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Composers of the Holocaust

Mordekhai Gebirtig (1877-1942), Yiddish folk poet, was born in Krakow, Poland. Although his family was poor and he had no formal music studies, he taught himself to play the shepherd's flute. Gebirtig had access to many cultural activities, especially through the Jewish working people's cultural circles, which he joined as a youth. He soon began writing poetry and songs, and his first book of poems was published in 1920. He worked in his brother-in-law's furniture store, and served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I.

Gebirtig sang many of his songs himself. Many were so popular that they were performed by street musicians throughout Poland. In 1936 his friends published his poetry in a volume entitled Mayne Lider (My Songs). Gebirtig continued to write and compose in the Krakow ghetto after the fall of Poland, but was shot by the Germans on June 4, 1942. Es Brent, written in 1938, was Gebirtig's response to a pogrom in the Polish town of Przytik. A Jew who killed one of his attackers was later condemned at a trial.

The Nazis evacuated the walled city of Terezín (Theresienstadt in German) in late 1941, and turned it into a transit camp for Jews brought not only from Czechoslovakia, but eventually from all over Europe, until they could be shipped to Poland's death camps. Originally built to house some 6,000 inhabitants, at its peak Terezín had 60,000 Jewish prisoners. Of the nearly 138,000 people sent there between 1941 and 1945, 33,419 died in Terezín; 86,934 were deported (most murdered); and 17,320 were liberated.

Jews began clandestine cultural activities prior to the establishment of concentration camps when various racial laws were passed which excluded them from employment. Jewish musicians were not allowed to perform publicly, nor was music by Jewish composers allowed on the radio.

Once at Terezín and deprived of any semblance of a normal life and contact with the outside world, except for bits of news from new prisoners, the Jews began musical performances in secret, beginning with well-known folk songs, and later expanding to all kinds of music. As performances became known to the Nazi authorities, they were at first ignored and later actually supported by them. It was Himmler's idea to turn Terezin into a "model camp" for propaganda purposes. The Nazis even made a film which included performances by the prisoners, and invited the Red Cross on at least one occasion.

Musical life in Terezín increased to amazing proportions, embracing solo recitals, chamber music, orchestral performances, opera, oratorio, jazz, and a cabaret, even though the roster of personnel often changed from day to day with transports to death camps taking place at regular intervals. These concerts offered a periodic respite, in which both the musicians and the audience could momentarily forget their daily suffering and their forebodings of an unknown fate as thousands of inmates found their names listed for the transports "East," being evacuated with the same punctilious precision as that which had brought them to Terezin in the first place.

Karel Svenk, born Schwenk (1907-1945), was active in Prague and other Czech towns as actor, director, writer, and composer before the war. One of the prime initiators of Terezín's cultural activities, he crated the cabaret, or variety show, becoming Terezín's most popular theatre producer.

On December 28, 1941, the Nazis sanctioned performances in Terezín, reasoning that the prisoners would cause less trouble. These Kameradschaftsabende (evenings of fellowship) then sprang up rapidly in succession. Svenk joined forces with pianist/conductor Rafael Schächter, who was involved in Terezín's choral activities, and in early 1942, presented the first all-male cabaret, called "The Lost Food Card," for men living in the "Sudeten" barracks. At this time, Czech inhabitants were still in the city and the camp's prisoners were forbidden to leave their barracks.

Svenk wrote the text as well as the music, and besides being director and producer, he participated in the performance as an actor. Besides being amusing, the cabaret had a more important mission: to strengthen the morale of the prisoners. The show's success was instantaneous, especially when the final song, the Terezín Hymn [also called the Terezín March], sung only in Czech, reached the ears of the listeners. Its refrain expressed the cruel present and hope for the future. Svenk incorporated the hymn into all his subsequent cabarets.

Cabarets were easy to assemble, and with small groups the show could move from one attic to another and be performed in modest accommodations for limited audiences. The gates of the barracks eventually opened, and people could attend cultural activities of their own choice, thus enabling the women to see and also participate. Women took part in Svenk's third and most important cabaret ­ his only Terezín play ­ "The Last Cyclist," but it was immediately censored after the dress-rehearsal. Svenk put together several more or less improvised shows before being sent to Auschwitz in September, 1944. About a month later, he was selected to go as a laborer to a factory in Menselwitz near Leipzig. The heavy work, long hours and insufficient food caused a rapid deterioration of his already weakened health and he died in April, 1945. Only six songs from his Terezín output have been preserved. "The Last Cyclist" was performed in Prague following the war.

David Beigelman (1887-1945) was born into a large musical family. A violinist, conductor, composer, and theater critic from Lodz, Poland, he toured Europe and even came to the U.S. as a member of a theater orchestra. In the spring of 1940, the Germans declared part of Lodz a ghetto and moved all Jews and Gypsies to that area. The ghetto became a slave labor camp with more than 75,000 workers.

Beigelman was an active participant in the cultural life of the ghetto, writing orchestra works and songs describing life there, many of which were censored by the authorities and sung in secret. Secret diaries found underground after the war mention Beigelman conducting the first symphonic concert there March 1, 1941, followed by a concert for chorus and orchestra on March 13th. Deported to Auschwitz in 1944, he was then sent to a slave labor camp, where he died of exhaustion in February, 1945. Tsigaynerlid is a tribute to some of the Gypsies in the Lodz ghetto attempting to drown their sorrows in song and dance. Some 500,000 Gypsies were liquidated during World War II.

Ervin / Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), born in Prague to a wealthy merchant family, studied piano from an early age and started composing as a boy. He received an excellent musical education, with studies in Prague (1902-08), Leipzig with Max Reger and others (1908-10), and Köln (1910-14). He also studied with Debussy for a short time. Awarded the Mendelssohn Prize in 1913 for his piano performances, he won the same prize as a composer following World War I. After serving in the military in the First World War, he spent several years in Germany composing, performing, and collaborating on productions with Paul Klee, Georg Grosz and other leading visual artists.

Returning to Prague in 1923, he taught piano and composition, lectured, and was a staff pianist/composer for various radio stations. As a pianist, he traveled to France, England, and Russia, and was a much sought-after interpreter of modern music. A prolific composer, he enjoyed a great international reputation. Many of his chamber and symphonic works received premieres at contemporary music festivals (Prague, Salzburg, Venice, Geneva, Oxford) and his ballet and pantomime were each staged in several different cities, and his opera was performed in Brno.

Popular dance and folk rhythms permeate Schulhoff's works from the 1920s, the small dance forms and their grotesque caricatures standing in the foreground of his style. This is certainly true of the Burlesque movement of the Sonate for Violin & Piano of 1927. The first and fourth movements are impetuous, with sweeping chromatic lines. Harmonies sometimes sound like jazz chords in parallel motion, but are completely individual, breaking away to Eastern European harmonic and rhythmic patterns.

Hoping to protect himself from the Nazis, Schulhoff became a Soviet citizen, but remained in Prague. He took a strong anti-fascist stand and wrote a series of works dedicated to concepts of social reform. Vocal symphonies with solo voice deal with his war experiences and describe the cataclysmic events in Germany. The East Slovakia hunger riot, the Spanish civil war, the threat by the Nazis­all these events affected him and inspired him to write.

Schulhoff was imprisoned for his politics and race soon after the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939. One of his last compositions, a setting for chorus and orchestra of the Communist Manifesto, was smuggled out shortly before he died of typhus in the Wülzburg concentration camp in August, 1942.

"My music is not drowned in dreams. Neither decadent lyricism nor outbursts of hysteria occur in it. It is tough, irreconcilable, uncompromising." ­Ervin Schulhoff

Martin Rosenberg (d.1943) conducted a worker's chorus under the pseudonym of Rosebery d'Arguto in a suburb of Berlin before the war. In 1939, he was arrested as a socialist and a Jew and sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was brutally tortured. He later formed a chorus of 25 Jewish prisoners that carried out their activities in secret in the less guarded barracks for political prisoners.

In 1942, when he discovered that the Jewish prisoners were to be sent to Auschwitz, he wrote the words to Tsen Brider, setting them to the melody of the old Yiddish folk song "Yidl mit dem Fidl." Rosenberg and his chorus died in the gas chambers in 1943. This song was passed down by a non-Jewish prisoner at Sachsenhausen, Alexander Kulisiewicz, who survived the war. Rosenberg asked him not to forget Tsen Brider, and if he should survive, to sing the song and through it tell the world of the suffering in the death camps.

Hirsh Glik (words, Shtil, di Nakht iz Oysgeshternt and Zog Nit Keynmol) was born in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). His father was a used clothes dealer. Hirshke (his nickname) began writing poetry at the age of 13, and was cofounder of a group of young poets. He had to end his studies prematurely due to his family's poverty, and became an apprentice in a paper business and later worked in a hardware store.

When the Germans occupied Vilna in 1941, Glik was caught and sent to prison, then to a camp in a swamp where the prisoners carried turf, a job usually reserved for horses. When the camp closed, he was sent back to the Vilna ghetto, where he worked with the underground movement FPO (United Partisans) and was active in the literary artistic circle. In September, 1943, the Germans sent Glik to the first of several Estonian concentration camps, where most of the prisoners died from appalling conditions. Glik never ceased writing poems. In 1944 he escaped when the Russians were closing in and tried to join the partisans, but disappeared, probably executed by soldiers in the area.

Often deprived of pencil and paper, fellow prisoners memorized his poems and passed them down. Other poems were hidden by friends. Some were found buried in the Vilna ghetto. Most of his works are presumed lost. Shtil, di nakht iz oysgeshternt, also known as Partisanerlid, recounts the heroic deeds of Vitke Kempner, the female resistance fighter who participated in blowing up a train carrying 200 German soldiers, the first successful diversionary sabotage act of the Jewish partisans of Vilna. Zog Nit Keynmol, inspired by news of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, became a widely popular resistance hymn.

Moravian-born Gideon Klein (1919-1945) went to Prague at the age of eleven to take liberal arts courses at the Jirásek Gymnasium along with intensive private studies in piano. In the fall of 1938, he registered at the Charles University to study philosophy and musicology and simultaneously entered the Master School of the Prague Conservatory, graduating in Piano after only one year.

His university studies came to an abrupt end on Nov. 17, when the Nazis closed all institutions of higher learning in the occupied Czech territories. During the following year, Klein pursued the study of composition as a private student of Alois Hába and, at the same time, concertized as much as the circumstances permitted, establishing himself as a pianist of distinction and appearing under the pseudonym Karel Vránek after the imposition of the race laws in Czechoslovakia in 1939. Since Jews were not allowed to perform in public, they held clandestine concerts among themselves, entering buildings not as couples, but one by one so not to arouse suspicion, often staying overnight, since curfews were in place. Klein often performed at these concerts.

Sent to Terezín in December, 1941, Klein quickly became involved in musical life there. At first, he arranged Czech, Slovak, Hebrew, and even Russian folk songs for Schächter's ever expanding choral group. After the original all-male ensemble, Schächter formed a women's chorus, then a mixed choir. In the beginning, the only available "musical instrument" was a pitch pipe. The situation improved when Schächter obtained a broken-down reed organ and a half-broken accordion.

In the beginning, Klein turned his attention to composition. Later on, however, as one, even two broken-down pianos became available, he and most of the other pianists became involved in chamber music, recital accompaniments, operas, oratorios, or other genres. There were no fewer than half a dozen concert pianists who performed frequently in solo recitals and numerous other presentations. Klein was in constant demand as a pianist, arranger and rehearsal accompanist. His exceptional talents, intellect, and charismatic personality affected many of those who knew him.

A number of his pre-war compositions was found some 50 years after the war, and several of his Terezín works were saved by his older sister, Elisa Kleinová, who was a professor of musicology in Prague. Klein died in the camp at Fürstengrube around January 27, 1945. Wiegenlied is one of Klein's numerous arrangements of well-known songs, probably made in response to requests from individual singers. His accompaniment juxtaposes considerable melodic movement itself, underscoring the more gentle motion of the warm and expressive melody.

Pavel Haas (1899-1944), the first-born son of a well-to-do businessman, was born in the Moravian capital of Brno. He enrolled in the Music School of the Philharmonic Society in his early teens, when he also began his first attempts at composition. Drafted into the Austrian army in 1917, he never saw combat and was stationed in his hometown. At the end of the war, he resumed his musical studies at the newly established State Conservatory, where in 1920 he joined the class of Leos Janácek at the Master School. Influenced by Janácek's enthusiasm for Moravian folk songs and by contemporaries of other nationalities, Haas wrote songs, chamber music, and choral and orchestral works. He also wrote incidental music for dramatic productions at the Provincial Theatre in Brno, as well as film scores. (His younger brother Hugo pursued a successful career as a movie actor, first in Czechoslovakia and later in Hollywood, where he managed to emigrate.) Although a well-recognized and well-respected composer, Haas supplemented his income by working in his father's shoe store.

Some of Haas' most important compositions stem from his experience of personal and national tragedy. At the time of his birth, Moravia was part of the Hapsburg Empire. The newly independent Czechoslovakia came into being in October, 1918, after 300 years of Hapsburg oppression. The strongly patriotic Czech hymn of St. Wenceslaus resonated in Haas when the Nazis came to power. Some of the words from the hymn are, "Let us not perish, us and our descendants, Saint Wenceslaus!" The St. Wenceslaus theme emerges from the entire Suite for Oboe and Piano, written in 1939, as well as Haas' unfinished symphony, on which he worked in the ensuing two years. Suite for Oboe and Piano was originally written as a vocal suite, but fear of discovery caused Haas to destroy the provocative text and to replace the voice with oboe. Written between July 18 and October 26, 1939, the work records the composer's reactions to the daily events of the beginning of war.

The first movement moves from the depression over the Nazi occupation and Haas' own entrapment to the balmy effect of the medieval hymn to St. Wenceslaus. In the second movement, the same hymn takes on a fighting spirit as, towards the end, it assumes the rhythm of the Hussite chorale, Yea warriors of the Lord. The Nazi order to ring bells in celebration of a victory sounds defiantly at the end of this movement. The third movement opens with the St. Wenceslaus hymn again providing the thematic material, which develops into an apotheosis of his faith in the final victory of the oppressed nation.

Haas was sent to Terezín in 1941, arriving alone, having formally divorced his wife, saving her; their young daughter; and Hugo's child, now in his wife's care; from a concentration camp. Arriving ill and depressed, the miserable conditions there further affected his severe depressions, resulting in total indifference to the very busy musical life of Terezín. Gideon Klein could not reconcile himself to seeing an artist of Haas' caliber not participating in the musical activities. So, one day, to wake him from his lethargy, Klein put in front of him several sheets of manuscript paper, on which he himself drew the musical staff, and urged Haas to stop wasting time. And indeed, Haas composed several pieces during his stay in Terezín, although only three of them have been preserved. One of them, Study for string orchestra, was immortalized when a performance, in the presence of the composer, was included in the Nazi propaganda film, Der Führer Schenkt den Jüden eine Stadt. (Hitler gives the Jews a Town) Haas died in Auschwitz in October, 1944.

Misha Veksler (1907-1943), a composer and pianist, conducted the Jewish theatre orchestra in the Vilna ghetto and composed many popular ghetto songs. A hunchback crippled by polio, he had to continually hide from the Nazis, who sought out those with handicaps for immediate extermination. Leyb Rozenthal (1916-1945) (words) wrote many songs during his years in the ghetto and is the author of a number of plays for revue theatres. Yisrolik tells the story of a child peddler. Written in the Vilna ghetto, it was first performed in January, 1942. Veksler; Rozenthal; and Rozenthal's sister, who participated in the first performance, were all active in the cultural life of the ghetto. When the Vilna ghetto was liquidated, Veksler was deported and killed at Ponar. Rozenthal died at the Dutmergen death camp.

Child Peddlers in the Ghettos: There were thousands of child peddlers in the Vilna and Warsaw ghettos. They provided a vital link with the outside, sneaking in and out by way of sewer pipes, climbing over fences, slipping past guards. They brought back food and other items from outside the ghetto walls, often bribing guards and officials with stolen goods. Once outside, they joined the many non-Jewish child peddlers on the streets. They were also messengers for the resistance. Most were eventually caught and shot.

Ilse Weber 1903-1944) was primarily a poet, writer of children's books, and producer of programs for Czech Radio in Prague. Weber and her husband saved the life of their oldest son when they sent him to Sweden on a Kindertransport prior to their own deportation to the Terezin concentration camp in 1942. At Terezín, Weber worked as a nurse in charge of the children's ward. She can be found in a drawing by Malva Schalek, dressed in her nurse's uniform and accompanying herself on a guitar while singing for several of her colleagues. When her husband was summoned for transport to the East in the fall of 1944, she volunteered to accompany him with her young son Tommy. Her wish not to break up the family resulted in the execution of Ilse and her son in Auschwitz, while her husband survived her by some thirty years. Wiegala, a lullaby of utmost simplicity, was perhaps sung as a "final caress" to accompany Weber's young charges on their final journey. It provides just the right musical ambience for its deeply felt words.

Carlo S. Taube (1897-1944), born in Galicia, was a virtuoso pianist who studied for several years with Busoni in Vienna, but to support himself, played in cafes and night clubs, first in Vienna and later in Brno and Prague. Taube, his wife Erika, and their child arrived at Terezín in December, 1941. In Terezin, Taube led concerts of semiclassical music, very much in the style of the "spa" orchestras popular in prewar Europe, in the musical pavilion in the neglected park on the Terezín square. He also gave ambitious piano concerts, probably overly-ambitious, according to some critics in the crowd. Taube composed a number of works in Terezin, but only one survives, the song Ein Jüdisches Kind, composed November 4,1942, set to a text by his wife, Erika. This short but moving work has some Hebraic elements in its melodic writing, while its simple but effective harmonies are reminiscent of what may have been Taube's piano style in the clubs. Both the poem and music are a touching tribute to their own Jewish child. The young Taube accompanied his parents to Auschwitz in October, 1944, where they perished.

TEXTS and translations for the songs and PICTURES of most of the composers and performers come with the CD.

Note Sources: notes condensed and rearranged, with otherwise minor editing, by Marnie Hall from these sources: Composers sent to Terezín: Music in Terezín, 1941-1945, by Joza Karas, © 1985, Joza Karas, published by Beaufort Books in association with Pendragon Press. ISBN 0-8253-0287-0. Schulhoff: Year of Czech Music, 1941, (© Czechoslovak Radio, Prague, 1973) and DMP concert program notes by John Wiser. Child peddlers and other composers: Yes, We Sang by Shoshana Kalisch with Barbara Meister. Notes on Terezín: DMP concert program and mixed sources. Supplementary information from article "Music in the Holocaust" by Joshua Jacobson in the December, 1995 issue of Choral Journal.



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