Paul Aron Sandfort: Survivor of the Terezín ghetto

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The Independent Online

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.