Ninetieth birthday of Auschwitz camp musician celebrated with Wigmore Hall concert

PUBLISHED: 14:00 09 January 2016

Maya Jacobs Wallfisch (left) and Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Picture: Polly Hancock

Maya Jacobs Wallfisch (left) and Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

Cellist Raphael Wallfisch is paying tribute to his mother Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived the Holocaust to enjoy a high profile career with the English Chamber Orchestra, find Michael White.

All things considered, the odds have been against Anita Lasker-Wallfisch reaching the age of 90. As a teenager she endured the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As an older woman she’s smoked defiantly and in prodigious quantities. And sitting in her Kensal Rise home, watching her get through another five or six in under two hours, I’m amazed that she appears to be in such good shape.

But then, this is a woman with reserves of inner strength not to be brought down by tobacco. The story of how she survived Auschwitz by playing the cello in the camp orchestra – told in her own published memoir of what happened, Inherit the Truth, as well as a subsequent film – is well known; and she’s spent much of her adult life writing and lecturing as a witness to what happened in the Holocaust.

But Auschwitz has – thank God – been just a small part of her life as a musician. For some fifty years she played the cello with the English Chamber Orchestra, a band she helped to found in 1948 when it was called the Goldsborough Orchestra. She married the distinguished pianist Peter Wallfisch, settling in the same house she still occupies. And she produced a son, the cellist Raphael Wallfisch, whose own composing, conducting and singing offspring have made her the matriarch of a whole dynasty of NWLondon musicians.

It’s for this as much as anything else that her 90th year is about to be celebrated with a concert that Raphael and his string-playing colleagues in the Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch give at Wigmore Hall this month.

Through dense clouds of his mother’s cigarette smoke - for which he’s responsible in that he’s under maternal instruction to bring duty-free packs of 400 from his tours abroad – he tells me that although Anita won’t be on the stage herself at the Wigmore, the repertoire was chosen to reflect her interests. And he also tells me how significant it was for him to grow up in that NW10 musicians’ household.

“My mother didn’t actually teach me’, he says, ‘but she used to yell through the door at the people who did. And of course I used to watch her practising – usually with a cigarette in her bowing hand and a blue trail coming off it. I thought that was very cool.

“Through her I was effectively a child of the ECO and used to go along to recording sessions in the golden days of the late 60s/early 70s when Barenboim was the main conductor and there were super-talents like du Pre and Zukerman floating around.

“I remember the fantastic sound the orchestra made then. But most of all I remember the party atmosphere. It seemed like everyone was having the greatest fun, and it was all just a game. But such amazing things came out of it”.

Anita’s own memories take the story back to the 1940s when she came to London after the liberation of the camps and found herself in another household of musicians - in West Heath Drive NW3, presided over by the violinist Emanuel Hurwitz.

“ There were so many of us in that house”, she recalls, “making so much noise, it drove the neighbours crazy. I think one of them ended up in a lunatic asylum.

“I was the youngest there, and when this idea of setting up an orchestra came about I initially said no. Then I suppose I changed my mind. Some of the players were still in uniform, they hadn’t been discharged from military service, but there were some wonderful players among them. And of course, the most eminent soloists then got involved. People like Murray Perahia, Rostropovich…and Benjamin Britten who I’d first encountered in different circumstances a couple of years earlier.

“I was still in Bergen-Belsen when he flew out with Menuhin to play in the camp in 1945, immediately after liberation. We were a terrible audience I think. And I had no idea who Britten was at that point. It was Menuhin who was the draw – until I heard the man at the piano and was completely won over by his musicianship

“I told him this years later in the ECO, and he said not to worry because he wasn’t famous then, and in any case they’d got his name wrong on the concert programme and put him down as Benjamin Button”.

Raphael Wallfisch (pictured below) has taken more care with the proof-reading for his mother’s birthday concert, which is at Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 20th Jan, 7.30pm (wigmore-hall.org.uk). And if you want to see more of him, he’s also appearing onstage alongside Carlos Acosta in a new ballet that opens tomorrow (8th Jan) at the Royal Opera House. Sadly he doesn’t dance but sits behind his cello, playing music he describes as “deconstructed Tudor, like a masque” while people in Elizabethan costumes dance around him.

Based on the life and loves of the Virgin Queen, the piece is called ”Elizabeth” and runs for ten nights. Details: roh.org.uk

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