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Press release

  • 19 January 2009

Auschwitz orchestra survivor to speak at Holocaust Memorial Day

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Auschwitz and Belsen survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch..

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita pictured in 1938, playing the cello

The extraordinary story of how music helped a Holocaust survivor endure the horrors of Auschwitz will be told at this year's Holocaust Memorial Day at the University of Sussex.

The afternoon event comprises talks, discussions and film screenings on Wednesday 28 January. Now in its seventh year, the event is organised by the University's Centre for German-Jewish Studies and takes place in the Chowen Lecture Theatre in the Medical School on the University of Sussex campus, commencing at 1.45pm.

The programme includes a talk given by guest speaker Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who will describe her time as a prisoner and cellist in the women's orchestra at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during the Second World War. The orchestra played marches as the slave labourers in the camp went about their work, and was expected to give concerts for the SS guards at the camp.

A talented cellist from a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch was just a teenager when she was sent to Auschwitz with her sister in 1944, for trying to escape the country with forged papers.

She expected to die in the gas chambers there, but while being shaved and tattooed by a fellow prisoner, she was recruited into the orchestra, under the direction of its conductor and fellow prisoner Alma Rosé (a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler). It was an association that kept Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch - and her sister, who joined her at Auschwitz - alive.

Following transferral to the equally notorious holding camp at Belsen, the 19-year-old cellist was one of 50,000 sick and starving people liberated by British troops in 1945. On arriving in England in 1946, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch began to rebuild her life and music career. She married and had a family, but did not return to her native Germany for 50 years.

The experience of the Holocaust did not, however, destroy Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch's love of music. In a recent interview she said: "The Nazis destroyed many things, but not music."

Her story is the subject of a film, The Works, Playing to Survive (1996), which will be screened on the day. The film follows Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch on her return to Auschwitz with her daughter in 1996. Excerpts from a second film, Auschwitz, The Business of Death, will also be screened.

Leading academics and campaigners will talk on the wider legacy of the Holocaust. Philip Spencer, from Kingston University, will speak about the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, while Dr Stephen Smith, Chairman of the Aegis Trust, will address the challenges of genocide prevention in the 21st century.

Subsequent question and answer sessions will be chaired by University of Sussex historian Professor Saul Dubow and Professor Christian Wiese, Director of the University's Centre for German-Jewish Studies.

Admission is open to all and free of charge, thanks to the generous support of the Association of Jewish Refugees

Notes for editors

The speakers:

  • Stephen Smith is Chairman of the Aegis Trust and the co-founder and Director of the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottingham which he established with his brother James in 1995. Aegis undertakes research and policy advice with regard to genocide prevention. It runs genocide education programmes and provides support for survivors and communities where genocide has happened. Aegis is responsible for the Kigali Memorial Centre, Rwanda (opened 2004). In 2005, Aegis launched the "Protect Darfur" campaign and is highly active in lobbying to end the genocide in Darfur. It also coordinates the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group for Genocide Prevention.


  • Philip Spencer is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, where he teaches courses on the Holocaust, on the Politics of Mass Murder, and on Human Rights.


  • Anita Lasker-Wallfisch has written about her experiences in her book, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen (1996)

Organisers and sponsors


  • The Association for Jewish Refugees provides an extensive range of social and welfare services, and grants financial assistance to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution living in Great Britain. Founded in 1941, the AJR has extensive experience attending to the needs of Holocaust refugees and survivors who came to the UK before, during and after the Second World War.


National Holocaust Memorial Day falls every year on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau in 1945. Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemorates the tragic loss of life through genocide from the Holocaust to the present day. The theme for this year's commemoration is 'Stand Up to Hatred'


University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Danielle Treanor. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email


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