Zuzana Růžičková (14 January 1927, Plzeň) is an award-winning harpsichordist, whose work has garnered acclaim around the world. Born in the Czech Republic, where she has lived her entire life, Růžičková is an interpreter of classical and baroque music. She is one of the only musicians to have recorded the entire works of JS Bach for the harpsichord, an undertaking which spanned ten years. She is also the wife of the late Czech composer Viktor Kalabis. As a young teenager, Růžičková was interned in multiple Nazi concentration camps for her Jewish heritage, and as an adult, she lived for forty years under the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia.
- 1 Childhood and early life
- 2 Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and World War II
- 3 Musical education
- 4 Career in Communist Czechoslovakia
- 5 Růžičková today
- 6 Partial list of awards and recognitions
- 7 External links
- 8 References
Childhood and early life
Her family owned a department store, and her father had spent four years in Chicago in the 1920s, working at the Ginsburg Department store. Although he experienced success in the United States, Růžičková’s father returned to Czechoslovakia, which had only recently become independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Růžičková learned English from her father. Růžičková characterized her childhood as “very sweet” and her parents as “very much in love”.
Růžičková began taking piano lessons after suffering from pneumonia at the age of nine, as a reward for her recovery. Her piano teacher, Marie Provaníková, introduced her to the works of Bach and encouraged her to take up the harpsichord. Provaníková was so impressed by Růžičková’s talent that she wrote to French-Polish musician Wanda Landowska, asking her to accept Růžičková as a pupil at her École de Musique Ancienne in in the Paris suburb of Saint-Leu-la-Forêt once she had finished her obligatory schooling at age 15. Ultimately, Růžičková was not able to attend due to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws.
For more information on the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia, see History of the Jews in the Czech Republic
Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and World War II
The Nazis began the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In 1941, the Gestapo began organizing transports to move the Plzen Jews into Terezín, a garrison town built in the late 18th century. The camp’s first inmates, known as the Aufbaukommando, were tasked with converting the fortress and surrounding walled town into a concentration camp: known as Theresienstadt: the German name for Terezín.
In Plzen, the Gestapo used Jewish children, including a 13-year-old Růžičková, to deliver “invitations” to other members of Plzen’s Jewish community, informing them of the date they would be deported to the camp. Růžičková described the experience: “It was terrible—the delivery of the notices. We saw life at its very worst. It was a nightmare.”
In January 1942, three weeks after receiving an “invitation” from the Gestapo, Růžičková and her family were forcibly relocated from Plzen to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The family was taken by train from Plzen to Terezín. Upon arrival, Růžičková encountered Fredy Hirsch, a 25-year-old German Jew. Hirsch undertook the responsibility of caring for the camp’s children by arranging activities and exercise for them, and reserving two bunks for “Children’s Homes”.
Internment in Theresienstadt
Theresienstadt was originally designated by the Nazis as a “model community” for educated, middle-class Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. More than 150,000 people were held for months or years before being sent to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in occupied Poland. Tens of thousands of people died from malnutrition and disease but despite horrific conditions, hard labor, and no medical care, the inmates managed to provide lessons for children, and staged lectures, plays, operas and concerts.
Růžičková, along with other children in Theresienstadt, did agricultural work, applying manure to fields and working in vegetable gardens. Růžičková was able to sneak food from the gardens to her family. Although she was forced to labor during the day, Růžičková was able to continue her education while she was in Theresienstadt. After returning from work, Růžičková could attend concerts and lectures staged by the residents. She was able to see opera singer Karel Berman perform, take Latin lessons from a former university professor and harmony lessons from pianist Gideon Klein, and join a children’s choir.
Růžičková’s father died in the spring of 1943, but Růžičková was able to remain with her mother. In December 1943, Růžičková and her mother were sent to Auschwitz after nearly two years in the camp. Růžičková was given a chance to remain in Theresienstadt, but chose to go with her mother.
Internment in Auschwitz
After three days on the transport, Růžičková and her mother arrived in Auschwitz, a death camp. Having arrived at night, the prisoners were immediately placed in barracks. By this point, many were suffering from hunger and dehydration. The next day, Růžičková and the other prisoners were taken to another barracks, stripped, and tattooed. They were then made to sign a document, which stated that they had been arrested in Theresienstadt for anti-German activities, and accepted their sentence. Soon after her arrival, Růžičková reunited with Fredy Hirsch, who advised her to lie about her age and say she was sixteen, rather than fifteen. Borrowing a coat from her aunt Jirina, with whom she had also been reunited, Růžičková was able to meet with Hirsch, who had organized the children’s barracks, much as he had in Theresienstadt.
Růžičková worked with Hirsch as a teacher’s helper. In this role, Růžičková was exposed to the extreme reality of Nazi racial theory; German doctors, including Fritz Klein, the “Chief Selector” of the camp and colleague to Josef Mengele, who Růžičková knew in Theresienstadt, visited the children’s barracks to take physiological measurements or select children to be removed for experimentation. Růžičková would later credit Fredy Hirsch with her survival. Had he not prompted her to lie about her age, it is likely that Růžičková would have been gassed. Allowing her to work alongside him at the children’s barracks kept Růžičková from more dangerous jobs and protected her from the many diseases spreading through the camp.
In May 1944, Růžičková and the other inmates who had traveled with her from Terezin to Auschwitz were scheduled to be gassed. However, their execution was slated for June 6—D-Day. Enduring another horrific selection, Růžičková and her mother were instead sent to Germany.
Slave Labor in Hamburg
Růžičková was sent to Hamburg, which was being bombed regularly by British and American airmen. Under the auspices of the Neuengamme concentration camp, laborers were assigned to work in sub-camps in the area around Hamburg. Růžičková and the other laborers worked to protect and repair an oil pipeline and to maintain gas tanks, which were subject to daily bombardment. Růžičková was able to remain with her mother, but suffered greatly from hunger and perilous working conditions. However, she was able to earn some extra food from other prisoners by singing for them. In addition to working on the oil pipeline, Růžičková also worked in the shipyards of Hamburg.
In January 1945, Růžičková was moved the Tiefstack sub-camp, where she worked in a cement factory. As Allied forces advanced, the prisoners were made to dig booby-traps for tanks.
Internment in Bergen-Belsen
At the end of February, Růžičková and the other laborers were transported to the horrific death camp of Bergen-Belsen. She would later say of Bergen-Belsen: "If ever there was Hell, this was the lowest part of Hell. This was an extermination camp—it was really meant for us to die in.”
At this point, Bergen-Belsen was disorganized, overcrowded, and stricken with disease. When her mother fell ill, Růžičková was forced to sneak out of the camp to gather turnips in order to survive. In April, 1945, Růžičková and the other prisoners who could still walk were ordered to march from the camp to a railway station two miles away. They returned to the camp and woke the next morning to discover the Germans had gone. The guards had abandoned the camp, leaving no food. They had also disconnected the water supply. A few German and Hungarian troops remained outside the camp, randomly shooting into the barracks on occasion. On April 15, 1945, British and Canadian soldiers arrived at Bergen-Belsen.
Liberation and Aftermath of WWII
Růžičková, along with many prisoners suffering from starvation, became seriously ill after eating the food rations provided by soldiers. At the time of liberation, she weighed only 70 pounds. Růžičková was taken to a hospital, where she was treated for ulcers, typhus, malnutrition, and eventually diagnosed with malaria. Since she spoke English and many other languages, as she healed, Růžičková became an indispensable translator for the medical staff.
Although Růžičková’s mother remained gravely ill, they were able to return to Czechoslovakia in July 1945, where they found their family home occupied and possessions gone.
Despite the extreme conditions she endured during the war, Růžičková’s love of music thrived. In Theresienstadt, she took harmony lessons from fellow prisoner Gideon Klein. Before her transport to Auschwitz, Růžičková transcribed a Bach piece onto paper to bring with her to the camp. While working in Hamburg, she heard Chopin on the radio and fainted.
One of the first people Růžičková encountered upon her return to Plzen was her former piano teacher, Marie Provaníková. Růžičková recalls that when Provaníková saw the conditions of her hands after four years in concentration camps, she wept.
The four years Růžičková had spent in concentration camps had not only hurt her physically and psychologically, they also caused a significant delay in her progress as a musician. In order to be accepted into a music school, Růžičková had to pass a series of examinations. She started in classes with children to regain her fundamental skills, and managed to advance every few months, from a third grade level to the required eight grade level. Růžičková began studying piano again with Bohdan Gsölhofer, and in 1947, she was able to enroll in to the Academy of the Performing Arts in Prague. Despite her rapid improvement, one of her professors discouraged her from being a professional musician. Nevertheless, Růžičková entered the Academy and decided to specialize on the harpsichord and early music. She passed her BA and went on to earn her MA. In 1950, Růžičková was also able to secure a position at the Academy, teaching composers to play the piano. One of her students was her future husband, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis.
Career in Communist Czechoslovakia
After the 1948 coup d’état by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) Růžičková was pressured to join the Communist Youth Movement. However, she refused to join the Communist Party. As a student in Prague, Růžičková was called in front of a committee when she was discovered reading the works of Sigmund Freud, whose literature had been banned. As a faculty member at the Academy of Performing Arts, Růžičková was subject to performance reviews that evaluated her both professionally and politically. As a Jew, Růžičková was still vulnerable to persecution under the Communist government. An example of anti-Semitism in communist Czechoslovakia are the Slánský show trials of 1952, in which 14 members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia were subject to a public trial intended to purge the government of dissident voices. 11 of the 14 defendants were Jews. The situation was so perilous that Růžičková tried to persuade Viktor Kalabis not to marry her. Nevertheless, they wed in December 1952.
In 1956 Růžičková won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich and was offered a scholarship from jury member Marguerite Roesgen-Champion to continue her harpsichord studies in Paris. Kalabis was also invited to study in Paris, but the couple was not allowed to travel abroad together, to discourage them from defecting. Viktor went to Paris, but Růžičková remained in Czechoslovakia.
Even though she was not able to study in Paris, Růžičková’s win at the International Music Competition led to further invitations to perform all over Europe. Since she was highly paid for these performances, the government allowed her to travel, but confiscated all of the foreign currency that she earned. Růžičková’s talent and success made her valuable to the state, but as a non-party member, she remained under suspicion from the Communist government. She was not allowed to teach music to Czech students. Furthermore, her participation in the Czech Philharmonic was restricted due to her Jewish heritage.
The pressures on Růžičková were eased slightly following the death of Stalin and the relaxation of his policies. She was able to travel more freely and occasionally with her husband. However, Růžičková did not try to defect, as she and Kalabis still had family members living in Czechoslovakia. For the first time, Růžičková was able to record music for international distribution, which increased her fame and strengthened her association with the music of Bach. This coincided with the revival of baroque music in Western Europe. In 1965, Růžičková was contracted to record the complete keyboard works of Bach.
Following the Prague Spring of 1968, the Czech government was under pressure to appear stable and progressive. Růžičková was given several state-sponsored rewards, which served as propaganda for the regime. Růžičková was unable to refuse these rewards and was often forced to accept them with great ceremony.
The Velvet Revolution
Following the events of November 17th, 1989, Růžičková participated in the protests against the government. As an artist and academic, she went on strike from the Academy of Music and the Czech Philharmonic. When the Communist regime has finally overthrown in December, Růžičková was able to reclaim her title of “Professor,” which had been denied her despite teaching at the Academy since 1951. Růžičková was able to serve as a committee member for music competitions, which had been a significant factor in her own success as a musician.
Růžičková still resides in Prague. She stopped performing publicly in 2004 after her husband fell ill. Following the death of Kalabis in 2006, Růžičková became more involved in various musical organizations and committees dedicated to the interpretation and preservation of early music, and to the discovery of young musicians. She is the president of the V iktor Kalabis & Zuzana Růžičková Foundation, vice-president of the Prague Spring International Competition Committee, and a member of the advisory boards of the Czech Chamber Music Society and the Concertino Praga International Competition. Furthermore, she is a supporter of the Hans Krása Initiative, dedicated to the life and music of composer and fellow Theresienstadt prisoner Hans Krása. She is also active in the Terezín Initiative, through which she was able to fund a memorial for Fredy Hirsch.
She has recorded around 100 albums.
Partial list of awards and recognitions
- Artist of Merit, 1968 (CZ)
- Nation Artist, 1989 (CZ)
- Professor of the Academy of Music in Prague, 1990 (CZ)
- Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, 2004 (Fr)
- Aachen “Kulturpreis Karl IV” (2011)
- Medal of Merit 2 Grade for Arts and Culture of the President of the Czech Republic (2004)
- Medaille fur Kunst und Wissenschaft der Freusradt Hamburg (1993)
- Medal of Contribution to “Golden Funds if Supraphone” (1997)
- Medal of Harmony Musical Review (2001)
- Prize for Contribution to Czech and World Music (2001)
- Grand Prix Cros (J.A. Benda, J.S. Bach)
- Diapason d’Or (Henry Purcell)
- Golden Disc Supraphone (300,000 LPs, CDs, and tapes sold)
- Hon. Member: Direktorium “Neue Bachgesellschaft” Leipzig
- NEMA (National Early Music Association of Great Britain)
- The Dvorak Society for Czech Music
- Honorary Citizen of the town Jindrichuv Hradec (CZ)
- Honorary Citizen of the township Praha 3
- Official site
- Biography (in Czech)
- Czech radio interview
- France honours Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova
- Růžičková plays Bach on YouTube
- Interview with Zuzana Ruzicova, March 27-April 1, 1991
- Interview with Zuzana Ruzicova, March 27-April 1, 1991
- Interview with Zuzana Ruzickova, Narch 27-April 1, 1991
- Interview with Zuzana Ruzickova, March 27-April 1, 1991
- Interview with Zuzana Ruzickova, March 27-April 1, 1991