Paul Aron Sandfort: Survivor of the Terezín ghetto

Like many Holocaust survivors, Paul Aron Sandfort took some time to talk about his experiences but, when he had come to terms with them, became an impassioned educator, eager to tell especially younger audiences about the Nazis' appalling cruelty – and how human depravity can spark astonishing displays of humour and courage among its victims. Sandfort's vehicle was Brundibár, the children's opera by Hans Krása in which he had performed in Terezín, the ghetto outside Prague that witnessed an extraordinary flowering of culture in the teeth of malnutrition, disease and constant transports to the east.

He was born Paul Rabinowitsch in 1930 in Hamburg, to parents – Aron Rabinowitsch and Maria Warschavsky – who were both of Russo-Jewish origin. In 1935, after two years of systematic anti-Semitism, the family moved to Denmark. After the German invasion of Denmark in April 1940, Danish Jews suffered discrimination but not yet the molestation that was being directed at German Jewry.

But in 1943, with the extermination programme well under way in Poland, the Germans began to round up the Jews in western Europe. Aron Rabinowitsch was an early victim, perishing in Auschwitz; Paul later added his father's name to his own to honour his memory. In October, the 13-year-old Paul was part of a group trying to escape over the Kattegat to Sweden and almost succeeded: they were arrested in the port, salvation almost within sight.

Terezín (Theresienstadt in German), in north Bohemia, was built by Joseph II in 1780-90 as a garrison town. A bleak and forbidding place to begin with, from late 1941 onwards it became a veritable hell-hole of a ghetto, with 60,000 Jews crammed into a space intended for 7,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers. But for Prague's Jewish population, who formed the larger part of Terezín's inmates, incarceration there proved something of a liberation: denied association with friends and any kind of cultural self-expression in occupied Prague, they were now able to organise clandestine concerts, lectures, plays and a host of other activities.

When the ghetto authorities discovered what was going on, far from cracking down, they realised that if the Jews were keeping themselves occupied, it reduced the call for supervision, and so they cynically authorised the Freizeitgestaltung ("Leisure Administration"), which allowed the Jews to plan their own educational and cultural programme.

This was the febrile atmosphere into which Paul Rabinowitsch arrived, one of 456 Danish Jews to be deported to Terezín. Hans Krása was one of a number of composers already sequestered in the ghetto and he duly adapted his 1938 children's opera Brundibár (a brundibár is a kind of bumble-bee) for performance by the forces available; it was original composed for a Prague orphanage and so was tailor-made for Terezín's younger prisoners.

It is small wonder that Brundibár was such a hit (it was given more than 50 performances in Terezín): the action concerns a brother and sister who, assisted by a handful of animals, overcome the evil organ-grinder trying to steal the money they need to buy milk for their sick mother. A clearer parable of the triumph of good over evil would be hard to find. Rabinowitsch, who had learned the trumpet as a Tivoli Boys' Guard in Copenhagen, found himself drafted into the ensemble.

Many of the children – Paul and his trumpet among them – were made to perform for a Nazi propaganda film intended to show how well the Germans were treating the Jews. It was shot at the time of a Red Cross inspection, for which the ghetto was briefly beautified, food rations temporarily increased, sports and a café life summoned from nowhere. "Of course we children recognised the absurdity of this spectacle," Sandfort recalled later, "but we also loved performing Brundibár. When you are making music, you are no longer a prisoner. You are free for a time."

Unlike many of the occupied countries, Denmark stood up for its Jews. It was Danish insistence that had led to the Red Cross visit, and it was the Danish king, Christian X, who managed to secure the liberation of Terezín's Danish prisoners on 15 April 1945, three weeks before the Red Army brought like relief to the others.

With the return of peace Rabinowitsch was able to resume his education (and was startled to find from his classmates that anti-Semitism had survived the war), completing it with a master's in music at Copenhagen University and studies for a PhD in musicology and German literature. Music and the stage occupied him for the rest of his life.

From 1962 to 1964 he was an assistant stage director at Rome opera house, experience which stood him in good stead when he re-engaged himself with Brundibár, which he staged or presented across Europe, often in conjunction with Jeunesses Musicales. Watching rehearsals in Berlin he described as "a melancholy joy", adding: "It is wonderful to see how seriously the children take the performance. They believe in what they are doing."

Changing his name to Sandfort in 1972, he wrote poetry, plays and short stories, supporting himself and his family as a teacher of theatre and opera (he had a fine voice himself) at Schneekloth's Gymnasium in Copenhagen, later lecturing at the Danish Institute in Rome. His play Besoget ("The Visit") portrays the Red Cross inspection of Terezín. And Ben, a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, emerged in 1997, after 10 years of psychoanalysis. In 1998, the year he was decorated for his work by the President of Germany, he published an anthology of poetry by the children of Terezín.

Right until the end of his life he was happy to travel to use Brundibár to put his humanitarian message across to children. In 2005 I put him in touch with Chetham's School of Music in Manchester who were planning a Brundibár project, and he was thrilled to tour England with the Chetham children in performances of the work.

On the tour Sandfort and the Chetham pupils also performed a composition of his own, Nachschub ("Extra Helping") for narrator, string quartet, flute and (of course) trumpet. The text, a poem by Sandfort himself, presents the thoughts of a famished kid in the food queue in Terezín, dreaming of getting a bit extra. He also devised a two-minute overture to Brundibár from motifs in the opera, published in 2006.

Martin Anderson

Paul Rabinowitsch (Paul Aron Sandfort), musician, musicologist, teacher and stage director: born Hamburg 12 July 1930; married 1964 Lotte Sandfort (marriage dissolved 1974; one son, one daughter), 1987 Karen Hesse; died Hornbæk, Denmark 29 December 2007.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Recruitment Genius: Invoicing Clerk

£14500 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are contractors to...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy