BERLIN — AT various points during shows, the German rapper Kutlu Yurtseven gestures to a bandmate sitting demurely off to the side. That’s the cue for 89-year-old Esther Bejarano, a diminutive woman with a snow-white pixie cut, to jump in with a song. “When will the heavens open up, again, for me?” is one favorite, the refrain of a local carnival tune. “When will they open up?”
It is an unusual pairing. Ms. Bejarano is one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz Girls’ Orchestra, the only all-female ensemble among the many Nazi-run prisoner musical groups in the camp system. Among other duties, the Girls’ Orchestra was responsible for playing the marches that imprisoned women had to keep step to as they went out to work in the morning and, even more cruelly, as they returned, half-dead, at the end of the day.
Five years ago, hoping to reach more young people with her story and her message of tolerance and anti-fascism, Ms. Bejarano teamed up with Microphone Mafia, a German hip-hop duo with Turkish and Italian roots. They have released their first album, and have been playing concerts throughout Germany and Europe ever since.
The music combines songs like the poignant Yiddish resistance song, “We’ll Live Forever,” composed in the Nazi-run Jewish ghetto in Vilna just before it was liquidated, with rap passages about current problems like racism that, in Ms. Bejarano’s view, show that the lessons of the Holocaust still need to be learned.
Performances always begin with Ms. Bejarano reading aloud from her autobiography, which tells the story of a life shaped by two forces: the Nazis and music.
Ms. Bejarano was born Esther Loewy in Saarlouis, in what is now southwestern Germany, in 1924. Her parents had met in Berlin as teenagers, when her father was hired as a piano teacher for her mother, and the two fell in love. “I picture it as having been very lovely,” Ms. Bejarano said with a smile.
Hitler’s rise to power put an end to what Ms. Bejarano described as “a lighthearted childhood.” By the time she was 16, she was separated from her family and interned in a Nazi work camp outside Berlin. Her parents, she learned later, were deported the same year to Riga, Latvia, where they were shot.
In 1943, she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her hair was cut off, and she was tattooed and forced to do backbreaking labor. For extra food, she sometimes sang songs by Schubert, Bach or Mozart for barracks leaders.
The Nazis regarded camp orchestras as status symbols, and, within a month of Ms. Bejarano’s arrival in Auschwitz, Maria Mandl, the SS commander in charge of the women’s camp, decided that she, too, wanted one.
When approached, Ms. Bejarano said she could play the piano. There was no piano, she was told, but they needed an accordion player. “I had never held an accordion in my hands, before,” Ms. Bejarano said. “But I said I could play one.”
It worked, and she was accepted into the orchestra. “To this day I can’t believe that I did it.”
In addition to entertaining SS officers with popular ditties or classical selections, the Girls’ Orchestra also had to play for new detainees arriving for the gas chambers. Often, people smiled and waved at the musicians. “They must have thought, ‘Where music is playing, things can’t be that bad,’ ” Ms. Bejarano said. “They didn’t know where they were going. But we knew. We played with tears in our eyes.”
BECAUSE fewer female than male prisoners could play musical instruments, members of the orchestra received somewhat better treatment than their male counterparts, and Ms. Bejarano was able to survive two serious illnesses.
After six months in Auschwitz, new regulations allowed her to transfer to a labor camp because she had a Christian grandmother. During a forced march in the last days of the war, she and several friends hid in the woods and escaped. After a few harrowing months traveling Germany on foot, dodging Russian soldiers and searching for her family, she acquired false papers and boarded a ship headed to what was then British Palestine. There, she reunited with her sister, Tosca.
While some who played in the camps and survived never touched an instrument again, for Ms. Bejarano, there was never any question: As soon as she left Germany, she began training as a singer. “Some people say, after Auschwitz, you can’t write any more poems, there can’t be music, beautiful pictures,” she said. “I think that’s completely wrong. We have to express to people what happened to us.”
For many years, though, Ms. Bejarano was unable to talk about her time in the camps. In Israel, where she settled, she sang in an award-winning workers’ choir, and gave hundreds of concerts as a soldier in the army. She met and married Nissim Bejarano, a truck driver whose family had immigrated from Bulgaria. They had two children. She taught local children to play the recorder.
But, in 1960, after much soul searching, the Bejarano family left for Germany: Her husband had fought during the 1956 Suez crisis and was morally opposed to further armed conflict with Israel’s neighbors. Settled in Hamburg, Ms. Bejarano had no time for music. She cared for her small children and later, with her husband, ran a laundry service.
It was not until the 1970s that she decided to break her silence, after witnessing the German police shield right-wing extremists against protesters. “The next day, I joined the Association of the Persecutees of the Nazi Regime,” she said. There, other members encouraged her to tell her story, and to return to music.
SHE spoke at schools. She joined two bands, singing Jewish resistance and antiwar songs with her children. She delivered protest speeches at neo-Nazi marches. A recurring nightmare of being trampled by Nazi soldiers’ boots finally ceased. “I freed myself, inwardly,” she said.
Rap is still not her favorite genre, but Ms. Bejarano likes her bandmates’ lyrics and is glad for the chance to reach a younger audience. Last year, for example, she spoke out against the tragedy near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Italy where hundreds of African migrants fleeing war and poverty drowned en route to Europe.“You have to help people like this,” she said. “I know it from my sister Ruth. She made it to Switzerland, but the border guards turned her back. The Germans shot her.”
The plight of modern-day refugees is just one of many problems that keeps Ms. Bejarano singing — in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, English, French and Romany, the language of the Roma, or Gypsies. “I use music to act against fascism,” she said. “Music is everything for me.”
Christa Spannbauer, a filmmaker and journalist, said that the musicians’ work makes it easier for young people to engage with the past constructively. “If you just see the documentaries, you lose hope,” said Ms. Spannbauer, whose own father was in the Waffen-SS as a teenager. “But when you see the courage of the people who survived, it gives you hope in humanity and strength to act. The kids see her and say, ‘O.K., we want to do something.’ ”
Last year, Ms. Bejarano added the Order of Merit, one of Germany’s most important medals, to the many honors she has received. Soon, she and the band will head to Istanbul. “I am always on the road,” she said, shaking her head.
For Mr. Yurtseven of the Microphone Mafia, every concert with Ms. Bejarano is an inspiration. “Sometimes I’m kind of tired,” he said. “Then I look at Esther, and think, ‘O.K., don’t tell yourself you’re tired. She’s 89 and still fighting for a better world.’ ”
"VERGESSEN kann man nie," so, Esther Bejarano im Interview.