Holocaust victims’ music heard at last
Concert of prisoners’ work is climax of Italian composer’s long quest
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.”
Legacy … Francesco Lotoro conducts at the Notes of Hope concert in Jerusalem last Sunday