Holo­caust vic­tims’ mu­sic heard at last

Con­cert of pris­on­ers’ work is cli­max of Ital­ian com­poser’s long quest

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Har­riet Sher­wood Jerusalem

At 85 – and given the pow­er­ful emo­tions of the mo­ment – it would not have been sur­pris­ing if Aviva Bar-On’s voice had wa­vered. But as she sang in clear tones in front of an au­di­ence of 3,000 peo­ple in Jerusalem last Sun­day night, it was easy to imag­ine the nineyear-old Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp prisoner she was once was.

Bar-On (pic­tured be­low right) per­formed a song she com­mit­ted to mem­ory more than seven decades ear­lier in the There­sien­stadt (Terezín) camp in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Cze­choslo­vakia. Com­posed by the Jew­ish poet and mu­si­cian Ilse We­ber, later gassed at Auschwitz, the song had never been heard in pub­lic. It was one of 11 pieces at the con­cert, cli­max of a 30-year quest by Francesco Lo­toro, an Ital­ian com­poser and pi­anist who has tracked down thou­sands of songs, sym­phonies and op­eras from the Holo­caust.

The mu­sic was cre­ated in the dark­est mo­ments imag­in­able by mu­si­cians and per­form­ers whose lyrics and scores were writ­ten on scraps of pa­per or mem­o­rised. “Some [of the mu­sic] was writ­ten in note­books, on coal sacks, food wrap­pers, tickets,” Lo­toro said. One five-act opera was found on sheets of lava­tory pa­per. And some of the mu­sic was held only in the mem­o­ries of sur­vivors.

Lo­toro has trav­elled the world, search­ing in book­shops, at­tics and ar­chives, and in­ter­view­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors. He has sal­vaged and recorded 8,000 pieces of mu­sic, “but there are more than 10,000 more wait­ing to be de­ci­phered that I have not yet touched”.

Last Sun­day, for the first time in more than 70 years, a frac­tion of this mu­sic was per­formed in a con­cert in Jerusalem called Notes of Hope. The au­di­ence in­cluded Holo­caust sur­vivors and their de­scen­dants. s.

Nine­teen chil­dren from m two mu­sic acad­e­mies in the Negev desert, men­tored by Lo­toro for the past two years, played with the Ash­dod Sym­phony Orches­tra. They were ac­com­pa­nied by some of Is­rael’s most st em­i­nent per­form­ers, singing ging in He­brew, Yid­dish, Ger­man, Czech C h and Ro­many, with Lo­toro con­duct­ing.

De­spite the cir­cum­stances of their com­po­si­tion, most of the songs were up­beat. Zi­tra (To­mor­row), com­posed by Joseph Roubicek for a young prisoner, Manka, looks for­ward to a day when “ev­ery­one will be happy at heart”. Tango in Auschwitz, writ­ten by 12-year-old Irka Janowski and set to a pop­u­lar dance tune, speaks of free­dom “be­yond fences and rail­ings”. Bar-On sang When I Was Ly­ing Down in Terezín’s Chil­dren’s Clinic, which makes light of the ill­ness and dis­ease suf­fered by many in­mates. The Czech Cze­choslo­vakian Jew spent three y years in the There­sien­stad stadt tran­sit camp from the age of nine. “They we were very hard years of hu hunger, ill­nesses and epi epi­demics,” she said. “Bu “But the mu­si­cal life of the c camp was very rich. There were fa­mous opera singers an and high-rank­ing mu­si­cians. i There Th were lots of per­for­mances, and a women’s choir. We didn’t know about the gas cham­bers.”

Dur­ing a spell of sick­ness, Bar-On was nursed by We­ber. “She was a won­der­ful, smil­ing lady. She played the man­dolin and sang; some of her songs were very funny. Now I’m the only one in the world who re­mem­bers them.”

Af­ter the camp’s lib­er­a­tion, a small note­book con­tain­ing We­ber’s lyrics was dis­cov­ered. Even­tu­ally it found its way to Lo­toro, who was frus­trated by the lack of a mu­si­cal score. But Bar-On’s mem­ory came to the res­cue.

In Wester­bork, an­other tran­sit camp, Max Ehrlich, a promi­nent per­former in the pre­war Ber­lin cabaret scene, teamed up with fel­low mu­si­cian Willy Rosen to cre­ate the Wester­bork The­atre Group. “Sud­denly the best cabaret in Europe was to be found in a con­cen­tra­tion camp,” said Alan Ehrlich, the per­former’s nephew.

The camp com­man­dant sat in the front row of all of the troupe’s per­for­mances of orig­i­nal songs, jokes, sketches and dance rou­tines. En­tranced, he kept the per­form­ers’ names off the lists of those des­tined for the death camps. But Max Ehrlich was even­tu­ally de­ported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was recog­nised by a guard and forced to per­form one last time be­fore be­ing killed.

The ma­te­rial un­earthed by Lo­toro’s de­tec­tive work orig­i­nated from Jews, Gyp­sies, po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, sol­diers and oth­ers in con­cen­tra­tion, labour and PoW camps over a 20-year pe­riod. “In the camps, there was an ex­plo­sion of cre­ativ­ity,” he said. “When your life is in dan­ger, you cre­ate more as a tes­ta­ment for the fu­ture.” And he said his quest to un­earth the mu­sic of the Holo­caust would go on. “It’s a mitz­vah [a re­li­gious good deed], a repa­ra­tion.”

Mika Gurovich/JNF UK

Legacy … Francesco Lo­toro con­ducts at the Notes of Hope con­cert in Jerusalem last Sun­day

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