Francesco Lotoro cannot quite pinpoint the moment his fascination with the music composed by concentration camps inmates during World War II turned from passion to mission.
It all started in 1989, when the young musician from Barletta, Southern Italy, came across the work of Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and other Terezin-based Jewish composers in an Italian Musicians Encyclopedia. He was intrigued enough to embark on what would become the first in a long line of self-financed trips to find out more about the music composed clandestinely in the camps.
For years Lotoro combined his one-man quest for the lost music of the camps with his work as a professional pianist and recording artist. In those pre-internet times, it was time-consuming work; he had to do his own scouting, visiting libraries and museums, and often had to copy documents by hand.
The more musicians he tracked down and the more scores he discovered, the stronger his passion grew. It became a mission, “something that takes over your life”. All that mattered was to make more trips, track down any surviving camp musicians, find more scores.
His archive currently stands at over 8,000 scores and includes symphonies, folk songs, lullabies, operas and jazz riffs. Lotoro considers all the music he’s collected as worthwhile. “Is it worth preserving even if it’s mediocre? Absolutely! I believe that whoever had the misfortune to end in a camp, whether they survived or not, and created music, deserves to be part of this research,” he explains.
“This music belongs to mankind, it’s not mine. I’m only the person who tracked it down. It needs to become normal again and that means playing it as one plays any type of music, whether Chopin or jazz or country music. If we don’t play it, it will be as if it had not been freed, as if it were still stuck in the camps.”
Over time the range of Lotoro’s research has widened. In the first few years he had researched the work of Jewish musicians over the 1939-45 period, but then he widened his scope to include all those imprisoned in the camps: Roma, Christians, political prisoners, homosexuals and more.
He also expanded the chronological period from 1933 (when the first camp, Dachau, opened) to 1953 (Stalin’s death and the closure of the gulags). “I realised that the end of the war wasn’t the end of the concentration camp experience and therefore of the music,” he explains.
This more inclusive approach, doesn’t water down the Jewish experience, he maintains, but instead is supremely Jewish: ”We are not like many people in history who celebrate their own triumphs. As Jews we have other duties. The Torah says: ‘Be a light unto the nations’. We have to be a role model for others. The Roma did not record the music they created in the camps. It took a Jew to record their music and that of all the others.
“For us preserving the memory is not optional, it’s a mitzvah, a precept. And memory is universal, not just Jewish.”
Lotoro himself was brought up Catholic but felt the pull of Judaism from the age of 15. Living in a small town with no Jewish community, for years he was “Jewish only in the heart”. He converted in 2004 and some time later discovered that he actually came from a family of anusim (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity).
Lotoro’s mission received a much-needed boost a few years ago when his work became the subject of a 72-minute documentary, In Search of the Last Music, which charted his quest to unearth the music of the camps.
“We conducted 300 hours of interviews including several recordings,” he recalls. Sometimes he arrived to find a prospective interviewee had died but others were still alive and well, like 101-year-old Wally Karveno who knew exactly how Lotoro should play her music and didn’t hesitate to say.
Lotoro intends to assemble all his interviews in a video archive, which will have pride of place in his Citadel of Concentrationary Music, a complex dedicated to the preservation and study of the music of the camps, which has just been given the go ahead to be built in his hometown, Barletta.
On April 15, a selection of these pieces will be played to the public for the very first time at an major international upcoming concert in Israel, staged by charity JNF UK.
Maybe the music has finally managed to escape from the camps.
The world premiere of ‘Notes of Hope’, will take place in the presence of the President and the Prime Minister of Israel, Reuven Rivlin and Benjamin Netanyahu. To book or for more information: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call ++44 020 8732 6100