Where Fascism, Communism And Bach Meet

03/25/2017 02:08 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2017

When Peter Getzels and I were asked to make a documentary in the Czech Republic about a 90 year-old harpsichordist, I envisioned a barbed-wire dive into history, with the music of J.S. Bach to soften the blows. As with every new production, I had a steep learning curve. But I never imagined the film would morph from an inspirational, self-contained history piece, to a chilling, cautionary tale about our world today.

The most alluring part of the production was getting to know the musical virtuoso Zuzana Ruzickova, who survived three concentration camps and slave-labor as a teenager, and forty years of communism in Czechoslovakia after the war. Her American cousin Frank Vogl, built a career around fighting corruption. When Peter and I first met with him in 2013 to discuss a film about his work, the conversation turned to life under the communists in Czechoslovakia. He described how his cousin had become one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Bach despite the regime.

“Can we meet her?” Peter said, “because we should really try to film with her. Immediately.” As a Jewish American whose family has been in the US for nearly a hundred years, I often wondered what I would do if power were seized by an elected dictator; someone who defied laws and civil rights with impunity, and persecuted minorities. Would I join the resistance or hope for better times? Would I wait around, or flee?

“You pronounce my name like rouge,” Zuzana Ruzickova told me when we first met in Prague. She spoke with formidable precision and a smile. “You have to soften your ‘z’; It’s rouge-ITCH-kova.” I nodded and repeated her inflection, happy that she came with a simpler first name. Her life however, was anything but simple.

During our four-day interview in Zuzana’s vintage kitchen – her home since the end of World War II – we encountered a woman who knew no shortage of hardship; but also joy. Zuzana’s dignity enabled her to tell a larger metaphysical story than the sum of the blows she suffered as a teenager in Terezin, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Her caustic humor fueled outrage that modern Europe under the communists could be so bizarrely crazy and cruel. But with every new twist in her epoch story, Zuzana seemed to get inside the head of JS Bach.

What would the Baroque composer have made of her world, had he woken up beside her on the train to Auschwitz? How would he have responded if he were employed not by the church to compose his music, but by the town council of her Marxist Leninist state? With a warm, stony stare after every turn in her story, Zuzana speculated on Bach. Like her, he had little control over much of his life. For Zuzana his music captures a higher order, which has spoken to her since she was eight years old.

“He starts with a fugue,” she says, “that transcends our worries and pains. It’s above human suffering.” As she describes the music of Bach, it feels as if his higher order embedded itself in her DNA as a child, to protect her from everything that conspired to annihilate her, while guiding her to the legendary acclaim she won in the music world.

Although she refused to join the communist party, the leaders promoted her talent for profit and status. After she won the top award at the Munich Festival in 1956, they dispatched her to hundreds of international concerts and competitions. While the communists confiscated much of her wages, they could never rob her of the power and dignity of her performances. In 1964 a Paris record producer from the Erato label flew to Prague, and offered her a contract to record all the keyboard works of Bach.

“This was one of the happiest eras of my life,” she says. Few people know that Bach composed his keyboard works only for the harpsichord, a 14th century instrument made of wood, string, feathers or quill; which explains why Zuzana committed herself to this instrument. Recently Warner Music digitized the entire opus, and released her recordings on a 20-CD box set.

“Those sessions in Paris happened over a period of ten years,” she says. “But the minders were with me every minute.” Her face darkens with disapproval as she refers to her communist chaperones. “When I hear the recordings now, I want to make corrections. I was only allowed to stay in Paris for 3 or 4 days at a time; so I never had a chance to sit with the engineer, and tell him which recordings to keep.”

As our production neared completion, I imagined the experience of watching the film: hearts would sink with the turmoil in young Zuzana’s life; and leap with joy at the sheer majesty of her music. I envisioned all the horror and triumph in the face of Nazis and Communists, contained in a kind of cultured, Eastern European bell jar.

And then the bell jar shattered. First with the Brexit vote driven by xenophobes; then when Trump won the election, showing little respect for tolerance and democracy; as if Nazi and Communist genies had escaped from our bell jar. The genies took the form of Alt-Righters and Russian hackers, taunting what we’ve always taken for granted: that democracy is forever; that our constitution is infinitely wise; and that the office of the president exists to respect and sustain both.

What does Zuzana make of these ‘never again’ events? “I’m turning 90 and I’ve seen so much,” she says. “Things happen in cycles.” She gives me her ironic, stony stare.

And what would Bach have made of all this, I ask. “I don’t think he would have changed what he was doing,” she says. “You know, he was a sort of mystic. He didn’t adhere to any single church when he composed. He wrote his music in protest and passion.” Those were the words I was looking for to describe the life of Zuzana Ruzickova: Protest and passion. But they’re no longer part of a story contained in a bell jar. Not history. Not anymore.

ZUZANA: MUSIC IS LIFE will have its world premier at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, on Saturday, April 8, at 10.30am; and at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in DC on May 21 and May 23. Click the festivals for tickets.

CONVERSATIONS