The 'miraculous' life of Zuzana Ruzickova

By Rebecca Jones
Arts correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Alamy

Zuzana Ruzickova endured three concentration camps in World War Two, including Auschwitz, and was persecuted by the Communists in Czechoslovakia in the years that followed. But not only did she survive, she also went on to become one of the world's leading harpsichordists.

"I was not a strong child, but I was in love with music from the beginning," says Zuzana Ruzickova, who turns 90 next month.

Born in Czechoslovakia on 14 January 1927 to a prosperous Jewish family, she had a happy childhood but was sickly and suffered from tuberculosis.

One day, as a reward for getting better from her illness, she asked her parents for a piano and piano lessons. Doctors ordered her to rest, but eventually she got her way - and her teacher was so impressed she encouraged her to go to France to study with the world's top harpsichordist.

In 1939, though, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Not only was she unable to study in France, but three years later she and her family were deported to the Terezin labour camp.

"My childhood ended there," she says. Her grandparents and her father later died in the camp, along with thousands of other Jewish inmates.

But, she insists, music helped her survive. She remembers writing down a small section of Bach's English Suite No 5 in E minor on a scrap of paper when she left Terezin in a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz.

"I wanted to have a piece of Bach with me as a sort of talisman because I didn't know what was awaiting us."

What beckoned was more hardship. Her camp number at Auschwitz, 72389, which was tattooed on her arm, has faded now, but she has not forgotten it. She can also remember how "terribly frightened" she was. Although she was only a teenager, she wishes she had been tougher.

"Seeing the gas chambers, the smoke every day. I'll never forgive myself that I always went in the evening to my mother and I wept and I said, 'I want to live, I don't want to die'," she remembers.

Zuzana Ruzickova says she knows she was due to be gassed on 6 June 1944 but she thinks she was saved by the D-Day landings, which took place early that day.

She then endured forced labour in Germany before being sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945, where in yet another misfortune she contracted bubonic plague.

When she finally returned home to Czechoslovakia with her gravely ill mother her hands were in "an awful state", damaged from working in the fields and hauling bricks. She was advised to abandon any ambition for a musical career. But, she says, "I couldn't live without music" and she practised the piano for 12 hours a day to make up for lost time.

Image caption,
Zuzana Ruzickova (front centre) lost many of her family in the Holocaust

"It is not enough to be an extraordinary musician," she says. "You have to be crazy. You have to have the feeling that you cannot live without music."

Then in 1948 the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia, triggering more than 40 years of totalitarian rule.

"I couldn't really believe that there was another regime like the Nazis, so cruel, so stupid, so anti-Semitic. At first I was so naive. I thought this can't be true," she says.

Living in just two rooms of a small flat in Prague, the family were under constant surveillance. But, against all the odds, Zuzana Ruzickova went on to forge a distinguished career as a harpsichordist.

Her international breakthrough came in 1956 when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. The Czechoslovak government allowed her to perform in competitions and concerts around the world because she was a lucrative source of foreign currency for the state. Between 1965 and 1975 she also became the first person to record Bach's complete works for keyboard.

Image source, Leloir/Warner Classics

Zuzana Ruzickova remains grateful to the composer, who, she says "played a big role in my recovering from my terrible experiences".

"Bach is very soothing. You always feel in his music that God is present somehow. And that, of course, helps."

She finally stopped performing in public in 2006, at the age of 79. She says she misses it "terribly". This coincided with the death of her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis. "It completely changed my life," she says.

And now, in a final twist of fate, she can barely play the harpsichord. "My hands are not in order, not functioning properly. I have cancer and I had chemo," she says.

To mark her 90th birthday next month her complete Bach recordings have been re-issued. A new documentary about her, Zuzana: Music is Life will also be released.

Looking back over her tumultuous life and glittering career, Zuzana Ruzickova says she is not "proud" of anything.

But, she laughs, her greatest achievement is "to have lived until 90".

It was, she says, "miraculous that I survived".

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