Zuzana Ružičková is a survivor in every sense. In January the Czech harpsichordist celebrates her 90th birthday. Her recording of the complete Bach works for solo keyboard made in the 1960s-70s and the first such complete cycle ever set down has been released for the first time on CD to mark the occasion
. It has proved a revelation to many, so joyous and life-affirming is her playing. And approaching her tenth decade in the Prague top floor flat that has been her home for more than 50 years, Ruikov is just like her music-making: a vivid, great-hearted personality who has embraced life undaunted despite all. Her story is the topic of a forthcoming documentary, Zuzana: Music is Life, from Getzels Gordon Productions.
Born in Plzen, she first survived childhood tuberculosis. Then she survived the Terezín concentration camp, Auschwitz, slave labour in Hamburg and ultimately, Bergen-Belsen. Under the Czech Communist regime, she and her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis, were censured for their refusal to conform.
Devoting her working life to the harpsichord, especially Bach, she also had to contend with the fundamentalist early music movement in the mid to late 20th century, which disapproved of her colourful, imaginative interpretations despite their sound musicological base.
Looking back, Ružičková gives a twinkly smile over her inevitable cigarette. “People say I was brave,” she reflects. “I was not. It was a hundred lucky moments. That’s of course why the survivors always feel guilty. Because it was through luck that we survived and so many others did not.”
Her wartime journey began when her family was deported to Terezín; the Jews of Plzen were among the first to be taken. She found a piano in an attic, had lessons in piano and harmony from the composer Gideon Klein and sang in several choirs; she would have sung in the premiere of Hans Kraša’s now legendary children’s opera Brundibár, had she not been deported shortly before the date. She also met youth leader Fredy Hirsch, and worked with him there and later in Auschwitz to organise activities and exercise for the imprisoned children.
Terezín is famous for its cultural life, but some survivors have despaired of the over-romanticisation of life there; in reality overcrowding, malnutrition and disease were rampant. How can we view something as beautiful when it was so hideous? “It was both beautiful and hideous,” Ružičková reflects.
“Conditions really were terrible — we were hungry, I was working in agriculture so we were tired and not used to it, and for old or sick people it was a nightmare. But the only way to survive was culture: whatever you knew that was exceptional. There were so many important people — artists, scientists, people who could give lectures — and in that, it was unique.
“Once in the US a journalist came to me and said, ‘It couldn’t have been so bad, you had concerts…’ I was so angry! I sent him away. It was terrible. But this was the only way to escape despair, and it still is, and it still will be.
“I always say to young people that they have one possibility to have a bank book of culture, beautiful concerts, poems, literature, and nobody can take that from you. It is a world you can go into when the world outside is unbearable.”
Her father died in Terezín. In December 1943 Ružičková and her mother were deported to Auschwitz. A few months later they were issued with postcards and instructed to write them to their families, saying they were fine, but post-dated by six weeks. “We knew the people before us had to write these cards six weeks before they were gassed, and so we knew exactly the date we were scheduled to go to the gas chambers: 6 June 1944. That day the Allies landed.”
Therefore the Nazis had to find thousands of people to send to slave labour. “There was a selection — with Mengele — and my mother and I came through and were sent to Hamburg. The terrible thing was that three and a half thousand people really did go to the gas chamber.”
The forced labour, clearing rubble onto ships, involved throwing bricks from person to person; it wrecked Ružičková’s hands. Then, sent to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, she caught what she says was bubonic plague and was beginning to recover when the camp was liberated. “The greatest help was my mother — it was great luck that whenever we were separated, we managed to find each other again.” The other support was music. “I always had music in my head. In the lines of people throwing the bricks, I used to teach my neighbours arias from operas, again as an escape.”
Recovering after the war, in Plzen — where their flat had been taken over — she practised the piano 12 hours a day to regain the use of her hands. “I couldn’t live without music. It was the core of my being.”
In Terezín, Ružičková and her then boyfriend had found a university professor who agreed to teach them Hebrew for the price of half a bread ration. For a while they dreamed of moving to Israel.
“But when I came back from the camps, finally, I realised I love this country too much,” she smiles. Later she and her mother considered moving to the US: “But to be admitted to a music conservatory there, I had to fill in a questionnaire which said: “What is your race?” I tore it up and said I would never go anywhere where they question me about my race.”
Being a harpsichordist was a rarity in post-war Czechoslovakia, and for some years Ružičková divided her activities between that instrument — when she could find one to practise on — and the piano. The harpsichord won because of Bach: “Bach’s music is something above human suffering. That helped me.”
Her husband also helped her. She met him when she was teaching piano to the composers’ class at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. “He was a wonderful pianist,” she says, “and we used to play a lot of four-hands music — by composers like Stravinsky and Bartók, who were forbidden, not being socialist realists. He made me talk about the camps, which one couldn’t otherwise. That was wonderful for me.” Kalabis, who died in 2006, became one of the Czech Republic’s most significant contemporary composers; today Ružičková devotes herself to the promotion of his works.
“There was an official policy of antisemitism from the Soviets — a lot of Jews were tried and hanged and it was at that time that my husband, who was not Jewish, married me,” she recounts. “Because of his inclination to western culture and because he was not a party member, he was not viewed favourably by the party. I told him it would be terrible for him if he married a Jewess. He married me anyway.”
The years brought their share of political censure, harassment and resulting travails, yet perhaps friendships and partnerships were all the closer; Ružičková enjoyed musical relationships with artists including the violinist Josef Suk, the conductor Václav Neumann and the cellist János Starker. Her students, too, became a vital part of her life; today she is mentor to the starry young Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.
But perhaps the ultimate question is how she has managed to keep her faith after living through the Holocaust — and she truly has. “The older I get, the closer I get to the Jewish faith,” Ružičková declares. Despite everything, she still believes in God. “I keep discussing with God all the time. It’s a very Jewish thing!”
Zuzana Ružičková ‘s Complete Bach Works set (20 CDs) is now out on Erato