Violinist Anton Kraft, a native of Prague, and pianist (name unknown) giving a recital in the Łódź ghetto, 1943. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Music and the Holocaust

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The sufferings of Jews under the Nazi regime were reflected in their music and musical life. Music offered Jews a way to express their humanity in inhuman conditions, to escape from reality and give voice to their yearning for freedom, and to find comfort and hope.

In addition to private occasions at which Jews played music, sang, and even danced, music was performed publicly in some ghettos. Street singers performed in Łódź, Warsaw, and Kraków, singing lyrics about ghetto life—many of which were set to already existing melodies. One popular street performer in the Łódź ghetto was Yankele Hershkowitz (1910–1970), whose songs were known to many ghetto inhabitants.

Members of the Jewish Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, wearing concentration camp uniforms, performing a concert for war crimes prosecutors and staff, Nuremberg, Germany, 1946. Among the members of the orchestra are (only last names known): Granat (on drums), Dormashkin, Becker, Bornstein, Richter (singer), and Wolberg. The placards spell out the Hebrew phrase “‘am Yisra’el ḥai” (The people of Israel lives). (YIVO)

Professional musical performance was censored and controlled by the authorities—but the freedom to sing and compose music could not be totally censored or controlled. Thus, music became a symbol of freedom. In Warsaw, Adam Furmanski (1883–1943) organized small orchestras in cafés and soup kitchens. A symphonic orchestra played in the ghetto until April 1942, when the Nazi authorities closed it down for performing works by German composers. In Łódź, the head of the Jewish Council, Khayim Rumkowski, oversaw musical activities. The community center was especially adapted for musical and theatrical performances by a revue theater, a symphony orchestra, and the Zamir choral society. In the Kraków ghetto, chamber and liturgical musical selections were performed. The Vilna ghetto had an extensive program of musical activities, with a symphony orchestra, several choirs, and a conservatory with 100 students. A revue theater presented many popular songs about ghetto life.

Many songs were sung in the ghettos—some old (perhaps with new words written to existing melodies), some new. One of the first anthologies of songs was published in 1948, under the title Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of Ghettos and Camps); it was collected and edited by the Vilna poet, teacher, and partisan Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908–1954). This work contains 236 lyrics and 100 melodies. Many songs were never collected, however, and have been lost forever.

Among the best-known songs composed and performed during the Holocaust are four from the Vilna ghetto: “Zog nit keyn-mol” (Never Say; also known by its postwar title, “Partisaner lid” [The Partisan Hymn]), written by Hirsh Glik (1922–1944) to a melody by Russian composer Dmitrii Pokrass; “Shtiler, shtiler” (Quiet, Quiet), words by Kaczerginski, music by the 11-year-old Aleksander Volkoviski-Tamir (1931– ) [listen to a recording]; “Friling” (Spring), words by Kaczerginski, music by Abraham Brodno (d. 1943/44); and “Yisrolik” (Little Israel, about a child peddler in the ghetto), words by Leyb Rozental (1916–1945), music by Misha Veksler (1907–1943). Songs from the Vilna ghetto were featured in Yehoshu‘a Sobol’s play Ghetto, making them popular in many languages. Many Vilna ghetto theater songs have become songs of remembrance and are still performed in Holocaust commemoration ceremonies, mainly in translation (especially into Hebrew and English).

Partisans who escaped from ghettos and camps composed songs in a variety of languages and performed them, mostly in group singing. Some of the partisan groups also used an instrument for accompaniment. Their best-known songs are from Vilna, thanks to Kaczerginski’s collecting efforts. A song that became popular during the Holocaust and afterward was “Es brent” (It’s Burning), by the popular songwriter Mordkhe Gebirtig (1877–1942) from Kraków. Written in 1938 under the impact of the 1936 Przytyk pogrom, it came to be seen as a prophecy of the impending Holocaust.

Songs were also performed and composed in concentration camps. Although songs were generally not transmitted from one ghetto to another, camps served as locations where songs from different ghettos were shared (after the war, in displaced persons camps, songs were also transmitted and passed among survivors). In Terezín, where many German Jewish musicians and composers were interned, a number of compositions were created and performed. Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944) composed two piano sonatas there, along with three songs for baritone and piano, a trio for violin, viola, and cello, and a lullaby. His last piece, the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), was not performed during his lifetime, and Ullmann himself died in Birkenau. Other composers interned in Terezín were Gideon Klein (1919–1945) and Ilse Weber (1903–1944). One of the more memorable performances there was of the children’s opera Brundibár (in Czech) by Hans Krása (1899–1944).

In most camps and killing centers, the Germans formed orchestras from among the prisoners and forced them to play when Jews arrived, as they marched to work, and on their way to the gas chambers. The orchestras also played for the pleasure of German camp personnel. At one point, Auschwitz had six orchestras—the largest of which, in Auschwitz I (the main camp), consisted of 50 musicians. A women’s orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau was made up of 36 members and 8 transcribers under the musical direction of the singer Fania Fénelon. Treblinka, Majdanek, Bełżec, and Sobibór all had orchestras.

The documentation and publication of music from the Holocaust began shortly after the end of World War II. In addition to Kaczerginski’s work, early anthologies of ghetto and camp songs were compiled by Yehudah Eisman (Bucharest, 1945) and Zami Feder (Bergen-Belsen, 1946). Kaczerginski also made recordings among survivors in displaced persons camps, some of which are preserved at Yad Vashem in Israel. Composers and poets who immigrated to Israel, America, and elsewhere composed new songs about the Holocaust; an example is Henekh Kon’s collection, Kedoyshim (Martyrs; 1947) in which he set to music the poems by murdered Yiddish poets.

At commemoration ceremonies for Holocaust survivors, the song “Zog nit keynmol” has become something of a Holocaust anthem. New songs about the Holocaust, or about related themes such as survival, freedom, faith, and hope, have often been added to such ceremonies. Longer works have also been composed, including Arnold Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Dies irae, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi Yar”), and Charles Davidson’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” However, many other ghetto and camp songs were never performed after the war. With the recent growth of research on Holocaust music and the revival of interest in Yiddish, more songs have been recorded, especially by American musicians, and performed before audiences around the world.

Suggested Reading

Zami Feder, ed., Katset- un geto-lider (Bergen Belsen, 1946); Fania Fénelon, Playing for Time, trans. Judith Landry (New York, 1997); Gila Flam, Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940–1945 (Urbana, Ill., 1992); Shmerke Kaczerginsky (Katsherginski), ed., Lider fun di getos un lagern (New York, 1948); Joža Karas, Music in Terezín, 1941–1945 (New York, 1985).