July 18, 2007

Natalia Karp, 96; pianist who survived concentration camps

This story broke my heart. Rest in peace, Natalia. Via LA Times:

Natalia Karp, a concert pianist who was spared from execution during the Holocaust after playing at a party for the commandant of a German concentration camp, died July 9, British news outlets reported. She was 96.

She arrived at the camp with her sister Dec. 9, 1943, and expected to be shot when she was summoned to appear at the birthday party of Amon Goeth, the murderous commandant of the Plaszow work camp in Poland.

Instead, he commanded her to perform.

"I had not played since 1939, and my fingers were stiff," Karp told the Independent of London in 2005.

"The guests were all looking at me, and Goeth called me 'Sarah' — the Nazis called all Jewish women Sarah — and told me to 'play now.'

"I sat down and started to play Chopin's Nocturne because I have always found it very sad," Karp said.

When she finished the melancholy Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Goeth declared, "Sie soll leben" — she shall live.

She replied, "Not without my sister." Goeth complied.

After 10 months in the camp, Karp and her sister, Helena, were moved to Auschwitz, where they expected to die.

"We scavenged for any food we could find," Karp told the London Evening Standard in 2005. "Every day we thought could be our last."

Liberated the day after V-E Day in 1945, Karp and her sister made their way home to Krakow, Poland.

On Polish radio, Karp gave her first major postwar performance in 1946.

"I decided to play the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto," she said in the Evening Standard story. "I chose it because it is one of the hardest … and I wanted to show the Poles and Germans that they didn't destroy me."

She went on to a career as a concert pianist and performed into her 90s. Karp was well-known in Britain and performed with the London Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among others.

She was born Natalia Weissman on Feb. 27, 1911, in Krakow to a wealthy industrialist and his wife, who sang opera arias around the house.

At 4, she started playing the piano by ear, and her grandfather sent her to Berlin at 15 to study under pianist Arthur Schnabel.

When her mother died about 1930, Karp returned home to take care of her younger brother and sister.

In 1933, she married Julius Hubler, a lawyer and pianist who was killed after joining the Polish army at the start of World War II. When the Germans started bombing Krakow, her father and brother were advised to leave, and she never saw them again.

She and her sister were captured trying to flee the Tarnow ghetto in Poland.

After the war, she married Josef Karpf and moved to London with him in the late 1940s when he was posted to the Polish Embassy.

In London, she gradually resumed performing, dropping the "f" in "Karpf" to create her stage name.

She also raised two daughters, who survive her.

When playing, Karp often placed a pink handkerchief on the piano. To her, the slight piece of fabric purchased for a few pennies in Warsaw after the war symbolized a luxury and femininity that she could only dream of while in the concentration camps.