gassing of tens of thousands of prisoners he viewed as inferior life forms deserving to be extinguished, and his ardent desire for spiritual release by listening to the great compositions from the German musical pantheon. Listening to some particularly beautiful composition by a Teutonic master performed by this ensemble of "racially undesirable" and "sub-human" women, Kramer and other SS men were sometimes moved to tears. Faced with the question of fellow prisoners, who could never understand how the women performed for such an audience, Fénelon's answer, decades after the war, was simply: "What could we do? Should we have simply refused to perform, thus telling our captors, all right, now you can send us to the gas chambers?"

Alma Rosé did not live to see the day of liberation, dying in 1944; accounts differ as to the cause of her death. While Fania Fénelon was among those who did survive, there were several occasions when her life hung by a thread. On September 2, 1944, her 36th birthday, she was extremely ill and feared that the SS would use her weakness as a pretext—as it often did—to send her to the gas chambers. To keep Fénelon from being sent to the infirmary, which was often a prelude to extermination, her fellow musicians gave up precious pieces of their own bread to help her recover her health. At one point, clad in their nightshirts, they surrounded her bed and quietly sang the resistance songs she had often performed for them late at night when only a few guards were in the watchtowers. Fénelon never forgot this unique and moving act of human compassion.

During the last months in Auschwitz, the members of the orchestra, numb with grief after Rosé's death, struggled to keep intact her legacy of musical excellence and fierce determination to survive the camp. When Rosé's designated successor, a Russian pianist named Sonia, proved incapable of keeping the ensemble musically coherent, Fénelon would conduct secretly behind her back. As the quality of their music deteriorated, the musicians' fear for their survival increased with each passing day. Adding to the tension was the fact that, in the fall of 1944, Soviet forces were rapidly advancing on the camp. As she was about to enter the shower on November 1, 1944, Fénelon was told by a guard that the musicians were not to return to their barracks but to prepare instead for immediate evacuation. Marched to a waiting train, they boarded for three days of travel, without food and with no idea of their destination. They disembarked in an anonymous location where they were forced to stand in the freezing rain for nine hours before they realized their transfer had been to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp. The facility was in no way equipped to handle the many new prisoners. Not surprisingly, Fénelon and many of her fellow-musicians became desperately ill.

Suffering from typhus and close to death, she nevertheless witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British forces on April 15, 1945. The musicians, scheduled for execution at 3 pm that day, instead saw the arrival of the British at 10 am. On the only available piano, which was badly out of tune, Fénelon sang at the insistence of her comrades, improvising on "God Save the King" for at least half an hour, croaking out France's "La Marseillaise" and the Russian's adopted communist anthem, the "Internationale." When a British soldier brought her a microphone, her weakened voice was transmitted to London and broadcast by the BBC, and a recording of this incredibly moving concert of liberation survives in the BBC Recorded Sound Archives.

Fania Fénelon arrived back in Paris on May 17, 1945, still in fragile health. Eager to entertain the Allied troops that had smashed the Fascist system, she joined some American entertainers touring G.I. bases in occupied Germany. After she had recovered physically, it took many years before Fania Fénelon found the courage to tell her story. Sublimating her emotions in her work, she performed in recitals throughout Europe, always singing one song that she told her audiences she had learned at Auschwitz. For many years, she taught in music conservatories of the war-torn cities of Dresden, Leipzig, and East Berlin. Fearful that West Germany had been too quick in burying and hiding its bloody past, she lived and worked for decades in the German Democratic Republic, under East German rule, finally believing that the lessons of the Nazi evil had been truly learned and a new generation was free of anti-Semitism and militarism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when signs of a rising tide of neo-Nazism threatened a generation of young people in West Germany who had little or no knowledge of the horrors of Nazi genocide, Fénelon was finally motivated to write her autobiography as a warning to the younger generation. Her book Playing for Time was published in several countries, including the U.S. and England, was adapted by American playwright Arthur Miller into a powerful teleplay, and became a key part of the personal record of the Holocaust. Having spent time at the edge of the 20th-century's moral abyss, Fénelon had no illusions, but she still held hope for a better future for a sorely tested human race.


Anderson, Susan Heller. "Fania Fénelon: Musical Gift Meant Survival," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1978, pp. 42–43.

Die Zeit. Nr. 41, October 3, 1980, p. 64, cited in Kuhn, Annette and Valentine Rothe, Frauen im deutschen Faschismus. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Düsseldorf: Verlag Schwann, 1983, vol. II, pp. 200–204.

"Fania Fénelon," in The Times [London]. December 23, 1983, p. 12.

"Fania Fénelon, 74 [sic]; In Inmate Orchestra While at Auschwitz," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1983, p. 1439.

Fénelon, Fania. Playing for Time. NY: Atheneum, 1977.

Miller, Arthur. Arthur Miller's Playing for Time. Chicago, IL: Dramatic Publishing, 1985.

Wadler, Joyce. "Singing for Her Life at Auschwitz: Memoirs of a Survivor Who Has Always Been a Fighter," in The Washington Post. March 3, 1978, pp. D1, D3.

related media:

Playing for Time (148 min.), television drama, adapted by Arthur Miller, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Melanie Mayron , and Jane Alexander (1980), directed by Daniel Mann.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia