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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Tales of the recording angel

By Norman Lebrecht / October 31, 2007


Anne-Sofie von Otter can’t be sure when she first heard the name Gerstein.. ‘It was around in my childhood, but no-one said anything,’ she reflects over morning tea at the Langham, across the road from the BBC. ‘Just Gerstein this, Gerstein that, a name in the air. I remember a German television crew coming to our place in the country and my father becoming stressed. He had to give evidence at a war crimes trial and he was preparing very carefully.’

Von Otter is one of the most successful and diverse sopranos of present times, renowned for trouser roles in the opera house and for a concert repertoire that runs from Bach to Abba. Yet behind the frivolity of many of her performances lies a pensive detachment that hints at a darker side.

She has just released an album of songs from the Terezin concentration camp, both the formal Lieder that were put on to fool Red Cross visitors, and the consoling lullabies that a nurse, Ilse Weber, wrote for the children she sang to sleep until she and they were shipped to Auschwitz. Although raised among Swedish nobility on the diplomatic circuit and feted these days from Salzburg to Gstaad, Anne-Sofie von Otter is rooted in the chronicle of genocide, and all because of a man called Gerstein.

Her tragic tale begins on a train, as so many war stories do. Anne-Sofie’s father, Baron Göran von Otter, was a Swedish diplomat in wartime Germany, adjutant to the ambassador. On the night of 20-21 August 1942, travelling from Warsaw to Berlin, he became an involuntary witness to the Holocaust.

Standing in the corridor because he could not get a sleeper, the diplomat saw an SS officer glancing in his direction. When the train stopped at a station, both men got off for fresh air. On the pitch-dark platform, the SS man asked for a light for his cigarette. Von Otter produced a pack of matches with a Swedish crest. ‘I must talk to you,’ said Kurt Gerstein.

‘With beads of sweat on his forehead and tears in his eyes’ (as von Otter reported to his superiors), Gerstein explained that he was head of a Waffen-SS Technical Disinfection unit, responsible for supplying poisons and gas equipment. ‘Yesterday,’ he told von Otter, weeping uncontrollably, ‘I saw something appalling.’ ‘Is it about the Jews?’ said the diplomat.

Over the next six or eight hours in the train corridor, having examined Gerstein’s papers and satisfied himself of his credentials, von Otter heard a detailed account of the mechanics of genocide, the gas chambers, the mass graves. Gerstein gave chapter and verse, the names of senior personnel, the look in a little girl’s eyes as she was shoved naked to the slaughter. ‘I saw more than ten thousand die today,’ he wept.

He implored the Baron to inform the Swedish government, in the hope of stopping the slaughter. ‘I had no doubt as to the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions,’ said von Otter, who promptly wrote a report to Stockholm and heard nothing more. Not long after, he was recalled. When he looked for his own report in Foreign Ministry files, there was nothing to be found.

Gerstein, after risking his life with further confessions to foreigners, gave himself up to the French in April 1945 and was charged with war crimes. In prison, he wrote a full account of what he had seen and a letter to von Otter requesting corroboration of their meeting. The diplomat’s reply arrived a few days too late. Gerstein was found dead on July 25, 1945, either by his own hand or murdered by fellow-SS inmates. He had originally joined the SS in order to investigate the death by euthanasia of his mentally disabled sister-in-law.

‘My father never talked,’ says Anne-Sofie von Otter with sombre concentration. ‘Not just about Gerstein, about anything. We didn’t even know that his grandfather had been prime minister of Sweden for two years. What I know, I heard from my mother who was with him in Berlin. But I had the feeling growing up that it troubled him deeply, not getting Gerstein’s information out, not being able to save Gerstein’s life. A strong sense of guilt hung heavily over the rest of his life. He was not a particularly courageous man, but he was always driven by a sense of trying to act and do right, something he tried to pass on to his four children.’

Von Otter’s career stalled, possibly because his 1942 report compromised Sweden’s blind-eye neutrality. He rose no higher than consul-general in London, and died in 1988. ‘He was not a happy man,’ says Anne-Sofie. ‘He felt a failure in his career, his family weren’t close to him and it must have preyed on his mind that millions of people were being gassed all the time when he was unable to do anything. Not to mention Gerstein’s death, a man of his own kind who was also trying to do the decent thing. He tried hard in London with me, the youngest, but he didn’t manage to be the sort of father that makes my heart reach out to him.’

The Terezin album is her act of daughterly reparation, bringing out unsung songs of unknown victims for two men who tried and failed to save them. Both the songs and her delivery have a simplicity and a directness that are instantly affecting. Nothing in this album sounds like a performance, more like the transmission of an essential truth, the work of a recording angel.

Her opening ballad is by nurse Ilse Weber, ‘I wander through Terezin.’ It was a poem written to Ilse’s son, Hanus, whom she had put onto a train out of Prague before the war, praying she might see him again some day. Anne-Sofie recently found that Hanus Weber lived out his life in Stockholm, not far from her home, working as a political correspondent. The past grew chokingly close and, though Hanus is dead, his mother lives once more through the voice of the daughter of a decent man who tried to stop her murder.

‘My father would have been moved, and he would have approved,’ says Anne-Sofie von Otter. ‘It didn’t occur to me while I was making the record, but afterwards I understood that I had done it to get his approval, to make a gift to him. I have made so many records for egotistic reasons. This one was for my father, to do the right thing.’

Terezin is out now on Deutsche Grammophon

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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