Music from the Holocaust


Separated from loved ones, starving and wracked with lice and disease, men and women imprisoned in concentration and labor camps during World War II wrote music, often joyful music.
Almost 5,000 pieces of sheet music, much of it on original scraps of paper, have thus far been located and recorded on CDs, in an attempt to bring to life the music of Jews, gypsies and prisoners of war from all over Europe.
The U.S. State Department on June 18 held a two-hour, multimedia program entitled Lost Music of the Holocaust, featuring a performance of what is believed to be the U.S. premiere of a piano piece written by Leon Kaczmarek while he was imprisoned in Dachau.
The piece by the Polish POW was performed by 17-year-old Nicholas Biniaz-Harris, the grandson and great-grandson of a Schindler’s List Holocaust survivor.
Short works by other Holocaust victims were heard, including one by Aleksander Kulsisewicz, whose large collection of music includes a piece he wrote while staring at the gate that separated him from the rest of the world as he did his forced daily stretching exercises in his weakened state.
Other works included excerpts from Alice Herz, who played piano in more than 100 concerts while in the Terezin concentration camp, and Robert Heilbut, who wrote more than 110 songs while in captivity.
While listening, audience members couldn’t help but wonder how someone living in such depravity could manage to write such beautiful and uplifting music.
“It’s a pretty complex answer,” noted Dahlan Robert Foah, co-producer and music director of Creativity in Captivity, a group that presents music written by people who were prisoners.
“The will to survive can stimulate brutality or it can stimulate creativity,” he said. Works of creativity can be acts of resistance, defiance or submission, he said.
Music can be a way “to leave some kind of mark. To say I was here. I lived.”
“By far, most of the music making was a command, something they were ordered to do,” added fellow panelist Bret Werb, music curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. For participation in an evening concert, a prisoner might buy himself a little more time, Werb said.
The Lotoro Institute, a sponsor of the event, has been hard at work collecting as much music from the Holocaust period as possible. Basically, Francesco Lotoro learns of a composer who wrote eight concertos and realizes that only six are known. He then begins his detective work, speaking with family members, friends and people who were in the same concentration camp until he finds the missing work, Foah explained.
“He’ll just start like a hound dog,” he said.
Sometimes he is rewarded with the actual sheet music. Other times, someone will remember enough of a piece to sing it, and it is then transcribed. Other times, he’ll be fortunate enough to be handed a recording.
“It’s a never-ending process,” Foah said, adding, “Our goal is to keep this music alive, to give back their voice.”
Quite a few members of the audience in the State Department auditorium were Holocaust survivors who wanted it known that music was far from the only creative outlet. Much art was drawn in those days as well, they said.
There were so many things that can never be collected, noted Steven Fenves of Rockville. With tears in his eyes, he recalled a few people who would take him and other young people aside, after they had all just finished 14 long hours of work, and teach them algebra and French.
“That was an act of defiance,” he declared, clearly still grateful to those adults.
Ira Foreman, U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, spoke of the importance of honoring those who were killed during the Holocaust and to “pledge ourselves to continue the fight against anti-Semitism.”
Besides helping to keep the voices of those in captivity alive, the State Department also is working to prevent atrocities. Julia Fromholz, special assistant, Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, noted that many agencies, including the departments of State, Treasury and Defense, work together to share intelligence.
“The earlier we seek to intervene, the more options we have,” she said, pointing to the work of The Atrocities Prevention Board, created in April 2012. It is a senior-level, interagency office designed to provide humanitarian and diplomatic aid to prevent mass killings, she said.
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