Tag Archives: Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

Concentration Camp Music


by Neville Cohn




Francesco Lotoro

Francesco Lotoro

In the closing months of Word War II, a platoon of soldiers led by a young South African – then-23-year-old Major Gideon Francois ‘Jake’ Jacobs – parachuted on to the island of Sumatra to liberate the civilian inmates of a Japanese internment camp for whom Jacobs would ever after be known as ‘the man who came from heaven’. Jacobs subsequently became military governor of Sumatra, going on to a distinguished career in South Africa as academic and politician.



Karel page from NONETT written on hygienic paper in the Pankrac' prison

Karel page from NONETT written on hygienic paper in the Pankrac' prison



Shortly before Jacobs’ arrival, the inmates of that camp had given a performance of choral miniatures. That long-ago performance, and the rehearsal preparation that came before it, was an attempt by two remarkable women to counter the effect of despair, boredom and illness that were all-pervasive in the camp.  Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, a missionary, had set the ball rolling by painstakingly notating versions of popular classics on scraps of hoarded paper – the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude and Dvorak’s Largo movement from the New World Symphony. (In an astonishing instance of synchronicity, a woman in the Ravensbruck concentration camp also arranged the Dvorak piece for women’s choir.)


At that unique concert in the Sumatra camp, the audience consisted of Japanese guards and internees. The ‘vocal orchestra’ singers, most frail from starvation and illness, were not strong enough to stand. Instead, they sang while sitting down. And as fellow-internee nursing sister Vivian Bullwinkel recalled, “we experienced a wonderful surge of optimism and hope – and that was a real comfort.”


There were also internment camps in Australia and the UK. After the promulgation of Germany’s anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws in the years leading up to World War II, numbers of German and Austrian Jewish musicians were granted political asylum in the UK. But when war broke out, their formal status changed from refugee to that of enemy alien. Some remained in internment camps in the UK but others were sent by boat to detention camps in Australia. The most famous of these ships was the Dunera and among the detainees, who came to be known as the Dunera boys, were Rabbi Boaz Bishopswerder of the Berlin Reform Synagogue who used his time on board ship to compose his Fantasia Judaica  for violin and piano. And, while detained in Tatura, the rabbi’s son Felix Werder wrote his Symphony No 1, eventually becoming one of Australia’s most respected musicians.







On the other side of the world in a German Stalag in Silesia, a French POW, trying to stave off boredom, embarked on a composition to be played by three fellow POWs and himself as pianist. It’s written for an instrumental ensemble not often encountered in mainstream classical music – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. And the composer, ever practical, carefully avoided the use of any notes which did not function properly on the ramshackle instruments that were all the players had at their disposal at that most unusual premiere. The composer was Olivier Messiaen and the work, now known to millions, was A Quartet for the End of Time. Of all music created in prisons of one sort or another, this work is almost certainly the best known. And in Japanese POW camps in Taiwan and Manchuria, Colonel Edmund J. Lilley countered the soul-destroying boredom of captivity by writing a set of American songs.


But during World War II, far and away the greatest amount of music of many kinds and of varying quality was composed in nazi concentration camps. But works were also composed in a variety of other detention facilities such as military prisons and conventional POW camps across Europe as well as in the UK. One can only marvel at the power of the creative impulse that enabled musicians to write music in an environment devoid of compassion, camps which, at their worst, were like horrifying anterooms to Hell.


It is very largely due to the tireless efforts of Francesco Lotoro  that so much of this music has been retrieved from near-oblivion, much of it now available on compact disc. Lotoro points out that “the level of creativity in a camp such as Theresienstadt was so great that, in order for the only piano there – a battered upright instrument – to be available to composers and pianists in an equitable way, a roster had to be drawn up allowing each musician to have use of the piano for thirty minutes at a time.”


Twelve CDs have now been released and Lotoro envisages at least another 12 compact discs to record all the music deriving from concentration camps.


Lotoro is an Italian-born pianist, conductor and music historian. Rescuing and recording music written in prisons has become his life’s work. But Lotoro points out that he is not the first musician to have taken on this work. Before he came on the scene, others were trying to conserve and catalogue music from the camps. He cites, for instance, Aleksander Kulisiewicz.


 “He was a trained singer in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and a victim of cruel medical experiments by the nazis, operations that resulted in the loss of his fine voice.” After the war, Kulisiewicz compiled lists not only of compositions but also poetry written in the camps but these have yet to be published. He effectively got the ball rolling. Lotoro estimates there are almost 4,000 concentration camp compositions which he likens, in extent, to the spoken testimonies from Holocaust survivors, an enormous project initiated by famed movie director Steven Spielberg.


For Lotoro, the task of gathering music scores continues – “there are libraries to be explored, antiquarian shops of various kinds around Europe to visit. It will be necessary (in the long term) to set up a central archive of such music, catalogued and kept under one roof rather than have these scores being kept in a variety of museums and libraries around the world.”


Lotoro also makes the important point that with time running out, survivors still able to recall music that does not as yet exist on paper ought to be encouraged to put notes on paper. “For instance, there is an opera – Karel Svenk’s Long Life to Life – that some survivors of Theresienstadt, now living in Israel, still sing by heart. But there is no written score – and we need to notate it soon otherwise it will vanish with the passing of those who can still remember it.”


Theresienstadt, near Prague in Czechoslovakia, had originally been built as a garrison town. It had facilities for a population of  7,000. But when the two arch-nazis and chief planners of genocide – Reinard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann –  chose Theresienstadt primarily as a transit camp for Jews en route to the death camps such as Auschwitz, the population grew to 60,000. Among those imprisoned here by the Germans, were Jewish war veterans, some decorated for valour, who had fought in the Prussian Army during World War 1. Their loyalty to Germany in WWI counted for nothing in the camps


In this overcrowded place, in terribly oppressive conditions, there was an amazing creative flowering as one work after another poured from the pens of imprisoned musicians: Gideon Klein wrote a fine piano sonata and arranged a set of Czech and Russian folk songs (his death has never been confirmed but he is thought to have perished as a slave labour in a salt mine); Pavel Haas wrote his Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 6 & 7 – and Viktor Ullmann wrote the opera The King of Atlantis.(Johann Marcus, one of Ullmann’s sons, survived and lives permanently in a psychiatric hospital in England).And Hans Krasa wrote a childrens’ opera Brundibar. These works have since become internationally known.


One of the blackest days at Theresienstadt was 17 October 1944. Lotoro says that “within the space of a few hours, an entire generation of composers, virtuoso pianists,  philosophers and artists died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz to which they had been deported from Theresienstadt.”


Many of these often-transcendentally gifted people were cut down in their prime. Among those slaughtered was the 15-year-old Jiri  Kummermann  who left a String Quartet and a text book of harmony and counterpoint exercises. Another teenager – Petr Ginz – not a musician, has left a deeply moving diary of his experiences; while in Theresienstadt, he founded and edited a camp newspaper before being transported to Auschwitz where he was killed.


Lotoro has made it his life’s work to not only rescue, edit and record as much concentration camp music as possible but to interview as many survivors of the period as possible (now very few in number) as well as descendants of murdered musicians.


“Karl Berman was a survivor of Auschwitz: he was liberated by American troops. He lost his entire family in the camps”, said Lotoro. “After the war, he continued his vocal studies in Prague and became a celebrated opera singer. I met him in Prague in 1992. He was very old and was to die three years later. It was a very moving experience. The old man gave me a recording he’d made of four songs, settings of Chinese poems that Pavel Haas had composed for him shortly before dying in an Auschwitz gas chamber.”


Lotoro added that in Prague, he’d also met Stepan Lucky who had been training as a virtuoso pianist when the war began. “When I met him in 1993, I asked him for his autograph which he gave me after writing it with a shaking hand; it was illegible. The German soldiers deliberately crippled his right hand. So, unable to play the piano, he became a composer instead.”


Some musicians who had survived the camps tried to block out their experiences. Lotoro says that when he visited Frantisek Domazlicki and played a piano piece the old man had written in the camps, he became angry as if he wanted no reminders of that terrible time. “Instead, he gave me a copy of a Sonata for trombone drums and piano.


“I had a similar reaction when I wrote to Felix Werder in Melbourne asking if he could send me some psalm settings he’d made in the Tatura camp in Australia . ‘I will send them to you but please don’t ask me anything concerning that period. I am very old and tired’”. Werder, who wrote a good deal of avant-garde music in Australia, was music critic for The Age newspaper for many years.


In the Warsaw Ghetto, in terrible conditions. Wladyslaw  Szpillman (whose life was made into the Roman Polansky movie The Pianist) composed  his Concertino for piano and orchestra.


Although it was the Jews of Europe who, more than any other group, were singled out for murder by the Nazis, there were others, fewer in number, who perished in the camps: gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses such as Eric Frost who composed a hymn in Sachsenhausen which is still sung by Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.  Polish Catholics imprisoned in Dachau wrote a puppet opera on a Christmas theme. And in a detention camp in Rumania,  Zdenko Karol  Rund  wrote a setting of the Mass called Salve Mater Polonia .


Lotoro and his colleagues have been working tirelessly to retrieve, edit, study and perform an immense amount of music. Not all of it is at the highest level of creativity and in style and format ranges from standard classical forms such as sonatas to cabaret and music theatre, music primarily for children, jazz and sacred music. The KZ MUSIK CDs are available on the Musikstrasse label.


Copyright 2008 Neville Cohn