Fania Fénelon (née Fanja Goldstein) (2 September 1908 – 19 December 1983) was a French pianist, composer and cabaret singer whose 1976 memoir, Sursis pour l’orchestre, about survival in the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz during the Holocaust was adapted as the 1980 television film, Playing for Time.
Fanja Goldstein was born in Paris in 1908 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Her father, Jules Goldstein, was an engineer in the rubber industry. 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-metre run) ended in divorce, which was finalized after the war.
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.
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 Women’s 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. From 1973 to 1975, 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.