It was not the kind of movie I’d normally watch in the evenings leading up to Christmas. The Christmas story, no matter how often repeated, is uplifting, but this movie was unrelievedly dark and brutal. “Playing For Time” was the title. You may have seen it, as it has been around for years. I began watching because it was written by Arthur Miller and has a top-notch cast.
“Playing For Time” is based on the memoir of Fania Fenelon, a Jewish cabaret singer who had been a popular entertainer before the war, but was now a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz. Having been a member of the French underground, she had no reason to expect mercy. She arrived as part of a group of more than 1,100. All but 40 were almost immediately put to death. She became a member of the women’s orchestra at the camp, staffed by female prisoners who could play an instrument and had orchestral experience. The orchestra, directed by Alma Rose’, well-known violinist and niece of famed composer Gustave Mahler, played each morning as the prisoners marched out, played for trainloads of new arrivals, and played on demand for their SS masters.
Against the backdrop of unrelenting filth, cruelty, and starvation, the SS officers, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would come over to be entertained and would express great appreciation for performances by the orchestra. One of the SS officers is credited with often demanding a performance at the end of his long, exhausting day and would weep at the beauty of the music. He is also credited with gassing 2,400 men, women, and children. In the midst of this life of horror and bizarre contrasts, the women of the orchestra lived with massive guilt. They were staying alive by catering to the wishes of their masters, while their fellow humans were being murdered.
While there has been considerable disagreement among some of the Auschwitz survivors as to individual elements of Fanelon’s memoir, mostly concerning how central she was to the action, the basics of the story and the fantastic degree of cruelty and inhumane treatment are beyond dispute. Oddly, though, or perhaps not so much, humans’ propensity for inhumanity was clearly present among the prisoners themselves. The Jewish women were housed, if you can call the filthy hovels in which they live “housing,” with a group of Polish women. The Jewish women despised the Poles; the Poles had no use for Jews.
There are countless lessons to be learned from this depressing story, but the one that affected me most is not listed, at least not where I could find it, as one of the points Arthur Miller wished to make. A brief scene occurred that was a reminder I will carry forward with me into the New Year.
During a loud argument among the women, one of them referred to the SS — who considered them not just second-class citizens, but of no class at all, and who were killing their countrymen, women, and children every day, and who they felt certain would eventually kill them — as “humans.” This drew a roar of protest. How dare you call them human, the women shouted. But, of course, they were. Clerks, farm workers, merchants, ordinary citizens, resentful of their defeated condition, and coached to turn their anger and resentment against a familiar target, they had become the epitome of evil. These murderous thugs who could slaughter men, women, and children without flinching, then weep at the beauty of a performance of “Die Traumerei,” were frighteningly human. As are we all.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”