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An exemplary 20th century Eastern European life

A review of One Hundred Miracles: A Memoir of Music and Survival. By: Zuzana Růžičková with Wendy Holden. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019.

February 3, 2021 - Gabirel M. Paletz - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

One Hundred Miracles: the title is factual and accurate. In just over two pages of her memoirs, the great Czech musician Zuzana Růžičková describes three. In the selection for death or work at the woman’s camp in Auschwitz, her mother is told to go left for the gas chambers and Růžičková to the right, to work in Germany. With the courage of the desperate, she confronts the drunken Obersturmfűhrer and gets him to shrug and save both her mother and herself. This initial miracle seemed to be for nothing, however, after the infamous Dr Josef Mengele visits the woman’s camp to decree that he makes the selections. Again, Růžičková stands in line awaiting life or death. But before Mengele can decide her fate, a downpour and thunderstorm scatter the SS guards and allow Růžičková and her fellow prisoners to hide. However, even this second miracle does not prevent her small, frail mother from getting in line and being selected another time. Růžičková finds her mother, certain the gas chamber will again separate them. But in the third miracle, her mother grins as she says she was chosen to work: “For some reason I have never been able to fathom, Dr Mengele sent her to the right.” The whims of a drunken Nazi, a sudden thunderstorm and an inexplicable decision to spare her adored mother: the miracles accumulated in the life of Zuzana Růžičková as a teenager, who survived the concentration camps of the Second World War and who persevered as a pianist and harpsichordist in communist Czechoslovakia, to become the first musician to record all of the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

A modern lesson

Růžičková built exemplary achievements in her life despite suffering the worst that Eastern Europe had to offer in the 20th century. As a middle-class Jewish woman, she survived physical and moral extermination by fascism in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the professional and spiritual privations of communism behind the Iron Curtain. What she accomplished against the tide of 20th-century Eastern European history brings clarity as well as inspiration for maintaining values in our own challenging times. Reading Růžičková’s book in a Europe afflicted by the coronavirus illuminates the details of her narrative. Like the pandemic, the details of Růžičková’s life in the concentration camps seem incredible. She writes of the camps that, “When there is nobody left who lived through this and can be asked about the details, it will be easy to believe that it was not possible. Because it’s unbelievable, it sounds impossible. And yet, it happened…”

Disbelief is a modern lesson, as healthy people cannot imagine how easily they could end up in the hospital with the coronavirus through simple social acts we take for granted and to which we feel entitled. We can also project our current situation back to Růžičková’s time: imagine the spread of epidemics behind the façade of the “model” Nazi camp of Terezín, the first camp in which she was interned, whose social distancing gave each inmate just 1.5 square meters of space.

The inspiration from Růžičková’s book at first seems harder to come by, from her youth as a Czech Jewess under the Nazis to her adulthood in communist Czechoslovakia: “I couldn’t believe that there was another regime like the Nazis – so cruel, so stupid, so anti-Semitic.” Each regime used reason to torture, both physically and psychologically. Under the Nazis, Jewish teenagers had to deliver the notices of transport to Terezín to Jewish households. In Terezín, the Jewish council of elders had to decide who would stay in the ghetto-camp and who would leave for the work and death camps on the next transport. In Auschwitz, mothers had to choose whether or not to go with their young children to the gas chambers.

The decades of communism, whether in the Stalinist period of the 1950s or the “normalisation” following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, was less outwardly brutal but as insidious as the Nazism that infested Czechoslovakia during the war. Růžičková lists the “more sophisticated ways of torture,” the merciless harassment, spying as a compulsion of citizenship, threats to one’s nearest and dearest to ensure compliance and the stymieing of careers: “all of us lost not only the best years of our careers, but also the best society could have got from us”. Her last comment makes perhaps the greatest irony of the ideology that was supposed to realise the potential of people oppressed by capitalism. In fulfilling her musical abilities, Růžičková faced seemingly insuperable odds.

The structure of the book affords neither Růžičková nor her readers much relief.[1] The organisation parallels her childhood in peacetime and adolescence under the Nazi occupation as a young music student, to an internationally recognised pianist and harpsichordist. The miracles build up under the “terrible symmetry” of the Nazi and Communist regimes. The lowest point in the book adjoins the chapter on the 1968 invasion of her country with a chapter on her time in Bergen-Belsen, the last concentration camp to which Růžičková and her mother were sent, and the one from which they were never meant to return. The structure of Růžičková’s memoirs illustrates what she reiterates as the pattern of her life: “As with everything in my life … there was hope and then there was a loss of hope … As always, though, hope was crushed [in being sent from Hamburg to Belsen] … We learned not to hope [following the end of the Prague Spring]”.

It is hard to argue with Růžičková and the lessons of her Eastern European life, with flashes of uplift followed by voids of hope. She lost all of her Czech relatives in the camps, among them her father in Terezín and her cousin, whom she loved as a sister, in Belsen. Following her return from the camps, she lost her mother to dementia and her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabnis, to cancer. Yether mother witnessed the success of her daughter as the first musician to record all of the keyboard works of Bach, to whom Růžičková’s memoirs are dedicated. Růžičková also witnessed the Velvet Revolution of 1989 with her husband that freed their homeland from communism. Even after losing her mother and husband and her ability to play music, Růžičková only left us in 2017. She was more than a survivor, as the hard-won inspiration of her memoirs testifies.

Spirit of morality

Růžičková had three great allies in the endurance and maintenance of her values. First, she was able, even in the concentration camps, to maintain a sense of dignity and continuity of her life before the war. Although she struggled to maintain this sense of connection, she never became wholly brutalised by the criminal regime. Růžičková lists the ways she kept up the vestiges of her past daily life in the camps. “You recite poems. You sing … you fall in love and have a boyfriend, even though either of you may leave at any moment on a transport”. If her book has a hero, it is Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch, the homosexual son of Orthodox Jews, who showed her how to keep her dignity where every detail mitigated against it. Hirsch practiced his principles with miraculous dexterity in the camps, creating a whitewashed, painted home for the children of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Růžičková remembers and honours Hirsch as “the spirit of morality” in Auschwitz, “who kept us in another world … where humanity and decency were still important”.

Secondly, even in the miserable conditions of the death camps, Růžičková found pleasures that, although seemingly meagre, nourished her as much as the ones of her past life. In Belsen, it was impossible to keep up the semblances of normality: “there was no room for support, humour or friendship. We were all just fighting for survival”. But even there, Růžičková found unexpected comforts in conditions designed for extinction. There, “an extra crust of bread, a different soup, or a warmer spot out of the wind … gave you the same feeling of satisfaction that a normal person feels when he has a successful love affair, is lucky, or wins the lottery”. Růžičková’s daily survival depended on gleaning from the most dispiriting conditions, a sustaining sense of satisfaction.

Thirdly, Růžičková faced the systematic depravity of the political systems that ruled her with the love of her mother and husband and an unquenchable dedication to music. Her ability to practice it was interrupted and seemingly terminated by the forced labour she performed in the war. The harsh work of passing wet bricks and rubble made her fingers split, crack and bleed. After the war, she received regular discouragement from teachers in her attempts to resume her music. But she never surrendered her love of it and her determination to make a career out of it. As she writes in her memoirs as her unofficial motto: “Music was my defiance”. Bach, in particular, proved to be her brother and saviour. Like Růžičková’s life, Bach’s had music and death as its interweaving themes.

Thus, Růžičková never succumbed to what she and other inmates of the camps called “the Auschwitz disease” in which “the whole expression and especially the eyes would be dead …[in] a complete physical shutdown – the collapse of a principle”. Even when Růžičková attempted suicide after the war, in despair over the obstacles to return to music, she was never completely vanquished. As she writes of her time in the camps: “I badly wanted to live. I had so much love of life.”

Unexpected optimism

The three qualities that enabled Růžičková to survive matured into a very Eastern European combination of suppleness and stubbornness, flexibility and determination. By keeping alive the sense of a normal life, she helped to revive it in her homeland after both 1945 and 1989. By adapting her sense of pleasure, she never fully surrendered her feelings of freedom. And by persevering in her music, she gave her life a purpose through the bleakest circumstances. The other great duality of Růžičková’s life reflects both the weight of Eastern European history and the region’s sometimes lighter fate. To Aleš Březina, director of the Bohuslav Martinů Institute founded by Růžičková’s husband, she matched a “long life of acquired scepticism” with “an innate optimism”.

Růžičková’s scepticism derived from the extremes of morality and immorality she witnessed throughout her life. During the war, she faints at hearing Chopin in a factory canteen – the first classical music she has heard since her internment. A German foreman takes her to his office. Examining her, he remarks with shock: “That looks like a human!” as if suddenly recognising her as a fellow human being. His reaction, like the horror of the Wehrmacht soldiers on seeing the female inmates from Auschwitz, shows how successfully but not utterly the Nazis dehumanised their victims. Surviving Belsen, both Růžičková and her readers believe the worst is past. But on the first night that she and her mother return from the death camp to their native Pilsen (Plzeň), they find no welcome or shelter. The extremes of selfishness and generosity, cowardice and sacrifice, crushing refusals and surprising succour that she experienced, leave Růžičková undecided by the end of her memoirs whether “everyone is potentially a criminal, or…everyone is potentially decent”.

Růžičková’s uncertainty fed her optimism. To Březina, she always had more than survival as her goal: “To her, much more important than mere surviving was the quality that a person gives to their life every day”. Růžičková’s ability to elevate the quality of lives around her is why friends still recall her affectionately by the Czech diminutive of her given name, Zuzanka. Růžičková’s optimism grew from her ability to weather the most disheartening circumstances to excel at the national musical tradition. It likely felt natural for her as a Czech to devote herself to classical music, which receives popular appreciation in Czech culture unsurpassed by any other in Europe. Růžičková tells the story of one year at the Concertino Praga International Music Competition for Children, where competitors were asked what they would do if their government banned classical music. The children from the West said theywould consider other professions, while the Czech quartet responded: “We would do something to make the government fall.”

Incredible endurance

Růžičková’s optimism was rewarded as her dedication to the harpsichord came in just the right period. Her last pupil, Mahan Esfahani, notes that when he studied the instrument with her in the 1990s and early 2000s, his colleagues considered her “terribly passé, a relic of an earlier age”. Equally, at the start of her career in the 1950s, Růžičková decided on her instrument as a professional musician when, as she notes, “a career as a harpsichordist…was considered a joke”. But she displayed her determination at the best possible moment, as she entered the 1956 ARD International Music Competition for Young Musicians in the first year the contest had a harpsichord category. As Růžičková states, winning this award “changed everything” for her career. She then became part of the “new fashion for early music in Czechoslovakia” in the early 1960s and “the baroque music revolution” during the decade that brought her trips abroad and friendships with western musicians, including Christopher Hogwood as well as her long collaboration with the Czech violinist Josef Suk. Růžičková’s husband promised her after the 1968 invasion and collapse of the Prague Spring: “You can’t be a slave for ever”. Her dogged and well-timed cultivation of her talents granted her exceptional opportunities to part the Iron Curtain.

Růžičková’s endurance seems as incredible as the current global pandemic. She left us her memoirs to extrapolate the lessons of her perseverance. We might heed the story of this Czech musician who survived tuberculosis, pneumonia, pleurisy, encephalitis, typhus, malaria, Nazism and Communism in the Eastern Europe of the 20th century. Learning from her lifelong commitments, we might fix on what can carry us through the current crises as well as ones to come. It may be a relationship, a profession, a vocation – or, as for Zuzana Růžičková, all three through her music, that let her accrue her sum of miracles.

Gabirel M. Paletz is a professor of film studies, and a writer on Eastern Europe based in Prague.


[1] I attribute the structure of the book to Růžičková’s co-author Wendy Holden. Holden did more than amass Růžičková’s recollections: she checked, supplemented and organised Růžičková’s often-told narratives without the final oversight of the musician who died a week after their last meeting

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