Fania Fénelon

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Fania Fénelon (died 19 December 1983) was a French pianist, composer and cabaret singer.


Fania (or Fanny) Goldstein was born in Paris, although the year of her birth is disputed (see below), to Jules Goldstein, an engineer in the rubber industry, and Maria Davidovna Bernstein; both parents hailing from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. She attended the Conservatoire de Paris, where she studied under Germaine Martinelli, obtaining a first prize in piano (despite her diminutive size and very small hands) and at the same time worked nights, singing in bars. She had two brothers, Leonide and Michel Goldstein. Her marriage to Silvio Perla (a Swiss athlete, specialist in the 5000 m) ended in divorce, which was finalized after the war.[1]

During the Second World War, she supported the French Resistance against the Nazis until her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau,[2] where she was a member of the girl orchestra of Auschwitz, then to Bergen-Belsen, until she was freed in 1945. Suffering from a potentially fatal case of typhus and weighing only 65 pounds, she sang for the BBC on the day of her liberation by British troops. (A Library of Congress entry for this recording gives her name as Fanja Perla, her married name at the time; her divorce from Perla was finalized after the war.)[1]

Under her pseudonym of "Fénelon" (which she took up after the war), Fania Goldstein became a well known cabaret singer. In 1966 she went with her African-American "life-partner", baritone singer Aubrey Pankey, to East Berlin. After her partner's death she returned to France. Between 1973-75, with Marcelle Routier, she wrote Sursis pour l'orchestre, a book about her experiences, based on the diary she kept at the concentration camps. It dealt with the degrading compromises survivors had to make, the black humor of inmates who would sometimes laugh hysterically over gruesome sights, the religious and national tensions among inmates (i.e. between the Jewish musicians and anti-Semitic Poles), and the normality of prostitution and lesbian relationships. At Birkenau, Fénelon was one of the two main singers, an occasional arranger of musical pieces, and even a temporary drummer, when the original drummer briefly took ill.[1]

All of the orchestra members survived the war, save for the conductor Alma Rosé, who died of a sudden illness at the camp. Most of the other survivors, particularly Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Violette Jacquet, disagreed with the Fénelon's book's negative portrayal of Rosé, the orchestra's conductor, who, although Jewish, had been given the equivalent status of a kapo. The book was translated into German and English in slightly abridged editions. Fénelon told the press at the time that she was writing another book about her life after the camps, but this never materialized.[citation needed]

Linda Yellen filmed Playing For Time using as script a dramatic adaptation by Arthur Miller. Fénelon bitterly opposed Miller's and Yellen's purportedly sanitized rendition of life in the camps and above all Yellen's casting of Vanessa Redgrave to play her. Redgrave was a well-known PLO sympathizer[3] and, standing close to six feet tall, bore little resemblance to the petite Fania. "I do not accept a person to play me who is the opposite of me ... I wanted Liza Minnelli. She's small, she's full of life, she sings and dances. Vanessa ... doesn't have a sense of humor, and that is the one thing that saved me from death in the camp", Fénelon said. She scolded Redgrave in person during a 60 Minutes interview.

Redgrave won the support of the acting community as the issue of her political freedom took precedence over her suitability for the role. Fénelon never forgave Redgrave, but eventually softened her view of the production to cede that it was "a fair film".[citation needed]


Fania Fénelon died on 19 December 1983 in a Paris hospital. The causes of death were listed as cancer and heart disease.[1]

Year of birth[edit]

Fénelon's date of birth has been given, variously, as 2 September 1908, 2 September 1918 and 2 September 1922.

  • - gives her year of birth as 1908
  • JTA - gives her year of birth as 1918
  • The Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature (edited by David Patterson, Alan L. Berger, Sarita Cargas) - gives her year of birth as 1918
  • Critical Companion to Arthur Miller: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (by Susan C. W. Abbotson) - gives her year of birth as 1922
  • Fénelon's French and German Wikipedia biographies cite 1922


  • Fania Fénelon; Marcelle Routier: Sursis pour l'orchestre. Paris: Stock, 1976
  • Das Mädchenorchester in Auschwitz; deutsch von Sigi Loritz. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982, (1991: ISBN 3-423-01706-6)
  • The Musicians of Auschwitz; translated by Judith Landry. London: Michael Joseph, 1977
  • Playing for Time. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
  • Arthur Miller: Playing for Time: a full-length stage play; adapted from the television film by Arthur Miller; based upon the book of the same title by Fania Fénelon. Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1985
  • Joel Agee: Twelve Years: an American boyhood in East Germany. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.


  1. ^ a b c d Profile,; accessed 16 November 2014.
  2. ^ McKee, Jenn. "Holocaust Memorial visit inspires rehearsals". Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  3. ^ Bafta Awards 2010: Vanessa Redgrave interview,; accessed 16 November 2014.

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