Michigan professor resurrects music from Nazi death camp
Research leads to new performance based on the work
DETROIT — Patricia Hall went to the AuschwitzBirkenau Museum in 2016 hoping to learn more about the music performed by prisoners in World War II death camps.
The University of Michigan music theory professor heard there were manuscripts, but she was “completely thrown” by what she found in the card catalogs: Unexpectedly upbeat and popular song titles that translated to “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” and “Sing a Song When You’re Sad,” among others.
More detective work during subsequent trips to the Polish museum over the next two years led her to several handwritten manuscripts arranged and performed by the prisoners, and ultimately, the first performance of one of those manuscripts since the war.
“I’ve used the expression, ‘giving life,’ to this manuscript that’s been sitting somewhere for 75 years,” Hall said. “Researching one of these manuscripts is just the beginning — you want people to be able to hear what these pieces sound like.
“I think one of the messages I’ve taken from this is the fact that even in a horrendous situation like a concentration camp, that these men were able to produce this beautiful music,” she said.
Sensing the historical importance of resurrecting music for modern audiences, Hall enlisted the aid of university professor Oriol Sans, director of the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, and graduate student Josh Devries, who transcribed the parts into music notation software to make it easier to read and play.
Last month, the ensemble gathered to record “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” (“Die Schonste Zeit des Leb
ens”), and it performed the work Friday during a free concert at the university.
Hall believes the piece, a popular fox trot of the day, was performed in 1942 or 1943 by the prisoners in front of the commandant’s villa for Sunday concerts for Auschwitz garrison.
Although the prisoners didn’t compose the songs, they had to arrange them so they could be played by the available instruments and musicians.
Based on the prisoner numbers on the manuscript, Hall has identified two of the three arrangers: Antoni Gargul, who was released in 1943, and Maksymilian Pilat, released in 1945 and later performed in the Gdansk Symphony Orchestra.
They were Polish political prisoners.
The recording will become part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which recently obtained a baton of one of the inmate orchestra’s conductors.
During 1940-45, some 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, died in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers or from hunger, disease or forced labor.