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 Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. Tickets: $25-$30. 202-408-3100. sixthandi.org.