Born: December 15, 1924;

Died: July 10, 2021.

ESTHER Béjarano, who has died aged 96, was a Holocaust survivor whose musical skills kept her alive in the Auschwitz concentration camp while vast numbers of other people met their deaths.

As a German Jew, she was sent to the camp in Poland in April 1943 at the age of 18 after two years of hard labour in her homeland, and was given the arduous task of moving heavy rocks every day.

She sang for the barrack leaders to earn extra bread. “I used to sing songs from Schubert or Mozart – songs I knew from back home”, she recalled in an interview with the Shoah Foundation Institute. She then learned that the Nazi death camp’s newly formed women’s orchestra, Madchenorchester von Auschwitz, was looking for musicians.

Béjarano said she was a pianist, but there was no piano available – only an accordion. After studying the keyboard, she picked the instrument up and, as she knew the right-hand keys from her experience with the piano, found she could play it while improvising on the bass buttons with her left hand.

She passed the “audition”, playing the melody of Du hast Gluck bei den Frau’n, Bel Ami! (‘You Are Lucky with the Women, Bel Ami!’), a jaunty song from a popular German film.

The orchestra had to perform upbeat music as prisoners marched to and from their daily work and when trains pulled into the camp with new arrivals from across Europe, who would wave and applaud at the “welcome”.

“They must have thought, ‘Where music is playing, things can’t be that bad,”’ she told the New York Times in 2014. “They didn’t know where they were going. But we knew. We played with tears in our eyes.”

After moving to a camp in Germany and escaping from a death march as the end of the war approached, Béjarano was rescued by Allied troops. When a picture of Hitler was set alight in a market square, she was handed an accordion, which she played while US and Russian soldiers, along with camp survivors, danced. “That was my liberation,” she said.

It was only after then that Béjarano discovered that her parents had been killed by the SS in 1941 and that her sister, Ruth, had died in Auschwitz just four months before her own arrival there.

She spent the rest of her life using her musical talents to spread the message of anti-racism and imploring Germans not to forget their fascist past.

The youngest of five children, Esther Loewy was born in 1924 in Saarlouis, part of a region of south-west Germany controlled by the French under mandate from the League of Nations. Her parents were Margarete (nee Heymann) and Rudolf Loewy, a piano teacher who sang in opera companies then choirs and as senior cantor at a synagogue.

Her father had won an Iron Cross First Class medal while serving with the German army during the First World War, when a hand wound finished his hopes of a career as a pianist.

The family moved to Saarbrucken when Esther was 11 and, a year after the Saar region’s return to Germany in 1935, to Ulm. Then, concerned about the safety of his wife and children, Rudolf began sending his children abroad, with the exception of Esther, who remained in Ulm with her parents until all three fled in 1941.

They were captured in Berlin when Rudolf, whose mother was not Jewish, was given a choice by Nazi thugs to divorce his wife and remain free as a “half-Jew” or be deported as well.

He refused, and the couple were herded on to a train that took them to Lithuania, where they were among almost 5,000 shot by the SS – the first systematic killing of German Jews during the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Ruth was captured by the Nazis in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in December that year. Esther spent two years in the forced-labour camp at Landwerk Neuendorf, south-east of Berlin and, after five months in Auschwitz, was able to move to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp in northern Germany, in September 1943, because she had a Christian grandmother.

After the war, she travelled by boat with other Jewish refugees from Marseille to Palestine, which was then controlled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate.

There, she studied singing in Tel Aviv and performed across the newly formed state of Israel.

She married Nissim Béjarano, a Bulgarian truck driver, in 1950, and gave birth to two children, Edna and Joram. As life became difficult in Israel, the family emigrated to Esther’s German homeland in 1960, settling in Hamburg, where the couple ran a laundry service.

When, a decade later, Esther came across right-wing extremists being protected by police against protesters, she became politically active.

As well as telling her story in schools, she co-founded the West German branch of the International Auschwitz Committee in 1986 and, with her children three years later, formed Coincidence, a band that performed Yiddish melodies and Jewish resistance songs.

In 2009, Esther started singing with a German hip-hop group, Microphone Mafia. She was not a fan of the genre but saw the opportunity to reach younger audiences with her message. “I use music to act against fascism,” she said. “Music is everything to me.”

The only member of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra now known still to be alive is cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.

Esther’s husband died in 1999. She is survived by their children.