Holocaust Hip Hop An Auschwitz Survivor and Her New Rap Band

Esther Bejarano, one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz women's orchestra, has made music her whole life. Now, she has joined forces with a hip hop band to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

By in Hamburg

The sound is a familiar one: driving beats, austere rhymes, forceful vocals supported by female backup singers. Standard hip hop, it would seem.

And yet, something doesn't seem quite right. The lyrics -- some are Yiddish, others Hebrew, still others Italian. And then there's that voice. It's certainly too old to be coming from a hip hop artist, isn't it?

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Photo Gallery: Hip Hop Meets the Holocaust
It is, if one has been raised on the gangsta rap world of in-your-face emcees surrounded by their near naked supporting cast as seen on MTV. But Esther Bejarano, one of the stars of a curious and compelling new album -- and accompanying documentary film currently in production -- has never been on MTV. She is one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz Girls' Orchestra which was forced to play as trains full of Jews and Roma pulled into the camp. Now, together with her children, she has put together a CD with the Cologne-based rappers from Microphone Mafia. Holocaust hip hop, if you will.

'This Hip Hop Stuff'

"It is certainly a bit different from what we normally do," the diminuitive, 85-year-old Bejarano told SPIEGEL ONLINE, referring to her group Coincidence, which includes her daughter Edna and son Joram and normally plays Jewish and anti-fascist songs. "But I know this hip hop stuff is popular among the youth. I thought if we worked together, then young people could learn more about what happened back then."

The album, called Per la Vita, includes a number of resistance standbys such as Desateur and Avanti Popolo. But it has been remixed to include rhymes created by Kutlu Yurtseven and Rossi Pennino of Microphone Mafia, a hip hop duo that has been around since releasing their debut album in 1994.

And it has achieved modest success, with a single from the CD currently number two on a chart designed to promote German-language pop music. The band is now on tour through Germany with several dates scheduled in February including one in Berlin on the 27th.

Mostly, though, the album has drawn exactly the kind of attention the artists were hoping for. The project originated as an answer to a neo-Nazi effort in 2004-2006 to distribute right-wing music on school grounds across Germany. The Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) called the Microphone Mafia in 2007 to ask if they would be willing to come up with a CD of their own -- rap versions of Jewish songs for teachers to give to their students.

'Which Mafia?'

The DGB suggested that Yurtseven, a son of Turkish guest workers who came to Germany during the Economic Miracle, get in touch with Bejarano. "So I called," Yurtseven said on Sunday at a Hamburg event promoting the project. "When I said who I was, there was complete silence on the line. Then she asked, 'which mafia?'"

"At the beginning it was very weird," Yurtseven told SPIEGEL ONLINE. A brief clip from the upcoming film (it is to be completed sometime later this year) shows a quizzical-looking Bejarano the first time she heard what Yurtseven had done with her material. "That doesn't sound anything like my songs," Bejarano said.

Before long, though, the unlikely group realized that they were on to something. "I really began to see how music is able to bring people together -- it really breaks down borders," Yurtseven says.

The band itself provides plenty of evidence. Yurtseven's partner from the Microphone Mafia, Rosario Pennino, is from a Catholic Italian family that likewise moved to Germany at a time when the country was importing labor to fuel its rapid post-war economic growth. The two joined forces in the late 1980s, in part to give voice to their experiences of being foreign in Germany.

'Pure Chicanery'

Indeed, it was the Microphone Mafia's focus on social dislocation that made them an obvious partner with Bejarano. Nevertheless, there have been cultural differences to overcome.

"They are very nice people, but they are a bit chaotic," Bejarano said with a laugh of her hip hop partners. "They jump around on the stage a lot. I told them maybe they should tone it down a bit, but people have really received it well. They dance and cheer a lot."

Bejarano and her family intended to leave Nazi Germany for Palestine at the beginning of World War II, but were then arrested and sent to a forced labor camp not far from Berlin in a town called Fürstenwalde Spree. In 1943, when she was 18 years old, she was deported to Auschwitz. Initially, she said, she was forced to carry heavy stones from one side of a field to another. "The next day, we had to carry them back," she recalls. "It was pure chicanery."

But after six weeks, she heard that the SS was looking for women for a new orchestra. "I said I could play the accordion, which I had never played before, but I did know how to play the piano," she says. The camp guards forced the orchestra to play as the trains unloaded the victims destined for the gas chambers.

'So Much to Do'

"I saw lots of bad things and experienced horrifying things," she says. "But the fact that we had to stand there and play when the trains brought people to the gas chambers -- and we knew where they were going, and they didn't know at all. That is something I will never forget. It was terrible."

Bejarano was ultimately sent to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück before escaping from a death march just days before the end of the war. Both of her parents and her sister died in the Holocaust.

Since then, she has devoted her life to music and to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. She is a regular visitor to schools in Germany where she tells her story with amiable directness. Having played in the band Coincidence for many years, she is likewise no stranger to the stage.

And now, she is on her way to becoming a hip hop star. "We intend to make another CD," she says. "We have so much to do."


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