Fania Fénelon

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Fania Fénelon (born Fania Goldstein; 2 September 1922 – 19 December 1983) was a French pianist, composer and cabaret singer.


Fénelon was born in Paris, the daughter of Jules Goldstein, an engineer in the rubber industry, and Maria Davidovna Bernstein (Marie in French), 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 5000m) ended in divorce. In the Second World War she supported the French Resistance against the Nazis, was arrested, and was first deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau,[1] 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 sixty 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.)

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" to East Berlin. (She never divulged his identity, but Aubrey Pankey, a baritone who chose to live in East Germany due to American racism and his own Communist sympathies, fits many of the details.) After her partner's death she returned to France. Between 1973 and 1975 she wrote the book Sursis pour l'orchestre, in which she described her experiences. The book was based on her diary from the concentration camps. It was remarkably frank on many sensitive topics: the degrading compromises survivors had to make, the black humor of inmates (the orchestra women are often depicted as laughing hysterically over gruesome sights), the religious and national tensions among inmates, and the normality of prostitution and lesbian relationships (this last perhaps the most controversial, since it was the most heavily cut in translation). Many of her fellow survivors of the women's orchestra took issue in private with her portrayal of them, particularly Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Violette Jacquet. Almost all survivors who read the book disagreed with its negative portrayal of Alma Rosé, the orchestra's kapo and conductor. The book would be translated into German and English in slightly abridged editions. Fania Fénelon told the press at the time that she was writing another book about her life after the camps, but this never appeared.

Linda Yellen filmed the book under the title Playing For Time, using as script a dramatic adaptation by Arthur Miller. Fania bitterly opposed Miller's and Yellen's 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[2] and, at nearly 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," Fénelon declared. "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 scolded Redgrave to her face on 60 Minutes. Redgrave, however, won the support of the acting community as the issue of her political freedom took precedence over her suitability for the role. Fania Fénelon never forgave Redgrave, but eventually softened her view of the production to cede that it was "a fair film."

Fania "Fénelon" Goldstein died on 19 December 1983 in a Paris hospital. The causes were listed as cancer and heart disease.


  • Fania Fénelon; Marcelle Routier: Sursis pour l'orchestre. Paris: Stock, 1976
  • --do.--Das Mädchenorchester in Auschwitz; deutsch von Sigi Loritz. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982, (1991: ISBN 3-423-01706-6)
  • --do.--The Musicians of Auschwitz; translated by Judith Landry. London: Michael Joseph, 1977
  • --do.--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 Fenelon. Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1985
  • Joel Agee: Twelve Years: an American boyhood in East Germany. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.


  1. ^ McKee, Jenn (25 March 2007). "Holocaust Memorial visit inspires rehearsals". Retrieved 24 April 2007. 
  2. ^ Bafta Awards 2010: Vanessa Redgrave interview

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