Listen up, Auschwitz survivor is hip-hop MC

Octogenarian teams up with German band to fight modern-day racism
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The Independent Online

Esther Bejarano says music helped to keep her alive as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Now, 65 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp, she has teamed up with a German hip-hop band to get her anti-racism message to today's youth.

"It's a clash of everything: age, culture, style," Ms Bejarano admitted in an interview to mark Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday. "But we all love music and share a common goal: we're fighting against racism and discrimination."

On the first track of the album Per La Vita, which the 85-year-old has released with the Microphone Mafia, the band sing about longing for world peace. "My head is bowed, too many tears held back," the song "Shalom" goes. "Worried I look around and see what happens, I'm not their leitmotif, which is the base of their lives: Violence, hatred and death, because too many people remained silent."

The daughter of a Jewish cantor from Saarbrücken in western Germany, Ms Bejarano studied piano at home until the Nazis came to power and tore her family apart. She was deported to Auschwitz, where she became a member of the girls' orchestra, playing the accordion every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived at the death camp.

"We played with tears in our eyes," Ms Bejarano remembered. "The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers."

Although she survived, her parents and sister, Ruth, were killed.

For 20 years, Ms Bejarano has played music from the past – Yiddish melodies, tunes from the ghetto and Jewish resistance songs – with her children Edna and Yoram in a Hamburg-based band called Coincidence.

About two years ago, Kutlu Yurtseven, a Turkish rapper from Microphone Mafia, asked her about a collaboration to combat the growing racism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The octogenarian thought hip-hop "was really a bit too loud" but saw it as a way to reach Germany's youth.

"We want to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive, but at the same time look into the future and encourage young people to take a stand against new Nazis," she said. "I know what racism can lead to and the members of Microphone Mafia are immigrants and have experienced their share of discrimination as well."

Mr Yurtseven, a 36-year-old Muslim, sees a message of religious harmony. "All religions ask to love and respect other. That's what we do," he said. The union of hip-hop and Jewish folklore was quite a hit. The rappers have mixed Jewish songs with hip-hop beats and also created lyrics for some of the songs that a younger audience can relate to. Per La Vita was issued last year and a documentary about the unusual pairing will be shown at schools across Germany.

Their audiences range from teenage immigrants at urban youth centres to an older crowd that might be expected to favour a more classical approach. "They love it," Ms Bejarano said. "Even some of the older guests climb on the chairs and dance."

She said it can be exhausting to perform with young people, but she chuckled: "I've educated the boys. We've lowered the volume and I told them to stop jumping around all the time."

Mr Yurtseven said: "I asked Esther how she can make music after Auschwitz, and she said if they had taken the music from her, she would have died."

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