Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The Past Is Not Past at the Talbot County Free Library
I was wandering the library's aisles the other day in search of lost treasure when I came upon a title that rang a faint bell: Playing for Time by Fania Fénelon—hadn't I heard of that somewhere before? I was in the 940s—a set of numbers in the Dewey Decimal System that has long since assumed shape, color, and meaning for me—and the book's dust jacket (clearly outdated) looked promising (I remain forever wary of the fashionable). I pulled the thing from its shelf, read the first few paragraphs, walked over to the Circulation Desk and checked it out.
Fania Fénelon was working as a nightclub singer in Paris in 1943 when she was picked up by the Gestapo on suspicion of being an agent of the Resistance. She had, in fact, passed a few messages for the underground and, once or twice, found quarters for members of the Maquis passing through town, but she didn't really think of herself as a true combattante—those were the really brave people. Fénelon would spend nine months in the prison at Drancy, but despite horrendous beatings (featuring an iron bar), she never divulged any of what she knew about the Resistance. Eventually, when it began to look as if the Nazis in frustration would label her a Communist and have her shot, she did tell them that Fénelon was her stage name, that she was half-Jewish and that, if she had to die, she would prefer to do so under her father's name, Goldstein. Of course from the Gestapo's point of view, this solved everything. They promptly turned her over to the SS, who packed Fénelon into a cattle car along with who knows how many other “untermenschen,” and shipped her off to Auschwitz.
By some lights, I suppose, the woman was lucky. Upon arriving at Birkenau, she decided to walk to the camp instead of riding in the truck offered women and children too exhausted to take another step on their own. This decision, taken on a whim (it seemed a lovely night after the noisome confines of that cattle car), saved Fénelon from an immediate trip to the gas chamber. And then, shortly thereafter, she was recruited to sing and arrange music for the camp's orchestra, members of which were housed in slightly better dormitories, received slightly better rations, were allowed to bathe from time to time, and were not required to join the work gangs performing slave labor for the Nazis dawn to dusk.
Still, at Auschwitz, luck was always a matter of degree. Every day, Fénelon and her fellow musicians were required to play jaunty tunes for the rest of the camp's inmates as they marched off to their work assignments, and again at night when the poor souls limped back in. When trains arrived with new deportees the camp wasn't big enough to contain, again the orchestra had to stand by the railroad tracks and play waltzes and light opera as they watched the SS and their dogs organize the bewildered new arrivals into proper lines … that could then be marched off to the gas chambers. All day and night the crematoria burned, the air full of a nightmarish smoke that stuck to the skin and turned all surfaces oily.
On top of such dispiriting duties, the orchestra was expected to entertain the camp's SS contingent whenever any of its officers felt the need of a respite from their labors. Over the course of her time at Auschwitz, Fénelon regularly performed for Dr. Mengele, Josef Kramer (the camp's commandant, otherwise known as “the beast of Belsen”), and even, on one occasion, for Heinrich Himmler himself. But aside from these first-hand glimpses of some of humanity's greatest monsters, it is Fénelon's powers of observation, her clear-eyed depictions of her fellow detainees—their weaknesses and occasional, almost inexplicable, acts of heroism—that make Playing for Time such an enduring and important work of first-person history. That people reduced by circumstance to the most pitiable and vile of states should yet remain recognizably human, worthy of admiration, this is what made Playing for Time so impossible to put down, a book that will, I am sure, haunt me the rest of my days.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A survey conducted in 2018 found that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 don't know what Auschwitz was. I commend Playing for Time to them … and to the rest of the world.
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