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In music, imprisoned Jews found comfort, dignity and sometimes a lifeline

Imprisoned musicians at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria are forced to perform as a fellow prisoner is led to his execution in 1943. The Nazis supported the formation of such ensembles for their own purposes, but the groups also helped soothe and encourage inmates. (Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images) .

Music — measure by measure, video by video — has helped keep us going through the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve watched, entranced, as musicians around the world have found new ways to play or sing together remotely in front of their cameras. In Manhattan, as in many cities, we have opened our windows to clang bells, toot horns, sing songs and in any way we can shout out thanks to all the workers who are helping our city stay alive despite the ravages of covid-19. I regularly Zoom into piano parties to listen to and play along with friends and fellow amateurs.

Author-neurologist Oliver Sacks observed in “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” that music carries a matchless power to soothe, heal, inspire, induce a smile, transform despair to hope. All this, he writes, despite the fact that music by itself “has no power to represent anything particular or external.” Instead, “it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings.”

It’s little wonder then that in times of extreme calamity, music is crucial. In “The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation During the Holocaust and World War II,” Kellie D. Brown shows how for persecuted and imprisoned Jews, music became a way to preserve their humanity and at times even their lives. Although the book is sometimes a bit of a slog, Brown has succeeded admirably in bringing together in one volume so much important research. While our current crisis differs vastly from the era she depicts, the contemporary resonance is inescapable.

Brown, a professor of music at Milligan University in northeastern Tennessee, writes that “spontaneous music-making in the form of singing happened frequently, in the cattle cars as deportees tried to comfort one another and distract themselves from their own fear and hunger. Once in the camps, some remarked that by singing or humming a tune, they could preserve a piece of their identity.” And because the prisoners needed a way to express the terrible reality of camp life, a new genre of music soon emerged and spread through the prisoner population: lager-lieder (concentration camp songs), whose often bitterly satiric lyrics affirmed solidarity and endurance even while bearing witness to the horrors.

Of the many musicians subjected to Nazi terror, the internationally acclaimed violinist and conductor Alma Rosé was among the best known. She was a niece of the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, but the Gestapo agents who captured her as she tried to escape to Switzerland in 1943 cared only that she had been born a Jew. She was deported to Auschwitz.

The Nazis had long since banned the performance of Mahler’s music, along with that of all composers of Jewish heritage. Nazi racial laws had also barred Jewish musicians from performing for or with non-Jews. But because Hitler and his henchmen were also passionate music lovers, they supported the formation of concentration camp musical ensembles made up of Jewish inmates — with a diabolical catch. Under threat of death by Nazi SS guards, these musicians were commanded to perform tasks so abhorrent that at times even their fellow prisoners shunned them. These included playing music to mask the screams of those dying in the gas chambers; to soothe the nerves of German soldiers taking a breather from the Nazi annihilation machine; and to impose an overly fast marching pace for their starved, typhus-enfeebled fellow inmates to hobble to and from their daily work details. In return, the slave-labor musicians had their lives extended, if only for a short while.

This is the devil’s pact that Rosé signed on to as the leader of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. An exacting perfectionist, she lifted the group’s level of performance so high that camp officials, keen to impress their classical-music-loving superiors, deployed the orchestra to perform for visiting Nazi VIPs. Rosé used this cachet to bargain for special privileges for her orchestra members: daily showers, extra food rations and a weekly change of uniforms. Most important, until she died in April 1944 (probably by accidental poisoning), she was able to shield them from being sent to the gas chamber.

Rosé believed in her musical mission as a means to save lives. The Polish-Jewish composer and conductor Syzmon Laks viewed his role as head of the all-prisoner Birkenau Men’s Orchestra as just another Nazi manipulation. He also succeeded in gaining privileges for his musicians and in prolonging their lives, as well as saving his own, but he said those successes came at the insidious cost of persistent guilt, complicity and shame.

It was precisely to avoid moral compromise that composer and conductor Herbert Zipper (1904-1997) contrived a scheme to bring music to his fellow inmates untainted by Nazi involvement. Imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp in 1938, he used his job of lugging cement as cover to scavenge for discarded wood, metal and wire. From these remnants prisoners assigned to the woodworking shop clandestinely built makeshift instruments that were then shared by the 14 members of the prisoner music ensemble Zipper formed. Every Sunday afternoon, they would gather in secret in an unused latrine to rehearse; they would spend the next three hours playing a consecutive series of 15-minute concerts for 20 to 30 inmates at a time. Beyond providing entertainment and distraction, the performances restored to the listeners a measure of dignity and self-worth.

Such was also the case for many artists and musicians imprisoned at the hybrid ghetto and concentration camp of Terezin (or Theresienstadt). The Nazis promoted it as a model town for Jewish resettlement, a place where creative pursuits were supported and encouraged; in reality, Terezin was part of a propaganda campaign to deceive the Red Cross and other humanitarian visitors about the regime’s ongoing extermination of the Jews. Many of the exploited musicians, writers and artists imprisoned at Terezin were sent to Auschwitz and gassed; but they managed to document the daily horrors of their lives in numerous drawings, literary sketches and musical compositions that they hid in affirmation of art’s ability to bear witness, even if they did not live to do it themselves.

In all these ways, they tuned their music to their inner needs, to sustain and nurture themselves, day by day. Today, during the pandemic, our own creative persistence honors the resilience and determination of those who came before us. Our common denominator is music.

The Sound of Hope

Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation During the Holocaust and World War II

By Kellie D. Brown

310 pp. $45, paperback