Zuzana Ruzickova - surviving the horrors of the Holocaust

Zuzana Ruzickova

Zuzana Ruzickova is one of Europe's most respected harpsichordists; she has released around a hundred albums and played in concert halls around the world. She was born in Pilsen in 1927 into an upper class Jewish family, a family that was soon to be decimated by the Holocaust; only she and her mother survived. When I visited her in her flat in Prague 3, she told me how life gradually became unbearable for Jews after the Nazi occupation.

"We had to wear yellow stars, and we were forbidden quite a lot of things - to go to the cinema, to travel on the tram or bus. It came gradually, you know. At first one thought, well this will pass, and then came another thing and another forbidden thing. And then we had to leave the school, and then we had to leave our flat. There was always this faith, this can't last long and the war won't last long, and the Nazis won't last long.

"My father had spent four years in America with his family and we had affidavits, so we could have very easily left. But my father was a great patriot and a member of Sokol, a very patriotic...club. He said, one doesn't leave one's country when it's in dire distrait. So he stayed. In the end we went first to Theresienstadt."

Tell us about Terezin. The Nazis famously, or notoriously, tried to present Terezin as a kind of model concentration camp - what was it really like there?

"First of all there was a lot of hunger. Of course it was very, very inconvenient and...stressing. On the other hand, the elite of Europe were in Terezin. As far as the cultural life was concerned, it was extraordinary. Maybe it was only after the war that I realised how extraordinary it was, because I was only 14 when I went and I imagined everywhere there was such a climate of cultural and scientific...celebrities, as I was used to in Theresienstadt."

Auschwitz,  photo: CTK
When you heard you were being sent to Auschwitz did you think that was the end?

"We didn't know that we were being sent to Auschwitz - we were told we were being sent to a work camp somewhere in Poland. But there was no mention of Auschwitz. That was still a secret, but I had some...doubts about it, because I knew Freddy Hirsch - you would have heard about him - and he was one of the people who met the famous Belystok children. That was a group of children who suddenly appeared in Terezin, very emaciated.

"When the children went to the showers they started to cry and to weep. Evidently they told something about the gas chambers. Freddy Hirsch came into contact with them - though he shouldn't have, he was sent to Auschwitz because of that - and he told some of it to his friends, and through this I knew something about it."

Auschwitz,  photo: CTK
How long did you spend at Auschwitz, and do you have any particular memories, for want of a better word?

"I spent in Auschwitz almost half a year, almost six months. I was at the children's home which was something which Freddy Hirsch managed to get from the Nazis, from the SS. In that children's home Freddy Hirsch and all the other pedagogues tried to give the children a feeling of some normality. Of not lying, of not stealing, of being honest citizens, of trying to be clean.

"This was something which saved not only quite a few of the children - some of them of course were not saved - but also quite a few of the pedagogues. Because there was not such despair...There was some sort of, not quite hope because we knew that we would go to the gas-chambers, but a sort of hope for humanity."

How did you find living day to day? Were you full of despair, or did you go about your daily tasks?

"Both, both. One had to go about daily tasks, and one was full of despair. I still feel very guilty because I was...I was not managing my despair very well, so that my mother saw how afraid I was of death - I regret that very much, it must have been terrible for her.

"Of course one was holding on to life and seeing these fires and the chimneys every day was simply...simply...unbearable."

You went from Auschwitz to work I believe in Germany, in Hamburg.

"Yes, that was a lifesaver, because the Allies were...invading and the Germans needed workers. So out of the 5,000 who should have gone to the gas chambers of my transport, 1,000 men and 1,000 women were chosen for work in Germany. And myself and my mother were miraculously chosen."

Do you recall the moment that you realised that the Germans had lost, that the war was effectively over?

"The Germans had us building traps for tanks, and we then we heard shooting and we realised that the Allies were very near. Then the Nazis left and didn't leave us any water or food. But the Allies didn't come. For three days we were there, trapped, without food and without knowing what was happening, until the British came the third day.

"We didn't realise until the last minute, until I think the afternoon of the...15th of April, when the British armed forces came into the camp, that we were really liberated, that the war was over. By then myself and my mother and most of the girls who survived were so ill that we didn't even have much strength to...to celebrate."

This Thursday is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There are many memorials taking place - what do you think is the importance of such memorials?

"Well, that's quite easy to say. The importance is first of all to warn against any dictators or any terrorists who could again do the same thing - or who even do it now.

"And the second thing is of course to warn against things like the Auschwitz lie. The more we die out, we survivors, the more the Auschwitz lie will spread, because it's a terrible thing for humanity to remember. So these memorial days are for me very, very important."