The piano outside Lichtewerden

This video, from AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive, is eminent pianist Natalia Karp telling us about what happened to her in May 1945 when she was liberated from Lichtewerden camp, where she was incarcerated as a slave labourer after imprisonment in Zakopane, Plaszów and Auschwitz.

“I said to my friend… ‘Look, I was a concert pianist. When the war will be over and when the Germans will go and it’s quietened, we will go look for a piano, and I will play to you’. So she said, ‘Fine’. And the next day, on the 7th, there was still shooting. On the 8th, it was quiet, so, ‘Let’s go to the village’. We go to the village. Deserted of course, they all escaped, the Sudeten Deutscher. But we found a villa that was a doctor’s villa and when we came in there was an upright piano there on the ground floor. And I sat down at the piano and my fingers were stiff, I couldn’t play. That was on the 8th of May ‘45. And on the 17th of March ‘46, I played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Krakow, relayed on all the radio stations of Poland. How could I do it? After not playing so long. So she thought, ‘My goodness, she was a concert pianist, and she can’t play a piece, nothing’. Alright, but we worked together afterwards in the same orphanage in Zakopane, and there was a piano and I started practising.”

Natalia Karp was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1911 as Natalia Weissman, into the family of a wealthy industrialist. She was a child prodigy as a pianist; she performed her first public concert aged nine. She was sent aged 18 to Berlin to study with Artur Schnabel, and has favourable memories of Berlin, where antisemitism was negligible compared to Kraków. Her father owned property in Berlin, and her mother died in hospital there while undergoing treatment. She returned to Poland before the rise of the Nazis, continued studying piano. Her teachers including the brother-in-law of Arthur Rubinstein, but caring for her younger siblings and then marriage to her first husband, a fellow pianist, restricted her career.

Her husband was killed at the very start of the war, her younger brother disappeared in Soviet captivity. She and her sister went first to Tarnow, where they were held in the ghetto, then to Warsaw at the time of the uprising, when they were disguised as Poles but were handed over to the Germans by Polish police. After a period in prison in Zakopane, they were sent to Plaszów, where they only survived because Natalia played for the camp commandant, Amon Goeth.

They were sent to Auschwitz, but after six weeks were sent on to work in a textile factory in the Sudetenland, where they were liberated by the Russians in 1945.

She returned to Kraków, where she met her second husband, and came with him to London when he was sent to work at the Polish Embassy. Invited by the embassy to play on the hundredth anniversary of Chopin’s death, she played on the piano that Chopin had played on his last appearance in London. When her husband was recalled to Poland, they decided to seek asylum in Britain. They lived in Hampstead. She was very successful as a pianist with many concerts, for the BBC, at the Proms, the Wigmore Hall and the South Bank.

Read more about Natalia here.


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