Sheffield play looks at strange true story of Auschwitz orchestra

Playing for Time rehearsals: Augustina Seymour (Paulette) and Noa Bodner (Esther)
Playing for Time rehearsals: Augustina Seymour (Paulette) and Noa Bodner (Esther)

The extraordinary story of an orchestra of women who were forced to play music in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz is told in Playing for Time, which is at the Crucible Theatre next week.

The story is based on the memoirs of star cabaret singer Fania Fenelon, played by Sian Phillips, who was forced to join the orchestra like the other women.

They had to perform for their SS captors and also as fellow prisoners were led to their deaths in the gas chambers.

Israeli-born Noa Bodner plays Esther, a harmonica player.

She said: “She doesn’t say much. She is quite a competent musician, she’d like to think. When she does intervene and talks she is very gritty.

“She speaks almost like a politician. She is really trying to get the others to understand the importance of continuing the Jewish lineage. She is quite proud she is a Jew.

“The way she looks at the Germans, they are not quite human, they are monsters. She thinks, ‘we are the chosen people and I am proud to be one, regardless of those monsters’.”

Noa found that she has a strange link to Esther.

“As far as I know Esther is not quite a real character, based on reading the memoirs. I was a chromatic harmonica player in the orchestra for children run by Schmuel Gogol, who was a Polish Jew.”

The Nazis took Shmuel’s harmonica when he arrived at Auschwitz but, upon hearing that another prisoner had managed to smuggle one in, he bartered with the man for it by giving him his precious daily bread ration for two weeks.

An SS officer heard he could play and put him in the men’s orchestra outside Crematorium 3.

Gogol vowed that he would teach children to play the harmonica if he ever got out and set up the orchestra when he moved to Israel after the war.

Noa said that she couldn’t believe her eyes when she read for the first time that one character was a harmonica player.

“It was one of those moments as an actress to come full circle to something that is very close to you.”

The play is very close to home for Noa and other Jewish members of the cast: “I’m still a third-generation migrant who survived the Holocaust. I have relatives who perished. I grew up in Israel and the narrative is always there from a very young age.

“I always looked really thin to my grandparents. Every Friday my grandmother used to grab my face and say ‘you are really thin’.

“We glorify thinness now but there was nothing that pleased them more than to see you eat and eat some more.”

Noa decided to leave Israel and settle in Europe to follow her career. She said life here is quite different to Israel, where of course Jews are not a minority.

“A lot of stuff happens here and it is not reported. There are a lot of things that happen to the Jewish community here.

“Because I am from Israel I never tried to assimilate myself, so I grew up to be me.

“Now I am a dual national and I’ve been here 12 years, so I see it the other way. I try to assimilate myself and I want to vote.

“I want to be part of this society and change it for the better.”

Playing for Time has been revived by Sheffield Theatres to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this year. The play runs from next Thursday, March 12, to April 4.

Box office: at the Crucible, call 0114 249 6000 or go online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk