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Natalia Karpf

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Born:
28 April 1945
Sought asylum with husband, an employee at Polish Embassy
Mode of Arrival:

Natalia Karpf was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1911 as Natalia Weissman, into the family of a wealthy industrialist. She was a child prodigy as a pianist; she performed her first public concert aged nine. She was sent aged 18 to Berlin to study with Artur Schnabel, and has favourable memories of Berlin, where antisemitism was negligible compared to Kraków. Her father owned property in Berlin, and her mother died in hospital there while undergoing treatment. She returned to Poland before the rise of the Nazis, continued studying piano. Her teachers including the brother-in-law of Arthur Rubinstein, but caring for her younger siblings and then marriage to her first husband, a fellow pianist, restricted her career. 

Her husband was killed at the very start of the war, her younger brother disappeared in Soviet captivity. She and her sister went first to Tarnow, where they were held in the ghetto, then to Warsaw at the time of the uprising, when they were disguised as Poles but were handed over to the Germans by Polish police. After a period in prison in Zakopane, they were sent to Plaszów, where they only survived because Natalia played for the camp commandant, Amon Goeth.

They were sent to Auschwitz, but after six weeks were sent on to work in a textile factory in the Sudetenland, where they were liberated by the Russians in 1945. 

She returned to Kraków, where she met her second husband, and came with him to London when he was sent to work at the Polish Embassy. Invited by the embassy to play on the hundredth anniversary of Chopin’s death, she played on the piano that Chopin had played on his last appearance in London. When her husband was recalled to Poland, they decided to seek asylum in Britain. They lived in Hampstead. She was very successful as a pianist with many concerts, for the BBC, at the Proms, the Wigmore Hall and the South Bank. She has two daughters. 

I was four-and-a-half when my parents had a piano left by tenants who evacuated during the First World War. My parents didn’t leave; they had a comfortable home in Krakow… and there was somewhere to put the piano. And so I started when I was four, and straight away, with both hands. I found my own harmonies to play, and I was whistling, and I was singing, and I put a tambourine on my leg.

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@ Refugee Voices 2019