The Piano Virtuoso Who Didn't Play in Terezín, or, Why Gender Matters
By Anna Hájková
Why didn't Eliška Kleinová play in Terezín? Let me open my essay with this seemingly superfluous question. It opens a door to illuminate how the category of gender can help us understand musical life in Terezín. To start, let us recount her biography, perhaps reading against the grain:
Eliška Kleinová was born in 1912 in a Southern Moravian town; she was the middle of three children who survived infancy. Her older sister, Edita, had strong political opinions and emigrated to Palestine. The family was assimilated and was perhaps less religious than other Moravian Jews. The Klein business did not do particularly well, but the family was keenly interested in music and encouraged Eliška to pursue her strong musical talent. She moved to Prague to study at the city's superb conservatory. Eliška was an excellent student, despite economic hardships, and despite being a young Jewish woman from a provincial town alone in a metropolis.i Her brother Gideon Klein, six years younger, showed huge musical promise, so she arranged for him to come to Prague. He moved in with her, and she earned money as a private music tutor to support them both. She finished her conservatory studies with great success and attended master classes at the Academy of Musical Arts, but by then Nazi Germany had taken control of Czechoslovakia and antisemitic measures prevented her from graduating. Gideon also finished his conservatory studies and gave a public graduation recital that left enthusiastic audience. By then, however, the Kleins were increasingly excluded from Gentile society, and they held concerts at home that became extremely popular within the Jewish community living in the ghetto without walls. Eliška became romantically attached to the poet Jiří Orten, who, however, died in a car accident. In the time before the deportation, she increasingly played a supporting role to her mother and brother. In November 1941, Gideon was deported to Terezín with the Aufbaukommando, the very first transport. Its members became the admired veterans who set up the ghetto infrastructure; together with their core families, they are mostly protected from the dreaded transports to the East. Eliška arrived eight months later. She was never active as a musician at Terezín; indeed, she did not participate in any way in the musical life of the ghetto. Gideon, on the contrary, became one of the prominent celebrities in Terezín's cultural life.ii Eliška worked in one of the youth homes and later in a bakery. Like many other prisoners, she became sick several times. In the fall of 1944, when the old protections no longer functioned, the entire Klein family was sent to Auschwitz in the liquidation transports. Eliška survived, but the rest of her family perished. After the war, she became a conservatory teacher, published numerous music pedagogical manuals, and was instrumental in promoting Gideon's posthumous fame. In this context, it may indeed seem strange that the more experienced, older and very gifted Eliška, who, unlike her brother, had been able to complete her education, did not participate in the rich musical life of Terezín.
Although we will never be able to establish entirely the reasons for Eliška's not playing, her story strongly invites us to consider the role of gender, not only in her specific case but also in the Terezín history as a whole. In this essay, I highlight several gendered mechanisms that shaped the intricate society within Terezín. I focus on both listeners and performers, on the place of music and sexuality in the inmates' lives, as well as on gendered differences within the Jewish self-administration. In considering the category of gender, it is crucial to realize that gender studies are not only women's studies. Women are not the only people endowed with gender, with men a genderless, neutral part of the binary — a popular perception, gendered in its own right. Rather, masculinity is a relevant gender; moreover, both genders function only in relationship to each other, in contrast.
Although Terezín was a ghettoized society, it was still a society. The people who were sent there were not passive, nor did all societal mechanisms cease; the inmates continued to react, think, judge others — these are the activities that structure a mass of people into an organized society. Of course there are major differences between our normal world and the ghetto world, notably, the brevity of life in the latter, and the finality of consequences. But as in our world, in Terezín, too, some people were rich, some were cool, and still others were underdogs. Class was one of the central organizing principles of society in Terezín, as in any other society. Terezín did represent a special situation, as Jews from Central and Western Europe were deported there by the Nazis, creating, as I have described elsewhere, a laboratory of the middle class.iii Everyone deported to Terezín was Jewish, at least according to the Nazis' racial definition of Jews (many of the inmates were actually Christians or atheists), but the ghetto's residents were as much shaped by the countries they came from as they were by the dynamics of ghetto society, which never produced a sense of common Jewishness. Soon, ethnic and cultural group boundaries determined people's positions within the social hierarchy: the young Czech Jews became the jeunesse dorée, whereas the passive, uninterested Dutch Jews were situated at the margins.iv
Similarly, the social elite had priviliged access to many of the cultural events, thanks to their networks and the items they were able to barter: Hana Rutarová, a young postal clerk living in her own kumbál (a tiny self-built wooden room in the attic - an ultimate status symbol in the crowded ghetto), had tickets for the sold-out production of The Magic Flute, with seats so good that she was next to the ghetto's big shots.v The performers soon became celebrities of sorts: the young tenor Alexander Singer, for instance had fans who brought him pork cracklings. Translated into our terms, he could just as well have been given a Rolex.vi
We cannot observe gender separately from such factors as culture, age, ethnicity and class; they function in connection with each other. I have discussed elsewhere the pragmatization of romantic and sexual life in Terezín: vii genuine romantic feelings, beyond a practical, give-and-take mentality, were the privilege of a tiny elite. Similarly, attendance at cultural performances was a statement of one's position on the ghetto's social ladder. Both music and love — matters that we usually understand as existing beyond structural lines — very much constituted the social economics of Terezín, albeit in different ways.
By the fall of 1942, the FZG, Recreation Department (recreational department)viii had become a massive, well-established organization that decided who would be supported and what resources they would receive. The department was directed for a long time by Otto Zucker, who also headed several other offices and had been also the deputy of the Elder of the Jews. When transports were leaving, the self-administration had to put together the lists, and each department would petition for exemptions for its indispensable workers. The FZG, Recreation Department, under Zucker's leaderership, was particularly effective in petitioning for its people.ix
While the FZG, Recreation Department took care of both men and women performers, stage designers and organizers, as well as their relatives, as far as the transports were concerned, there was a discernible gender gap in the department itself because of a gendered job distribution. First, all of the conductors and almost all of the directors were men — and the directors and conductors were the people who decided who would get what roles. Secondly, only a few of the performers actually worked for the Freizeit. Most of them were assigned other jobs (there was general labor duty for everyone between the ages of 16 and 65); they rehearsed and performed in their spare time. Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Karel Švenk were eventually hired by the Freizeit and could rehearse and compose full-time. The singer Heda Grab-Kernmayer was among the very first first female artists hired by the Freizeit. Grab's pioneering position was even explicitly mentioned in the annual report of the Hamburg barracks, then a women-only housing unit. Grab's pioneering position was even explicitly mentioned in the annual report of the Hamburg barracks, then a women-only housing unit. x Grab summarized it this way after the war: I can say that Terezín was the longest and at the same time the worst-paid engagement of my entire theatrical career.xi A lesser appreciation of women artists was expressed in a statement of the last commandant, Karl Rahm, when he was putting together the list for the last of the liquidation transports, Ev, on October 28, 1944. He decided to let the last seven remaining women singers and musicians stay in the ghetto. So what, he said. They can as well stay. Then can they play and sing again.xii Rahm's condescending remark is relevant because he was fairly familiar with the FZG, Recreation Department. He had been assigned to Terezín to prepare the ghetto for the Red Cross visit, and many of its activities in 1944 were indirectly linked to the beautification program.
A different relationship to musical performance is strongly expressed even in the postwar narratives: surviving male performers describe their work, how they organized something meaningful, how they were envied and respected by colleagues, how objectively good their performances were; indeed, they often describe Terezín as an important moment in their careers. xiiiWomen, on the other hand, tend to stress their service to the community, somehow putting things together, making music to make others feel good. The surviving male performers often became virtually official chroniclers of musical life in Theresienstadt —Karel Berman, for instance, almost turned into a professional music witness. Traces of many of the women performers, like Heda Grab and Marion Podolier, were lost, those who did bear witness, like Alice Sommer-Herz, provided markedly more emotional narratives, free from organizational and competitive statements.
It is often the exception that proves the rule. Two women did achieve success within the Freizeit hierarchy: Vlasta Schönová and Irena Dodalová, the only two female directors. They were outspoken and had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, even if they met with resistance. They were also unattached or had no long-term official partners. In all of this they were no different than many of their male colleagues. However, ghetto society did not look kindly upon these career women, who were considered too driven — for women. They were not well-liked. People criticized them, and they were rumored to be too pushy, artificial, hysterical and promiscuous.xiv Now, the importance of societies thematizing, or criticizing, of others' sexuality as deviant - e.g., marking a woman as promiscuous - cannot be overstated. Such criticism occurs, among other instances, when an individual breaks the crucial social rules of his or her community. Thus, sexualized critique helps us to trace such cases and to discover underlying behavioral expectations - the inner rules of a social body. The message here is not the sexual deviance; it is, rather, effective public ostracization, an act of social gardening (to borrow a term from Zygmunt Bauman).
To conclude: the fact that Eliška was not active in the musical life of Terezín is quite symptomatic of the intricate and intrinsic gender structures of the place. There were four main reasons for her not performing:
First, as a woman and a product of her time, she was implicitly expected to play a supporting role to her brother and her widowed mother. Once she had assumed this role, before her deportation, it became very difficult for her to shed it — especially since the role, or framework of meaning, may have helped her to regain a sense of control and agency after she had arrived in Terezín, with its chaos and misery. For someone in her position it was possible to get a decent job (and jobs in a youth home and, especially, in a bakery were excellent, by Terezín standards). Moreover, in Terezín there were only a few musical instruments, and musicians had to struggle to get to use them; most of those who succeeded were men. (I have mentioned above how Terezín's ghettoized society treated women perceived as too ambitious.)
Secondly, Eliška was the wrong generation. She was too old and educated to be nurtured as a gifted teenager, like Pavel Kling or Zuzana Růžičková. Nor was she yet an established musician, like Heda Grab or Alice Sommer Herz, for whom the continuation of a performing career was more obvious. Furthermore, the FZG, Recreation Department, with its minimal hiring of women, made participation in musical life extremely difficult for women with a family. Indeed, women who had families to take care of mentioned that they never had time to attend cultural performances: the double burden of labor duty, which was often ten hours a day, and taking care of one's family — organizing family get-togethers, washing clothes and so on — combined with a general curfew at 8 or 10 p.m., made any spare time activities a sheer impossibility. Most of the women who participated in cultural events either were single or had help with their familial obligations.
Last but not least, the examples discussed above demonstrate the genderedness of organizational structures. Eliška didn't perform music despite the fact that she belonged to the ghetto's social elite and that several of her and Gideon's friends were high-ranking members of the Freizeit. When Eliška arrived, her role in Terezín was largely determined by her gender, at least as far as performing was concerned. When men and women behave in the same manner, it is not perceived as the same: indeed, the ostracization mechanisms for pushy women reveal the extent to which power hierarchies were gendered. In Terezín, just as in the normal world, gender was closely connected with power structures.
Eliška Kleinová's story is so fascinating because it is full of contradictions: in telling it, she took pains to make clear how gifted and successful she was; and yet her main ambition, be it during the war or after, became the guardianship of her brother's legacy. One could argue that the society in which she lived strongly encouraged such a choice, or that that choice was her way of making amends for having lost her beloved younger brother while she herself survived. Ironically, Eliška was very successful in her undertaking. Today, when we compare Gideon Klein with Irena Dodalová, Vlasta Schönová or even Magda Spiegel, he is the Terezín celebrity, the stuff of legends, and his story is narrated over and over again.xv In the end, Eliška was successful, but her success, and her very goal, were very much gendered.
I cannot help but add, as an afterthought that what we know of Eliška's musical life in Terezín — or its absence — is only what she chose to tell. Perhaps she did play, but didn't want us to know about it.
Posted May 6, 2011
Anna Hájková is PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of Toronto. She is writing her dissertation on the social history of Terezín. Between 2006 and 2009, she was co-editor of the Theresienstädter Studien und Dokumente.------------