The fascinating Margit Wolf

10 January 2014 | By Hila Shachar

Margit Wolf
Margit Wolf
Pasquale Frutaci
Pasquale Frutaci

In 1938, the Italian conductor and composer Pasquale Frustaci wrote a beautiful song for his ballerina wife. But this is no simple tale of romance. World War II was still a year away, but Frustaci’s family was already experiencing the tragedy that would eventually envelope Europe. Separated from his wife and son, he was compelled to write a song that would have a history as heartbreaking and fascinating as Margit Wolf, the woman who inspired it.

Wolf is the subject of Germaine Shames’ book You, Fascinating You, which brings to light one of World War II’s (and ballet’s) forgotten stories. Born in 1910, Wolf was a talented Jewish ballerina who trained at the Hungarian State Opera. When she was approached, along with three other ballerinas, by an Italian impresario who offered them a dream opportunity to dance on one of Europe’s greatest stages, she jumped at the chance.

In 1928, Wolf travelled to Italy with her friends, lured by the promise of an audition at La Scala, Milan’s legendary opera house. However, when they arrived, the dancers found they had been duped, and would instead by performing with a travelling vaudeville show. Out of money, they had no choice but to dance from small town to small town, trying to earn their way back home to Hungary.

Pasquale Frustaci was in charge of the vaudeville company’s orchestra, and a romance developed between him and Wolf – who, while she didn’t realise her dream of becoming a great ballerina, at least met her future husband. Theirs would perhaps have been a simple love story, if it weren’t for the fact that they fell in love during one of Europe’s darkest hours.

While Wolf and Frustaci looked for theatre work, Italy was drawn into an alliance with Hitler’s Germany. Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policies became increasingly severe. In 1938, Jews were told they had only a few months to leave the country, and Wolf was forced to take her two-year-old son back to Budapest. Frustaci was left behind in Italy. Alone, heartbroken and facing the prospect of an uncertain future, he sat down and wrote a song: “Tu Solamente Tu”.

This song would travel, just like Wolf and her son. “Tu, Solamente Tu” was first recorded in 1939 by one of Italy’s most famous directors, Vittorio de Sica, who made the neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (1948). The timing of this recording could not have been more poignant, as Europe was plunged into another war. But for Frustaci, it meant fame: the song made it to the top of the hit parade, and he was nicknamed the “Italian Cole Porter”.

The song didn’t stay in Italy for long. It became a big hit in Germany; ironically, the German version “Du Immer Wieder Du” was sung by Zarah Leander, one of the leading film stars of the German Reich, and a controversial figure today due to her implication in the Nazi propaganda machine. But the allies adopted the song too. The English version, named “You, Fascinating You”, was performed by the American Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Perhaps in some small way, this redeemed the song’s legacy, as Miller often used his music and songs to denounce fascism, and called music “the sincerest form of freedom”. But what about Margit Wolf: did she find freedom?

Her story is both tragic and inspiring. Once she moved back to Hungary with her infant son, her contact with Frustaci waned. Wolf blamed his lack of letters on the war. It’s hard to know whether his dwindling letters and vague responses to her suggestions that she send their son, Cesare, back to Italy to keep him safe were the result of wartime difficulties with communications or Frustaci’s declining interest in their fate. There was no doubt Frustaci loved his wife and son, but he was also a womaniser who shared his affections liberally. Whatever the reasons, Wolf was on her own.

By this time, she was living in the Jewish Ghetto of Budapest, and she knew that Cesare would be safer on the streets than inside the Ghetto. Desperate to ensure his escape, she tried to pay for him to be smuggled back to Italy. She and her mother gathered every piece of money they could, but once again, she was fooled. After paying the man who promised to take care of her son, she never saw or heard from him again, and she was forced to take desperate measures.

Realising she was about to be deported to a concentration camp, Wolf put her son out on the street with his Italian birth certificate and the record of his Catholic baptism, instructing him to tell anyone who asked that he was an Italian Catholic. He was seven years old. She gave him a pillow and her last morsel of bread. Cesare hid in a playground at first, but had to learn how to survive the streets. He was eventually sent to an orphanage run by Jesuits.

Wolf and her family were moved from the Ghetto to one concentration camp after another. On a forced march from Hungary to Germany, she saved her friend’s life by hiding her in a passing cart filled with coal, but her own escape attempt failed and she was sent to the notorious Tent at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. The huge tent, its floor covered with straw, housed 500 Jewish women. They died in masses from a combination of starvation, disease and freezing cold.

It’s impossible to imagine what kind of strength it must have taken to survive this, but survive she did, as did her son. After the war, Wolf walked all the way from Germany back to Budapest, searching over 180 villages with a photograph of Cesare in her hands. One day, a little girl recognised the boy in the photograph. A year and a half after the war ended, Margit Wolf was reunited with Cesare in a small village on the border of Romania.

It took another 22 years for the Jewish ballerina and her composer lover to meet face-to-face again, however. While both the song and the woman who inspired it made it through the horrors of war, she remained estranged from her husband. When Cesare visited his father in Italy in 1956, Frutaci was newly married to his second (or third) wife and his son was introduced by his father as his nephew.

However, Wolf and Frutaci’s relationship revived, and in 1964 Wolf and her mother joined Cesare and Pasquale in Torino, breaking out of the communist regime that made travel difficult. Cesare describes his parents’ resumed relationship as one of “mutual affection” which lasted until Pasquale’s death in 1971. Standing by his father’s coffin at the funeral, Cesare heard his mother whisper, “Now I do not have to share you”. It’s a heartbreaking finale to their love story, and a testimony to Wolf’s spirit of indomitable love.