Melodies saved from the Shoah

Music composed by victims of the Nazis has been performed for the first time. Jessica Duchen reports on a very special concert.


Josima Feldschuh was a musical child prodigy from a prominent family in Warsaw, whose promise was cruelly curtailed by the Shoah.  Confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, she gave concerts within its walls and wrote music, too. Eventually, smuggled out of the ghetto, she died of tuberculosis on the Aryan side, aged only 15.

Against the odds, some of her music survived. Reviews from a ghetto newspaper recently alerted researchers to the fact that she was also a composer. And this month, her absolutely beautiful compositions were heard at the Wigmore Hall and on Radio 3.

Josima’s is one of the most heart-rending histories to emerge in the recent concert Music on the Brink of Destruction, staged at the Wigmore Hall earlier this month but there are many more. The story of Gideon Klein’s life is better known; possibly the most gifted of all his peers, he was killed in his mid-twenties at Auschwitz, after several years in Theresienstadt. Yet here, too, there is more to learn. Besides his dazzling String Trio, at this event an early work of his received its UK premiere. Entitled Topol (“The Poplar Tree”), it is a short, highly atmospheric piece for piano and narrator. It was recently discovered by the musicologist Dr David Fligg in the archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

All in all, the Wigmore Hall evening demonstrated the quantity and quality of music written during the Holocaust that still awaits discovery in libraries and archives. It was devised to launch the new ORT Marks Fellowships Programme, and BBC Radio 3 have been broadcasting it in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day today.

It offered a window into the research that Clive Marks and Dr Shirli Gilbert have been spearheading through their ORT website, which they now aim to facilitate with the new fellowships for at least a decade. Two appointed fellows per annum will each devote a day a week to this work while undertaking postgraduate studies.

Gilbert, who narrated the concert, is the author of Music in the Holocaust (Oxford University Press) and associate professor of history at the University of Southampton. Her work recently inspired Radio 3 to invite her to create a programme on the same topic, which is now available on iPlayer.

“For me, the most important thing was to take this music and expose it to the public,” she explains. “Much of it has been sitting in archives for decades. I’ve been writing about it as an academic but, in that field, you’re limited in the audience you can reach. To have 540 people listening to it in the Wigmore Hall was amazing and the responses have been wonderful.”

Think of “music from the Holocaust” and you might imagine the cutting-edge works of composers from Theresienstadt, such as Klein, Victor Ullmann and Hans Kraša. However, that is only part of the picture.

“We’re generally aware of music from Terezin,” says Gilbert, “and maybe some resistance songs. This goes with the narrative of spiritual resistance and the triumph of the spirit: the idea that despite the circumstances, people sang. We tend to pick music that fits into that narrative, but this is a tiny proportion of a huge musical landscape.”

The concert included some biting Yiddish cabaret numbers, created in ghettos and camps. “In these songs, there’s a black, macabre, gallows humour,” says Gilbert.

“There’s a lot of work from within the ghettos and camps that talks not about the Nazi oppressors, but about fellow prisoners and about inequalities within their community. Some of this stuff is difficult: there are elements of camp and ghetto existence that we often don’t want to think about. Music can open up the complicated social world of life under Nazi internment, and it gives us that huge diversity and range. I think if we want to be honest about understanding that world and commemorating it, then listening to this music, letting it open up our understanding, is our obligation.”

It is also what the victims would have wanted, she suggests: “They often talked about music as a means of documenting what was happening to them.” Many of the songs were not written down: “It’s an interesting oral tradition because it was born of circumstance rather than illiteracy: this music survived because it resonated so deeply with the people who sang it. Often, the words themselves declare: ‘This song will survive.’”


How was that possible? Once the war was over, Gilbert recounts, a variety of documentation initiatives started up. “People saw it as a salvage ethnography: this was a community that had been destroyed, they needed to document it, and some of those people focused on music. Young survivors in 1946-47 who had just come out of camps or out of hiding were recording their songs, collectors were transcribing them, and those archives exist intact in many different places.”

Her challenge is to help this material reach the public: “People collected them, then did nothing with them. One collector said, ‘These songs help us to fathom the soul of our people’, yet his work is in a book that’s been out of print for 50 years. Other collectors never managed to publish their work.”

The Wigmore concert showcased many types of long-neglected music from the Holocaust years. It also included a trio by the Russian Jewish composer Mikhail Gnesin (1883-1957), whose name is well known thanks to the celebrated Moscow music school founded by his sisters, where superstars such as pianists Evgeny Kissin and Daniil Trifonov studied. His short Piano Trio, To the Memory of Our Dead Children, was written in the USSR during the Holocaust; the composer wished to dedicate it to victims of the horrors ongoing in Europe, but the authorities forbade this. Nevertheless, it opens with a quotation from a Yiddish song, which makes it clear which children the composer had in mind. The Leonore Piano Trio gave it its UK premiere in this concert.

According to the group’s cellist, Gemma Rosefield: “It’s absolutely gorgeous, with a big, sprawling piano part and singing string lines. It’s romantic and sorrowful, with moments of extreme passion and some also of light and humour — and, although the story is so sad, it ends on a note of hope.”

Rosefield, who wrote her thesis on composers from Theresienstadt, passionately believes that such music should be heard in regular concert programmes, not just Holocaust events. “Performing these pieces, you feel the huge weight of tragic history behind them,” she says. “But it’s music that stands in its own right, aside from its background, and that’s why I feel occasions like this are so important. Most of the pieces deserve to be in the general chamber music repertoire. The Klein String Trio is already getting there, and, without a doubt, my ensemble will put the Gnesin trio into more concerts and hopefully might record it.”

The concert has made an enormously valuable contribution to keeping this music and its stories alive. Perhaps we might even hope that such an event could take place annually — helping us all to better “fathom the soul of our people.”


Shirli Gilbert’s programme for BBC Radio 3, ‘Music on the Brink of Destruction’, is now available on the BBC iPlayer

The Wigmore Hall event can be accessed through the Radio 3 in Concert pages here.



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