The sufferings of European Jewry 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, giving voice to the feelings of the ghettos’ inhabitants. One popular street performer in the Łódź ghetto was Yankele Hershkowitz (1910-1970), whose songs were known to many ghetto inhabitants.
Professional musical performances were 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 forbade the performance of works by German composers. In Łódź, the head of the Jewish Council, Chaim 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 (sometimes 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, author, teacher, and partisan Shmerke (1908-1954). The anthology contains 236 lyrics in Yiddish and 100 melodies. Many songs of the Holocaust period 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 himn” (The Partisan Hymn), written by Hirsh Glik (1922-1944) to a melody by Russian composer Dimitri Pokrass; “Shtiler, shtiler” ([Quiet, Quiet), words by Kaczerginski, music by the 11-year-old Aleksander Volkoviski-Tamir (1931- ); “Friling” (Spring), words by Kaczerginski, music by Abraham Brodno (d. 1943/44); and “Shotns” (Shadows) words by Leyb Rozental (1916-1945),sung to a popular tangomelody. Songs from the Vilna ghetto were featured in Yehoshua Sobol’s play “Ghetto”, a play based upon the music and theater of the Vilna ghetto. Many Vilna ghetto theater and partisan songs are performed during Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, primarily in translation into Hebrew and English. All of the songs mentioned above have been incorporated into this exhibition.
Partisans who escaped from ghettos and camps also composed songs in a variety of languages. Most of these songs were meant to be sung by a group and not performed by an artist for an audience. Some of the partisan groups also used an instrument for accompaniment. The best-known songs are from Vilna, thanks to Kaczerginski’s efforts in collecting, recording, transcribing and publishing them.
A song that became popular during the Holocaust and afterward was “Es brent” (It’s Burning; Our town Burns) by the popular songwriter Mordkhay Gebirtig (1877-1942) from Kraków. Written in 1938 under the impact of the 1936 Przytyk pogrom, it came to be seen as a prophetic song of the impending Holocaust, with its call to take up arms against the enemy and not stand idly by.
Songs were also composed and performed 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.
In Terezín, where many Jewish musicians, composers and artists from Western and Central Europe were interned, many 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 other songs and arrangements of Jewish songs. The performance of his last piece, the opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” (The Emperor of Atlantis) was cancelled at the last minute, and Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered. Other composers interned in Terezín were Gideon Klein (1919-1945), Ilse Weber (1903-1944) and others. One of the more memorable performances there was of the children’s opera "Brundibár" (in Czech) by Hans Krása (1899-1944), which was also included in the Nazi propaganda film made in Theresienstadt.
In some camps and killing centers, the Germans formed orchestras from among the prisoners and forced them to play when new prisoners arrived in the camp, 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, 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 were compiled by Yehudah Eisman (Bucharest, 1945) and Zami Feder (Bergen-Belsen, 1946). Kaczerginski also made recordings among survivors in displaced persons camps, under the framework of the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Munich. The documentation and recordings were transferred to Yad Vashem (approximately 60 songs), a portion is presented of which is presented in this exhibition.
Composers and poets who survived composed new songs in response to the Holocaust and in memory of its events. For instance, Henekh Kon, in his collection Kdoyshim (Martyrs; 1947),set to music poems written by murdered Yiddish poets.
At commemoration ceremonies for Holocaust survivors, the song “Zog nit keynmol” (Never Say, The Partisan Hymn) has become something of a Holocaust anthem at remembrance ceremonies. Additional songs about the Holocaust and the related themes of survival, freedom, faith, and hope, have often been added to such ceremonies. Longer works have also been composed, including Arnold Schoenberg’s “ASurvivor from Warsaw” (1947), Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Dies Irae”, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony “Babi Yar”, and Charles Davidson’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Additional works about the Holocaust in the fields of Jewish music, light music and artistic music are still being composed, primarily in Israel and the United States.
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)
Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust (Oxford, 2005)
Shmerke Kaczerginski, ed., Lider fun di getos un lagern (New York, 1948)
Joža Karas, Music in Terezín, 1941-1945 (New York, 1985).