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Music Helped Esther Bejarano Survive Auschwitz, Fight Racism

Activist sometimes conveyed her message with a hip-hop group
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 10, 2021 2:05 PM CDT

(Newser) – Esther Bejarano, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp who devoted much of her life to the fight against antisemitism and racism—often through through the power of music—has died. She was 96. Bejarano died peacefully Saturday at the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg. A cause of death was not given. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas paid tribute to Bejarano, calling her "an important voice in the fight against racism and antisemitism," the AP reports. She was born in 1924 as the daughter of Jewish cantor Rudolf Loewy in what was then French-occupied Saarlouis. The family later moved to Saarbruecken, where Bejarano enjoyed a musical and sheltered upbringing until the Nazis came to power and the city was returned to Germany in 1935. Her parents and her sister, Ruth, eventually were deported and killed, while Bejarano was assigned forced labor before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied Poland in 1943. There, she volunteered to become a member of the girls' orchestra, playing the accordion every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived.

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Bejarano later said music helped keep her alive in the German death camp. "We played with tears in our eyes," she recalled. "The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers." Because her grandmother had been Christian, Bejarano was transferred to Ravensbrueck concentration camp and survived a death march at the end of the war. In a memoir, Bejarano recalled her rescue by US troops who gave her an accordion, which she played the day American soldiers and concentration camp survivors danced around a burning portrait of Adolf Hitler to celebrate the Allied victory. After again encountering open antisemitism in Germany, Bejarano became politically active, co-founding the Auschwitz Committee to give survivors a platform for their stories. She and her two children played Yiddish melodies and Jewish resistance songs in a band, Coincidence, and with hip-hop group Microphone Mafia to spread an anti-racism message to German youth. Her awards included Germany's Order of Merit, for activism against what she called the "old and new Nazis." To young people, Bejarano would say: "You are not guilty of what happened back then. But you become guilty if you refuse to listen to what happened."

(Read more obituary stories.)

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