The Holocaust refers to the grim period of human history when about six million Jews and millions of other groups such as Soviets, Romani, and Poles in Europe were murdered systematically by Nazi Germans. The genocide was Germany’s “final solution” to the Jewish question which is what to do with the race of people who supposedly caused all the ills of Germany. Men, women, children, and the elderly were murdered using gas chambers in extermination camps in Auschwitz and other places. Jews however, did not easily succumb to the force upon them.
They resisted through various ways, such as extermination camp breakouts and art. Jewish music stands out among all forms of resistance against the inhuman brutality of Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Music served two main purposes for Jews during the time of mass exterminations. On the one hand, Jewish songs in the ghettos and elsewhere expressed their anguish and agony. Words were simply not enough to describe the pain, fear and darkness all around them. On the other hand though, music also uplifted the spirits of Jews.
When the Nazis were trying to take away their humanity, the Jews affirmed it through optimistic music. In a way, music became life itself for Jews and other oppressed groups. Like other forms of art, music has the ability to evoke images and feelings in the listeners’ minds. For this reason, music was a convenient way to express the shared sentiments of Jews being murdered. Much of Jewish music ran counter to Nazi culture as Nazis viewed many modern forms of art, including jazz, as degenerate.
Nazis forced Jews in concentration camps to make music for them, even commanding them to form orchestras for their entertainment. Jews continued to make music in the ghettos, however. They held concerts, staged operas, and performed many musical works to express their resistance against the Nazis and the sadness of their fate. During the German occupation, the music that surrounded Jews was not restricted to Wagnerian types which influenced Adolf Hitler. Nazis were quick to suppress classical works by Mahler and Mendelssohn because they were Jewish.
In 1933, when Nazis started to take power, the Reich Music Office dismissed professional musicians of Jewish origins. John Felstiner, professor of Jewish studies and English at Stanford University, considers Jewish music at the time of the Holocaust as a type of resistance even though it is not done “physically,” such as ghetto uprisings. Jews performed and appreciated their own music at their lives risk’. Felstiner felt that the music that emerged was consequently free and seemed to have a different feel than poems and diary entries.
Different kinds of music resulted from the dangerous situations Jews produced these forms of art. Examples of these are Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus,” Verdi’s “Requiem,” bitter songs in the ghettos, and humorous satires composed of old tunes and new lyrics. A friend of his in Auschwitz composed a song with her friends in Hungrian set to the tune of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. Felstiner thought that the song sustained his friend during her stay in the concentration camp.
The Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, turned Terezin, a town in the Czech Republic, into a ghetto for Jews coming from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands. While the place wasn’t an extermination camp, thousands of Jews still died there because of appalling conditions. During this period, a Czech Jewish composer by the name of Gideon Klein intensified his activity when he was sent to the town. He ran numerous classes for children, organized and performed concerts, and composed music Jewish music.
According to Felstiner, one of Klein’s listeners remembered him playing so beautifully that they couldn’t help but let tears stream down their cheeks. At another event, Klein organized a very simple attic concert with three chairs for the string trio. Despite the simplicity of the concert however, the audience was very still while listening to the music. People guarded the steps into the attic and someone kept lookout from the window. Klein’s listener described these musical performances as “spiritual nourishment” and thought they made them forget their misery and hunger and long for more performances.
For Klein and other artists however, concerts like this are an act of rebellion against the Nazi Germans. Gideon Klein was very influential to ghetto residents during his stay in Terezin. As evidence, a teenager wrote a striking poem about him entitled “Concert in the Old School Garret” depicting his ardent desire to express resistance through his music. Klein’s wonderful largo was formed through the variations of his favorite Moravian folk song her nanny sang to him when he was young. He was not able to perform the song himself in Terezin however, although the score survived.
Nine days after he composed the song in September 1944, he was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. According to drawings of Charlotte Buresova and Petr Kien, visual artists at Terezin during the same period of time, Klein’s face showed clear resistance against the brutal Final Solution of Nazis. Holocaust songs are different from ordinary forms of communication produced during the period because they elevated speech to transcendent levels. Songs written and sang by Jews contained the culture that defined their oppressed communities.
Human values can be expressed in the abstract through music. Thus, in an inhuman environment such as the Nazi Germans constructed for Jews and other oppressed groups, singing their own songs was equivalent to crying for recognition as fellow human beings. Songs have a humanizing effect on singers and listeners. Survivors of the Holocaust consider this effect the essential value of singing Jewish songs. Singing at this time was therefore an act of creation and was very important amidst the horrible conditions of ghetto life.
Jews asserted their freedom and human life by singing their own songs in the ghetto, which clearly makes the activity an act of resistance against the systematic dehumanization of their race by the oppressors. Ghetto songs symbolized the struggle for survival of Jews. They were the musical representations of life surviving under the harshest of conditions, and not death. For survivors of the mass exterminations and forced labor, Jewish music was beyond ordinary language. It represented the only truth of their life in the ghettos and told the story of their long and hard spiritual resistance.
Nazis though, was also aware of the power of music in defining what’s culturally right or reasonable. As soon as the Nazis took power, they limited the activity of Jewish musicians and aired their propaganda through their own songs. Music was used to establish an atmosphere which permitted mass murder since it was seen as a patriotic duty and its victims were subhuman. Nazi music proliferated the streets and the radio waves and even made its way into concentration camps. Initially during the Holocaust, at the arrival depots for captured Jews, they were questioned regarding their musical abilities.
People were sorted out into those who could sing or play music and those who couldn’t. Those who could were commanded to perform propaganda music for Nazis before they were sent away to be gassed, incinerated, or tortured. At Auschwitz, the largest extermination camp in history, an all-female orchestra was formed for the entertainment of Nazis. Members of the orchestra were constantly replaced because the women regularly died of starvation, disease or were murdered. At Terezin, before Nazis completely sent the ghetto residents to the extermination camps, Jews continued to produce their music for the people.
Ordinary people and artists defied the regime by singing their songs and make their music. They also gathered strength to live for another day by immersing themselves in the operas and concerts that organizers arranged. Josef Bor, a Czechoslovakian Jew, who was imprisoned with his family at Terezin remembered how his fellow Jews proudly sang to their deaths in the face of Nazis. In a concentration camp, inmates sang Verdi’s “Requiem” passionately in front of SS troops and Adolf Eichmann, the supposed architect of the Holocaust.
Eichmann was amused by the performance of the Jews, but the inmates themselves were beyond Eichmann’s twisted humor. According to Bor, the inmates found liberation from exhaustion, terror, and provocation through the power of music. At their performance, the inmates sang with all their strength the words “Free me, God, from eternal death” in the faces of their murderers. Many musical works have been recovered since the end of World War II. Scores from musicians such as Gideon Klein, Pavel Haar, Hans Krasa, and Viktor Ullman were discovered by researchers.
These musicians had notable musical careers even before the Nazis took power and they continued to make music later to express resistance. Ullman was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, the famous Austrian composer. Two operas are particularly significant in defining this period of time: “Brundibar” by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister and “Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder Tod dank tab” (The emperor of Atlantis or death abdicates) by Ullman and Peter Kien. All of these talented musicians perished in the extermination camp at Auschwitz in 1944.
Their works have since been performed in Israel, the United States, England, Czechoslovakia, and Holland. Other vocal and instrumental selections were also gathered from manuscripts found at the camp in Terezin, many of them written anonymously. Holocaust memorials and Israeli libraries have many of these creations, especially of notable of musicians such as Ilse Weber. Weber was an educator and singer who composed and sang songs to children while she was at Terezin. Unfortunately, Weber along with other Jews, were also transported to Auschwitz and gassed.
Today, Holocaust commemorations usually include music produced depicting the struggle for survival of Jews at the time. Examples of this type of music is Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre,” an interpretation of a Jewish prayer that opens evening services on Yom Kippur, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” an interpretation of the Jewish prayer for the dead. Other pieces worth considering are Steve Reich’s music in “Different Trains,” Henryk Gorecki’s “Third Symphony,” Dmitry Shostakovich’s “Thirteenth Symphony,” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw. ”
Music, the universal language of human beings, is indeed a powerful tool of resistance. Through its ability to express the humanity of performers, singers, and listeners, Jews made use of music to highlight the inhuman Nazi force that oppressed them. As long as they could make their own music which reflected their culture, suffering, and hopes, Jews refused to be the subhuman creatures which their oppressors wanted them to be. While music will never be a physical form of resistance against unjust forces in society, its unique power to condition the minds of people will always be as potent as ever.
Music contains the truth of the lives people live and is therefore a slap on the face of forces that seek to erase people’s humanity. BIBLIOGRAPHY Berger, Ronald J. Fathoming the Holocaust: a social problems approach. Piscataway: Aldine Transaction, 2002. Flam, Gila. Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940-45. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Gilbert, Shirli. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Heskes, Irene. Passport to Jewish music: its history, traditions, and culture. Abingdon: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994. Roth, John K. Holocaust Politics. Dallas: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Rubenstein, Richard L. and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: the Holocaust and its legacy. Dallas: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Signer, Michael Alan. Humanity at the limit: the impact of the Holocaust experience on Jews and Christians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.