Holo­caust vic­tims’ songs live on in Ute Lem­per’s new­est project

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS&STYLE - BY ROGER CATLIN style@wash­post.com

Ute Lem­per, 53, be­gan her cabaret ca­reer per­form­ing the works of com­poser Kurt Weill, who, like her, left Ger­many to live and work in the United States. Lem­per has spent more than three decades in­ter­pret­ing songs by writ­ers as var­ied as Tom Waits, Philip Glass and Nick Cave, and adapt­ing the works of Charles Bukowski, Paulo Coelho and Pablo Neruda. But one of the singer’s re­cent projects, “Songs for Eter­nity,” is largely un­known songs by Jewish com­posers per­se­cuted by the Nazis. Lem­per will per­form the songs at Sixth & I His­toric Syn­a­gogue on Wed­nes­day; we spoke to her by phone from her home in New York.

Q: Tell me about “Songs for Eter­nity.” A: These songs, most of them in Yid­dish, are out of the his­tory of songs writ­ten in the ghet­tos be­tween 1942 and 1944 and in the con­cen­tra­tion camps. It’s a very spe­cific pro­gram that I de­vel­oped two years ago now, with the 70th an­niver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz in 2015. I met this amaz­ing man who re­searched all this mu­sic, [Ital­ian pi­anist and mu­si­col­o­gist] Francesco Lo­toro. He and I started to get all dif­fer­ent sources of mu­sic from around the world.

I fell upon this book, “Songs Never Si­lenced” by Sh­merke Kacz­er­gin­sky, that was first pub­lished in 1946 here in New York. He was a sur­vivor, and he started doc­u­ment­ing this mu­sic, partly by script and partly by word-of-mouth. I put to­gether an evening of in­cred­i­ble songs wit­ness­ing the his­tory of songs that de­scribed the life in the ghet­tos, the wit­ness­ing of tor­ture and hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions that oc­curred in the con­cen­tra­tion camps. But also songs of in­cred­i­ble hope and spirit and be­lief in beauty, be­lief in sur­vival, songs of re­volt against the ter­ri­ble tor­ture of the times.

Q: Were these songs new to you? A: To me they were pretty new, but some of them were pub­lished a while ago, maybe 30, 40 years ago, and two or three songs are maybe known to peo­ple with spe­cial in­ter­est in this ter­ri­tory, but a lot of them are new to all of us.

Q: It’s re­mark­able they were able to write songs at all in that sit­u­a­tion. A: Yes, but for ex­am­ple, in the ghetto in Lithua­nia, there were mu­si­cal com­pe­ti­tions and some songs are writ­ten by very young com­posers and writ­ers, poems — some of the writ­ers are 16, 17 years old . . . . And then we have the fa­mous con­cen­tra­tion camp There­sien­stadt, which was the ghetto of the elite, where the com­posers, the writ­ers, the jour­nal­ists, the ar­chi­tects were in­car­cer­ated, not in prison clothes, and they were en­cour­aged to per­form and to or­ga­nize con­certs ev­ery week­end at the beau­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram — the con­cen­tra­tion camp was cleaned from ev­ery trace of tor­ture and death from the Red Cross, and other coun­tries were in­vited to see how “hu­mane” the pris­on­ers were treated and were per­mit­ted to keep their artistry go­ing.

A lot of work ac­tu­ally was writ­ten at There­sien­stadt, and there are a bunch of songs that are out of this his­tory of this spe­cific camp, but all of those were works writ­ten by artists who, in ’44, were brought on the trains to Auschwitz, and all of them were gassed. There was a quite in­cred­i­ble reper­toire out of this con­cen­tra­tion camp.

Q: There is prob­a­bly a story to go with each song. A: Not only does ev­ery song have a story, ev­ery com­poser has a story. There’s Ilse We­ber, a poet, writer and com­poser in the Prague ghetto who was brought to There­sien­stadt and then brought with her en­tire fam­ily to Auschwitz later on and was killed, but her hus­band sur­vived, and he was able to hide scrolls of her mu­sic in the col­umns of the horse sta­bles of There­sien­stadt. Af­ter be­ing lib­er­ated from Auschwitz, he made it back to There­sien­stadt to look for those scrolls, and he found them and pub­lished them many years later.

Q: It’s amaz­ing he could find them. A: Yes, that is un­be­liev­able. I guess he went back soon af­ter the lib­er­a­tion. Francesco Lo­toro also heard an amaz­ing story about Ilse We­ber that re­ally was breath­tak­ing and hor­ri­ble to tell. She be­came a nurse at There­sien­stadt in charge of the chil­dren. She brought them with her on the train to Auschwitz, and she knew for some rea­son when they ar­rived they would all be brought straight to the gas cham­bers.

She told the chil­dren once they en­tered the gas cham­bers to sing. Be­cause she had al­ways sung with the chil­dren. That was al­ways her way of mak­ing them feel bet­ter. She told them to breathe in deep and sing loud once they would en­ter the shower rooms, be­cause she knew it would ini­ti­ate death faster through deep in­hala­tion, so the strug­gle would not be so long. It’s just so hor­ri­ble.

This mu­sic is re­ally sa­cred mu­sic and for me, a very dif­fi­cult jour­ney to go through this reper­toire, but . . . it’s an in­cred­i­ble im­por­tant re­minder of the past, and im­por­tant homage to the Jewish peo­ple, which I also want to do. Be­ing Ger­man-born, it’s al­ways been my first mis­sion in life as a per­former, as a singer, as a writer, a com­poser my­self, too, to pay homage and, mostly, re­open the di­a­logue.

Q: Be­yond his­tory, is there a mes­sage for to­day? A: It is of course the mes­sage of a search for hu­man­ity, jus­tice, peace, equal­ity. It is a mes­sage of never to let this hap­pen again. But also a re­minder of what did hap­pen in the most cul­ti­vated so­ci­eties where progress and so­phis­ti­ca­tion was taught in schools and univer­si­ties, and yet peo­ple were ma­nip­u­lated into the worst ar­eas of be­liev­ing in dis­crim­i­na­tion and racism to the most ex­treme de­gree. This is a re­minder.

Ute Lem­per: Songs for Eter­nity Wed­nes­day at 7:30 p.m. at Sixth & I His­toric Syn­a­gogue, 600 I St. NW. Tick­ets: $25-$30. 202-408-3100. six­thandi.org.


Cabaret singer Ute Lem­per’s project “Songs for Eter­nity” is in­spired by the his­tory of songs writ­ten in Jewish ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps dur­ing the Holo­caust. She per­forms Wed­nes­day night at Sixth & I His­toric Syn­a­gogue.

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