October 12, 2017

Dr. Susan Eischeid Honored with Presidential Excellence Award for Research

Dr. Susan Eischeid

VALDOSTA — Dr. Susan Eischeid is the recipient of Valdosta State University’s 2017 Presidential Excellence Award for Research.

The Presidential Excellence Award for Research recognizes a faculty member with a strong record of creative scholarship. Eischeid, a professor of music, was chosen for her extensive research on music from the Holocaust, especially the women’s orchestra that was formed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II.

“Receiving this award is a lovely recognition, not just for me, but for all of us in the arts who don’t always get attention for things we do outside of our performances,” said Eischeid, who has taught in the Department of Music since 1994

Eischeid’s interest in the Holocaust began when she was a teenager.

“A lot of people don’t know that there was a lot of music written during the Holocaust,” she said. “What interested me at first was music that was written by the prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps and ghettos. Because the Germans were so arts-centered, they actually allowed and, in many cases, encouraged artistic activities.

“The bigger ghettos had symphony orchestras and choruses and string quartets. To me it was very fascinating to learn that in a place you would think could never have music, there were flourishing arts communities.

“In some cases it saved people’s lives because they were allowed to play in those groups, and that kept them from doing hard labor.”

In 2000, Eischeid began researching Maria Mandl, the highest-ranking female Nazi officer at Auschwitz. She created the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra using prisoners in the camp. It was the only women’s orchestra that existed throughout the entire Nazi camp system.

During the course of her research, Eischeid talked to many women from the orchestra.

For several years, she visited survivors throughout Europe and beyond. She used a translator for many interviews to ask questions in German, Czech, Polish, Hebrew, Romanian, French, and Bulgarian.

Many had numbers tattooed on their arms, which is how the Nazis identified prisoners at Auschwitz, the largest death camp of Hitler’s regime. One woman’s leg was crippled from the medical experiments she survived at Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. Many of their eyes filled with pain when they remembered certain moments from that time, Eischeid said.

Throughout the interviews, one thing came up repeatedly.

“They were extremely upset because, in the mid-1970s, one of the former members of the orchestra published a book called ‘Playing for Time,’” Eischeid said. “Her name was Fania Fénelon, and the book detailed her stay in Auschwitz. It hit all the bestseller lists, sold hundreds of millions of copies, and has been translated into numerous languages. CBS made a television movie based on it.

“It was the first book published about that orchestra, so it got lots of attention, and everybody accepted it as truth. The problem is that it isn’t truth. The book contains many, many fabrications and embellishments.”

Parts of the book, Eischeid said, are true, such as descriptions of the hunger and disease that plagued the prisoners. But Fénelon’s portrayal of nearly every other woman in the orchestra is skewed and paints them in a negative light, Eischeid said.

Fénelon described the orchestra’s conductor, fellow prisoner Alma Rosé, as a poor musician and a cruel woman who beat the members and kept them from getting extra food.

“Even though Alma Rosé was a very strict disciplinarian, she was also the strength that kept them going and saved them,” Eischeid said. “All the other women in the orchestra said that Alma was the reason they survived. She was the heart of the orchestra.

“Yes, she yelled at them during rehearsals, but she never slapped them or beat them. What Rosé did was really miraculous because very few of these young women were professionals. They didn’t play their instruments very well. By sheer force of personality and rigor and rehearsals, she turned them into a very cohesive performing unit that presented weekly concerts.”

Fénelon’s book also accused one member of the orchestra of sleeping with Nazi officers and even killing other prisoners. The falsehoods about the orchestra members make up around 70 percent of “Playing for Time,” Eischeid said.

“She wrote horrible, horrible slanders that were not in any way true,” Eischeid said. “The other women were just so surprised and hurt by it because when they were all in it together, they were supporting each other, and she was one of them. A lot of them considered her their friend.

“They spoke out against the book right from its publication. They tried to get people to hear the truth, but no one was listening because Fénelon wrote well. The book is a good read, and it’s salacious.

“As I became friends with some of the ladies, I saw the devastation and anguish that this book had caused them. I knew I had to do something.”

Eischeid initially planned to write a scholarly article on the Fénelon memoir to be published in Holocaust journals, “like a book review 40 years later.”

“But when I started digging around, I was overwhelmed because not only is this book accepted as truth but it is also being taught in schools,” she said. “It’s touted by many of the leading Holocaust institutions in the world as the definitive source on the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra.”

Eischeid gathered testimonies and anecdotes from almost every other member of the orchestra and their families. She went through Fénelon’s book page by page and compared it with stories from the other survivors. She then used historical records from the camp to show that what Fénelon said was false and what the other ladies said was true.

“Eventually I had way too much for an article,” she said. “I ended up with a 200-page manuscript that rebuffs everything Fénelon got wrong, and I decided to publish it as a freestanding book.”

Eischeid’s work underwent a rigorous peer-review process by leading Holocaust scholars.

“And because what I wrote was so controversial — essentially I’m criticizing the whole formalized Holocaust establishment — the review process went on for almost half a year,” Eischeid said.

Eventually her book, titled “The Truth about Fania Fénelon and the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” was published in June 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan, an academic publisher. 

“Through relentless efforts and research, Dr. Eischeid has set the record straight,” said Philippe Kahn, the son of Claire Monis, a singer and violinist in the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra. “Her work brings a beacon of light to the memories of extraordinary women who were great artists and played to survive.”

Eischeid hopes to present her research in 2018 at a Holocaust conference. 

“I’m committed to the ladies,” she said. “I’m continuing this battle for them. I won’t let it die.”

Throughout her professional career, Eischeid has presented more than 150 lectures and recitals of Holocaust music in more than 20 cities in the United States and Europe.

“To me Holocaust music has such an immediate emotional connection,” she said. “When I perform this music, it’s not like any other music I perform. There’s an undercurrent of communication. I feel I can be this conduit for these voices that were, in most cases, prematurely ended.”

She commercially released a solo album of Holocaust music, “Mystic Chords of Genocide,” and her music has been used for the soundtracks of several film projects.

Eischeid is the creator of The Pink Triangle Project, a series of events designed to commemorate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims of the Holocaust.

She has performed nationally and internationally with the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, Richmond Symphony, West Virginia Symphony, Jacksonville Symphony, and Cincinnati Ballet Orchestra. She appeared as a soloist in the world premiere of the second oboe concerto by noted Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas.

Eischeid performs regularly with the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra (VSO) in the position of principal oboe as well as with the Blazer Woodwind Quintet. On Oct. 21, she will be one of the featured soloists in the VSO’s performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante.

Every summer she performs and records with the faculty orchestra of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. These concerts are regularly broadcast on National Public Radio.

Eischeid is a member of the International Double Reed Society, College Music Society, and Georgia Music Educators Association.

She holds a Bachelor of Music from Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Music from Philadelphia University of the Arts, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

“Susan Eischeid is a shining star in the Department of Music, the College of the Arts, and at Valdosta State University,” said Elizabeth Goode, professor of music at VSU. “Her unfailing work ethic and ethical stances deserve the highest praise.”

Each year, VSU continues its tradition of honoring faculty excellence with five awards recognizing the diverse talents and contributions of its innovative and active faculty. Awards are given for excellence in teaching, research, service, online teaching, and scholarship of teaching and learning. The 2017-2018 recipients were publicly recognized at the fall convocation and received a monetary prize of $1,000.

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