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Fania Fénelon (2 September 1908 – 19 December 1983) was a French pianist, composer and cabaret singer, whose survival of the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz and the Holocaust was made into a television film, Playing For Time.
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, both of whom also survived the war. Her marriage to Silvio Perla (a Swiss athlete, specialist in the 5000 m) ended in divorce, which was finalized after the war.
During the Second World War, she joined the French Resistance in 1940 until her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 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.)
Under her pseudonym of "Fénelon", which she took up after the war, 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 Pankey's death she returned to France. In 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 (e.g. between the Jewish musicians and the Poles, some of whom were anti-Semitic), and the normality of prostitution and lesbian relationships. At Birkenau, Fénelon served as a pianist, one of the two main singers, an occasional arranger of musical pieces, and even a temporary drummer, when the original drummer briefly took ill.
All of the orchestra members survived the war, except two players, Lola Kroner and Julie Stroumsa, and conductor Alma Rosé who died of a sudden illness, possibly food poisoning, at the camp. Most of the other survivors, particularly Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Violette Jacquet-Silberstein, disagreed with Fénelon's negative portrayal of Rosé, who, although Jewish, had been given the equivalent status of a kapo. The book was translated into German and English in slightly abridged editions.
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 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 but the actress garnered the support of the acting community. Fénelon never forgave Redgrave, but eventually softened her view of the production to concede that it was "a fair film".
Fania Fénelon died on 19 December 1983, aged 75, in a Paris hospital. The causes of death were listed as cancer and heart disease. She was survived by her brothers, Leonide Goldstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Michel Goldstein, a retired businessman in Paris.
- Fania Fénelon, Sursis pour l'orchestre, témoignage recueilli par Marcelle Routier, Stock, 1976, (ISBN 2-234-00497-7), réed. France loisirs, 1982; ISBN 2-7242-0070-5 (in French)
- 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, ISBN 9780718116095
- Playing for Time. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0815604945
- 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, ISBN 978-0815604945
- Joel Agee: Twelve Years: an American boyhood in East Germany. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981, ISBN 9780374279585
- Year of birth given as 1908, Gayworld.be; accessed 25 October 2015.
- Profile, Jta.org; accessed 16 November 2014.
- McKee, Jenn. "Holocaust Memorial visit inspires rehearsals". MLive.com. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
- Newman, Richard and Karen Kirtley. Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz. Portland, OR.: Amadeus Press, 2003, p. 11.
- Bafta Awards 2010: Vanessa Redgrave interview, Telegraph.co.uk; accessed 16 November 2014.
- Robert Charles Reimer, Carol J. Reimer. Historical Dictionary of Holocaust Cinema, Scarecrow Press, Inc; ISBN 978-0-8108-7986-7 (ebook); accessed 25 October 2015.
- "FANIA FENELON, 74; MEMOIRS DESCRIBED AUSCHWITZ SINGING". Nytimes.com. 22 December 1983. Retrieved 2 December 2017.