Book review: Nazi horrors replaced by brutal Soviets for piano player

Incarcerated in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps Zuzana Ruzickova somehow survived and went on to create the complete recordings of her beloved Bach, writes James Lawless.

Zuzana Ruzickova, 90-year-old harpsichordist, poses for portrait photo at her flat in 2016 (a year prior to her death), in Prague, Czech Republic. Picture: Getty
Zuzana Ruzickova, 90-year-old harpsichordist, poses for portrait photo at her flat in 2016 (a year prior to her death), in Prague, Czech Republic. Picture: Getty

One Hundred Miracles: A Memoir of Music and Survival

Zuzana Ruzickova

Bloomsbury, €21

GROWING up in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, Zuzana Ruzickova fell in love with music, in particular the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

She revived an interest in the harpsichord, an instrument which had gone out of fashion, having been largely replaced by the piano, because of the many pieces recorded by her mentor Bach on it. However, her promising career in music was postponed dramatically by the advent of war and the rise of Hitler.

Her father felt his own country was betrayed by England and France with whom they had treaties of defence in case of invasion, and he was outraged when the so-called allies signed the Munich Agreement and ceded Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) to Germany in the vain hope of appeasing Hitler. 

Despite carrying a wound from the previous war, her father enlisted in the Czech army as the Nazis invaded. This prompted Zuzana to join a Zionist movement, and she started to learn Hebrew, believing then that Jews were a persecuted race and the only answer was for them to form their own state.

The ‘transports’ started in 1941 when 6,000 Jews were sent east to work for the Third Reich. Few of them returned and a Czech ghetto north of Prague called Terezín was created for the remaining 75,000 Jews.

Zuzana with other young people was ordered by the Gestapo to deliver ‘invitation cards’ to Jewish families, informing them of their transport numbers and which amounted to virtual death sentences.

Indeed, when she arrived at one apartment she discovered the entire family had gassed themselves. Zuzana was an only child born in Plzen in 1927. The family was prosperous. Her father, who had spent some time in America, came home and ran two successful toy shops. Zuzana was educated by governesses in Czech, German and English. She was particularly encouraged in English by her father who read stories to her and taught her English songs.

She claims she derived her rhythm in music from hearing her father’s voice reading the Greek epics to her. However, it was while sitting enthralled in a family theatre box for the spring festival of opera, where her grandmother took a box each year, which led to Zuzana’s decision to become a musician: ‘I would get myself so wound up about seeing a new concert that I almost made myself ill from the excitement and, sitting in that box, I sometimes even forgot to breathe.’

Although she was Jewish with a gypsy surname, there had been a great openness and religious tolerance among the people in her town before the German invasion. As a child, Zuzana liked every type of ceremony. As well as attending Jewish rites, she also attended the Catholic Corpus Christi procession and delighted in receiving the wafer, ‘the body of Christ’. She even received a blessing from a bishop after bearing flowers to the altar. No one tried to curtail her, least of all her parents, as they believed they were all part of a community.

As a teenager Zuzana was crammed into a cattle wagon bound for Terezin. She saw wooden carts laden with bodies headed for the crematorium. Picture: Getty
As a teenager Zuzana was crammed into a cattle wagon bound for Terezin. She saw wooden carts laden with bodies headed for the crematorium. Picture: Getty

Zuzana developed tuberculosis in 1935 but recovered after spending six months in a sanatorium in the Austrian Alps. It was there she heard the name Hitler for the fist time: her father who was visiting her was singing one of his favourite patriotic Czech songs and was ordered to stop, as he was told “Chancellor Hitler would not like it”. This happened not long after the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had been assassinated for banning the Nazi Party in Austria.

In 1936 Zuzana became gravely ill with pneumonia, and her mother, almost despairing, promised if she got well she could have anything she desired. Piano lessons, she said. Her mother kept her promise and Zuzana, with fresh determination, recovered — one of the hundred miracles referred to in the book. Her teacher known as Madame, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory, not only taught her the piano but encouraged her in her love of Bach to take up the harpsichord, an instrument on which Bach had composed 24 of his preludes and fugues.

This memoir, related in her own words, before her death in 2017, to Wendy Holden, is constructed in chapters which are not sequential and alternate between the horrors of the concentration camps, her post-war struggles under a communist regime and her ultimate success as a world-renowned musician with the support of her husband, the Czech composer Viktor Kalabis. The Gentile, Viktor, another of her ‘miracles’, showed no fear of being labelled a ‘White Jew’ for associating with her, and he was determined that they would marry despite the wave of anti-Semitism in 1950s communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.

Before all that however, with her tag number around her neck and no longer allowed to use her name, the teenager Zuzana was crammed into a cattle wagon bound for Terezin. There she witnessed the sight of wooden carts laden with bodies headed for the crematorium where the smell of tinged hair and burned flesh filled the air. And later transported to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen she suffered from hunger and physical exhaustion. The internees had to endure plagues of lice and fleas and rats which brought on epidemics of typhus, meningitis, jaundice and even encephalitis, a disease which Zuzana herself contracted.

There are harrowing accounts of the painful death of her father from volvulus and the heart-wrenching separations from her mother in the various camps.

Zuzana was prepared to accompany her to her death which seemed increasingly likely because of her age and infirmity, as they lined up naked to be selected to go ‘links’ for the gas chamber or ‘rechts’ for the work detail. Zuzana’s faith in humanity was tested to the quick, and the despair of some of the internees was palpable when ‘their whole expression, especially the eyes would be dead… a sort of utter resignation to one’s fate… which left them unable to regenerate mentally’.

In 1944 as the Germans retreated, they were moved to Hamburg where allied planes bombed the city, killing many of the prisoners. Zuzana was sent to help repair damaged oil pipelines, and it was while loading ships with salvaged bricks and rubble that she finally ruined her hands. They were not given gloves and in the cold ‘our skin became chafed and scored by the relentless passage of wet brick until our fingers split, cracked and bled, becoming extremely painful’.

Although she and her mother ‘miraculously’ survived the camps, the ending of the war did not bring any great joy to Zuzana or to her country. It was just swopping one dictatorship for another. For, while Zuzana was rebuilding her strength and relearning with her damaged hands how to play music again, the Soviets in a 1948 putsch, which led to the murder of the foreign minister and resignation of the country’s president, declared Czechoslovakia a communist state.

However notwithstanding poor health, Zuzana showed great resilience in later years as she travelled to perform her music, even though the communist regime took up to 80% of her earnings. Despite being under constant surveillance, she also selflessly promoted her husband’s compositions as she worked on her own project which was to create the complete recordings of her beloved Bach. This she finally achieved in 1974.

https://jameslawless.net

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