Esther Bejarano spent years in Nazi camps. She died this summer at the age of 96. Throughout her life, Bejarano used the power of music—first to survive and later to fight against evil.
Born in 1924, Esther Bejarano was the daughter of Jewish choirmaster Rudolf Löwy. She enjoyed a musical and comfortable upbringing—until the Nazis came to power. During the late 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi ideology made life grim for German Jews.
In 1939, Esther left home. She hoped to relocate to Palestine with other young Jews who were fleeing Nazi oppression. In preparation, she took a position at a workers’ colony called Landwerk Neuendorf. The colony trained young Jews for their new lives in Palestine.
However, Nazis took over the facility in 1941. They converted it to a forced labor camp. Bejarano labored there for two years before being sent to the dreaded Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Auschwitz-Birkenau was known for killing its occupants. Indeed, the Nazis killed Bejarano’s sister Ruth there before Esther arrived.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bejarano volunteered to become a member of an unusual group: a Nazi-mandated girls’ orchestra. A pianist, she learned to play the accordion on the spot to save her life—since there was no piano in the camp. Bejarano repeatedly said music helped keep her alive in the death camp and during the years after the Holocaust.
The Girls’ Orchestra of Auschwitz greeted trains packed with Jews upon arrival at the camp. Bejarano said in a 2010 interview: “They didn’t know where they were going. But we knew. We played with tears in our eyes.”
Orchestra members had no choice about playing. They played as fellow prisoners headed to work, and every Sunday, the orchestra serenaded the Nazi officers.
Because her grandmother was not a Jew, Bejarano was spared execution at Auschwitz. She was later transferred to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. U.S. troops rescued her near the end of the war.
Bejarano immigrated to Israel after the war and married Nissim Bejarano. The couple had two children, Edna and Joram, before returning to Germany in 1960. Back in her homeland, she re-encountered open anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews).
Once again, she fought with music. She played Jewish resistance songs in a band named “Coincidence” and with the group “Microphone Mafia.” Both spread anti-racism messages to German youth.
Bejarano also co-founded the Auschwitz Committee to give survivors a platform for their stories. She received numerous awards, including Germany’s Order of Merit, for her activism.
While addressing young people at concerts, Bejarano would often say, “You are not guilty of what happened back then. But you become guilty if you refuse to listen to what happened.”