Auschwitz survivor who fought racism with music dies at 96

BERLIN — Esther Bejarano, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp who devoted much of her life to the fight against antisemitism and racism, has died. She was 96.

Mereon Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, Germany, said Saturday that Bejarano died overnight. A cause of death was not given.

German news agency dpa reported that she died peacefully at the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg, citing Helga Obens, the chair of the Auschwitz Committee.

Bejarano emigrated to Israel after World War II but returned to Germany with her husband in 1960, dpa reported.

Bejarano, the daughter of a Jewish cantor from Saarbruecken in western Germany, grew up in a musical home studying piano until the Nazis came to power and tore her family apart.

She was deported to Auschwitz, where she became a member of the girls’ orchestra, playing the accordion every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived at the death camp. Bejarano would say later that music helped keep her alive in the notorious German Nazi death camp in occupied Poland and during the years after the Holocaust.

“We played with tears in our eyes,” she recalled in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press. “The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers.”

Bejarano survived, but her parents and sister Ruth were killed by the Nazis.

Decades later, she teamed up with her children Edna and Yoram in a Hamburg-based band to play Yiddish melodies and Jewish resistance songs, and also with hip-hop band Microphone Mafia to spread an anti-racism message to German youth.

“We all love music and share a common goal: we’re fighting against racism and discrimination,” she said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas paid tribute to Bejarano, calling her “an important voice in the fight against racism and antisemitism.”