Monday 18 December 2017

Obituary: Edith Kraus

Musician who played to survive Terezin concentration camp and then helped to preserve the legacy of those who died

Edith Kraus performed over 300 concerts in three years at Terezin
Edith Kraus performed over 300 concerts in three years at Terezin

EDITH Kraus, who has died aged 100, was one of the most prolific musicians among the thousands of artists and intellectuals who were sent to the Terezin concentration camp during the Second World War.

Terezin, or Theresienstadt, 40 miles north of Prague, was a "model" camp used by the Nazis to persuade the outside world that they were treating Jewish prisoners well. They permitted extensive cultural events to take place, deceived visiting Red Cross officials and filmed performances by prisoners that were used as propaganda for the regime.

While cultural life undoubtedly did flourish in Terezin, the facts tell a far bleaker story: of the 144,000 Jews sent to the camp, more than 88,000 were sent on to extermination camps and 33,000 died in the abysmal conditions. Only about 17,000 survived.

One of Edith Kraus's first performances at Terezin was in a joint piano recital with three colleagues in which they all played a Beethoven sonata. The quality of the instrument, which had been discovered in an attic and was balanced on crates, was so poor that it need retuning between each performer. Gradually the quantity of music-making increased – as did the quality – with the arrival of a grand piano from Prague and the increasing number of Jewish artists who were rounded up from across Europe. Among them was the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who arrived in July 1943 and with whom Edith had played in Prague before the war.

Viktor Ullmann, a fellow prisoner, invited her to give the premiere of his Piano Sonata No 6, while she and Franz Eugen Klein played a four-handed adaptation of Carmen with a cast drawn from their fellow prisoners. There was also a production of the children's opera Brundibar, by Hans Krasa, another prisoner. The Nazis never came to their performances.

On one occasion, Edith Kraus's name appeared on a list of those to be sent to Auschwitz. Prompted by a friend, she claimed to have a recital to perform and managed to remain in Terezin, avoiding certain death. According to Music in Terezin by Joza Karas, as the transport pulled away, Edith Kraus was in the Magdeburg barracks performing Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and Smetana from memory.

Edith Kraus performed more than 300 concerts over three years at Terezin, often of music by Brahms, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

When asked a few years ago to describe the quality of the music-making at the camp, Edith Kraus berated her interviewer, explaining that tone, intonation and timing had been irrelevant: "You'll never understand, or get close to, what music truly meant to each of us as a sustaining power and as a way of using our skills to inspire – beyond criticism, beyond any superficial evaluation. We were music."

Edith Kraus was born in Vienna on May 16, 1913. One of her grandmothers was a cousin of Gustav Mahler. Her Czech father, Gustav Kraus, ran a linen shop in the Austrian capital. When he opened another shop in Karlovy Vary (or Carlsbad), the family moved to the Bohemian town.

Alice, her older sister, took music lessons and Edith began copying her, picking out the notes on the piano by ear. By the age of 11, she had performed a Mozart concerto with the local orchestra.

She played for Alma Mahler, the composer's former wife, who recommended her to Artur Schnabel in Berlin, and in 1926 she arrived there as his youngest student.

Returning to Prague after her mother's death, Edith Kraus enjoyed a successful career as a professional pianist, and in 1933 married Karl Steiner. She also worked with Leo Kestenberg, a pianist turned cultural politician and conductor who had shaped German music policy during the Weimar Republic, but whose Jewish background had cost him his job in 1932.

Kestenberg left for Palestine in 1938, but Edith Kraus could not afford to do the same. Gradually the restrictions grew more oppressive until, in 1942, she was taken to Terezin, where she worked in a factory preparing mica – a mineral used for road building.

In total, more than 1,000 concerts and 2,400 lectures were given in Terezin, including several performances conducted by Rafael Schachter of Verdi's Requiem. Despite this Catholic work being sung by a Jewish choir, Schachter believed it reflected the damnation that would befall his captors on Judgment Day. Edith Kraus once said of the performances: "We were so far inside the music that we were at Verdi's table."

In October 1944, her father, sister and other relatives were taken to Auschwitz and killed. Her husband was also taken – Edith Kraus had to be persuaded not to volunteer to accompany him. Ullmann and many other musicians were also murdered.

Terezin was finally liberated by the Russians in May 1945. Back in Prague, Edith Kraus remarried, gave birth to a daughter and, in 1949, moved to the new state of Israel. There she sewed neckties; while her husband, Arpad Bloedy, worked in a dye factory. In November that year, she gave her first concert in her new country, which included the Israeli premiere of the Suite by Pavel Haas, a Czech composer and Terezin prisoner, who had been murdered by the Nazis. She joined the Tel Aviv Music Academy in 1951.

After her retirement 30 years later, Edith Kraus began studying the musical legacy of Terezin. She gave lectures and made recordings to demonstrate that beauty could thrive among such evil, and was also involved in reconciliation work. In 1983, she recorded several of Ullmann's piano sonatas, including the sonata that he had written for her in the camp.

The 40th anniversary of the liberation of Terezin was commemorated at a concert in Canterbury Cathedral in 1986, which included a Requiem for Terezin by Ronald Senator. A film of the occasion, They Never Touched My Bread, was broadcast that year. The title came from Edith Kraus, who had made it her goal in Terezin (as in life) to focus on the good things rather than the bad.

In 1994, by which time she had suffered a stroke, Edith Kraus returned to Germany, taking part in a masterclass devoted to music, history and remembrance. She also visited London and was reunited with Alice Herz-Sommer.

The money that had been taken when her father's bank account in Prague was forcibly closed in 1939 was finally restored to Edith Kraus by a tribunal in 2005.

Edith Kraus, who died on September 3, is survived by her daughter.

Sunday Independent

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