Jewish harpsichordist and survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen dies aged 90

After surviving the concentration camps, Zuzana Růžičková became the first person to record Bach's complete works for the harpsichord


A Holocaust survivor who became one of the world’s leading harpsichordists has died at the age of 90.

Zuzana Růžičková survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, before going on to become the first person to record Bach's complete works for the harpsichord.

Born in 1927 to a Jewish family in Prague, Ms Růžičková began learning the instrument as a child, after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. She showed great promise and was due to go to Paris to study with one of the world’s top harpsichordists but was prevented by the onset of the Second World War.

She and her family were deported to the Terezin Labour camp, where her father and grandfather died. She was then deported from Terezin to Auschwitz.

In a BBC interview earlier this year, she said that on the cattle truck to Auschwitz she managed to write down a small section of Bach’s English Suite No 5 in E minor on a scrap of paper.

"I wanted to have a piece of Bach with me as a sort of talisman, because I didn't know what was awaiting us."

She said she knew she was due to be gassed on June 6, 1944, and believes she was saved because attention was focused on events happening elsewhere that day: June 6 1944 was the date of the D-Day landings at Normandy.

She was later transferred to Belsen from where she was liberated. She had contracted bubonic plague while in the camp, which she managed to survive.

Ms Růžičková returned to her native Czechoslovakia after the war. Refusing to abandon her ambitions for a career in music, she would practise the harpsichord for up to 12 hours a day. Then, in 1948, the Communists took over the country.

“"I couldn't really believe that there was another regime like the Nazis, so cruel, so stupid, so antisemitic”, she told the BBC.

“At first I was so naive. I thought this can't be true."

However, her fame grew after she won an international music competition in 1956. She became one of the few Czech citizens allowed to travel internationally, due to the acclaim (and foreign currency) she generated for the country. However, it took her over three decades to persuade the Communist authorities to accept the harpsichord as a proper instrument; it had been dismissed as a feudal, religious relic.

She continued to perform up until 2006, when Viktor Kalabis, her husband of more than 50 years, passed away. Last year she told the BBC that her greatest achievement was "to have lived until 90".

She said it was "miraculous that I survived".

Two classical music record labels, Warner Classics and Erato, released a statement saying that:

"It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. Her family confirmed in an official statement that she died peacefully in her sleep yesterday, 27th  September, having celebrated her 90th  birthday in January this year.

"We share in the sadness of those who knew her, loved her, and admired her."

Maran Esfahani, her student and protégé Mahan Esfahani, paid tribute to Ms Růžičková, saying:

“The loss of this great musician today also means the loss of a huge source of inspiration and meaning to musicians and non-musicians alike.

"This is an irreplaceable giant. I will cherish every hour I spent with Zuzana as the most important of my life, and as hours which changed the course of everything for me.”

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