A young girl takes a scrap of paper and carefully draws a series of musical notes. The notes are a small part of Bach’s English Suite Number 5 in E Minor, one of her favorite musical compositions. She doesn’t know where she is going or if there will be music there, and she wants to carry a piece of her beloved music with her. She tucks away this small scrap of paper. Knowing she has it gives her a certain strength as she boards the cattle car and is sent away to the unknown.
The girl’s name was Zuzana Ruzickova, and she was born in Czechoslovakia on January 14, 1927. She came from a wealthy and loving Jewish family, and from an early age, Zuzana was in love with music. When she was nine years old, her parents bought her a piano and paid for lessons. Zuzana progressed rapidly, and developed a deep appreciation for the works of Bach. As Bach’s works were primarily written for the harpsichord, Zuzana began to study that instrument as well. Her teacher, Marie Provaniokova, recognizing Zuzana’s talent and passion, secured her acceptance at a prestigious music academy in France to continue her harpsichord studies. Sadly, Zuzana was unable to attend due to the Nazi invasion of Czecholovakia and the Nuremberg laws.
In January 1942, Zuzana and her parents were transported to Terezin, where Zuzana was sent to work in the ghetto’s vegetable gardens. After work, Zuzana would attend the concerts and musical productions at the camp. She also managed to continue her musical education by taking lessons with the pianist Gideon Klein and joining a children’s choir.
Zuzana suffered a terrible loss when her father died in the spring of 1943. She became even closer with her mother and when her mother was assigned to a transport in December 1943, Zuzana chose to go with her. They were taken to Auschwitz, and both survived the initial selection. Years later, Zuzana could still remember the smoke from the gas chambers, and how terrified she was. On June 6, 1944, Zuzana and her mother were chosen to be executed but, possibly due to the D-Day Invasion, they were instead sent to a factory in Germany. Eventually, Zuzana and her mother were sent to Bergen-Belsen, were they were ultimately liberated. Seriously ill and suffering from starvation, they were transferred to a hospital and were able to return to their hometown in July 1945.
Zuzana was reunited with her old piano teacher and was determined to continue with her studies. At this point she had missed four years of formal instruction and her hands were battered from years of hard labor. To make up for all the time she had lost, Zuzana practiced up to twelve hours a day and managed to gain acceptance to the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1947. She specialized in the harpsichord and the music of Bach. Zuzana later became an instructor at the Academy, and married a fellow musician, Viktor Kalabis. But the couple were to face many challenges as musicians, for in 1948, Czechoslovakia became Communist. She and her husband remained in the country during the 40 years of Communist rule, and against the odds, Zuzana managed to establish a successful career as a harpsichordist. The government gave her special permission to perform worldwide, and Zuzana became the first person to record the complete works of Bach on the harpsichord.
In 2006, when her husband died, Zuzana decided to stop performing publically. She continued to play the harpsichord, but after undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment, the resulting nerve damage to her hands prevented her from playing. Sadly, Zuzana is no longer able to play her beloved instrument. Yet Zuzana’s impact is enduring, and her story is told in a documentary called Zuzana: Music is Life, which is scheduled to be released this year. And in honor of her 90th birthday, Zuzana’s complete works of Bach have been reissued. Zuzana not only survived the Nazi camps, she thrived as a musician in spite of tremendous obstacles. And she shared with the world an incredible gift: the music of Bach that had given her strength years earlier.
BBC Feature on Zuzana:
More information on the documentary Zuzana: Music is Life