It's Holocaust Memorial Day and our occasional Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper, has sent me an article for the occasion. When many of us feel lost for words even today, facing such horror, Jack (who's 18) has encapsulated the pain of these memories most eloquently. Over to him...
Sounds of Silence
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and we should reflect on the tragic loss of musical talent amongst the millions who were slaughtered – a loss that amounts to more than a statistic
Having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau myself, it became clear that we can never truly comprehend what happened there. Although we musicians are eager to speak of the undeniable power of music to heal and bring hope, our art could do little to ultimately save the lives of so many talented musicians in the Holocaust. That is perhaps what makes it so shocking. The Nazi machine did not care for expression, talent, potential or individuals. Music is perhaps the ultimate expression of our humanity – an “outburst of the soul”, as Delius put it – and so it seems to me symbolic that even music could not truly act against what happened. Music is the strongest form of expression, something which touches people of all cultures and backgrounds; it is a sign of the monstrosity of the Holocaust that even music was powerless to prove to the perpetrators that their victims were normal human beings. When music fails, emotion has failed. The “soul” has been suppressed.
For Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January – the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated – it is right that we reflect upon the individual stories of those who were so cruelly taken away. The Holocaust aimed to dehumanise Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Poles and the disabled. In a 21st-century democracy that respects the freedom of individuality, we remember those killed in the Holocaust not as a vast number, not as a statistic, but as individual human beings.
A human being like Viktor Ullmann. Killed in Auschwitz in October 1944, Ullmann’s work could not escape his circumstances. His chamber opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was also called The Abdication of Death; the plot describes how death has been overworked, and chooses to go on strike. Sections of the libretto were written on the back of deportation lists to Auschwitz.
A human being like Alma Rosé. The niece of Gustav Mahler and the daughter of violinist Arnold Rosé, for ten months Alma was placed in charge of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. When she first conducted the ensemble, the average age of its players was just 19: one year older than me. Rosé insisted on the highest possible standards of performance, rehearsing the orchestra for ten hours daily. Justifying such hours was not difficult: “If we don’t play well, we’ll go to the gas”, said Rosé. She died in April 1944. The orchestra was disbanded by October.
A human being like Pavel Haas. Composing whilst working in his father’s shoemaking business before the War, Haas received the Smetana Foundation Award for his opera, Šarlatán (The Charlatan). For this work, Haas collaborated with a German writer, which – since he was a Jewish composer – had been forbidden by the Nuremberg Laws. To avoid difficulties, Haas changed the German-sounding name of the opera’s main character to its Czech equivalent. After its premiere in 1938, the opera was not performed on stage again until 1998. Having been interned in Theresienstadt, Nazi propaganda films showed Haas taking a bow after inmates had performed one of his operas; having been filmed for this propaganda, Haas was taken to Auschwitz. According to conductor Karel Ančerl, who was sent to Auschwitz with Haas but survived beyond the War, upon arriving at the camp both musicians stood side by side. Ančerl was about to be selected to go to the gas chambers, and at that moment Haas coughed. As a result, Haas was selected instead.
A human being like Robert Dauber, who was just 23 years old when he died of typhoid in Dachau. Unlike Ullmann’s chamber opera, many of the works Dauber completed whilst imprisoned make little or no reference to his position in a camp. Music, presumably, was an escape.
Photo: Orel Foundation
A human being like Gideon Klein, who had been forced to abandon his plans to study at university once the Nazis had closed off higher education to Jews in Czechoslovakia. He gave his manuscripts to his partner in the camp shortly before his death, a poignant example of how music can so quickly become a memorial, a testament to an entire life of work.
A human being like Carlo Taube, who before the War had made a living playing the piano in cafes in Vienna and Prague. He, his wife and his child were all deported to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. None of them survived.
These were all real people. They had such lives ahead; Ullmann had studied with Schoenberg, Haas with Janáček, Taube with Busoni. Imagine what the musical world would be like without the teachers; no Schoenberg, Janáček or Busoni. Nobody knows who their pupils could have gone on to become. An entire future was destroyed, numerous possibilities denied. Their stories are far more than a list of anecdotes for an article, far more than a shocking statistic. These were all real people.
Perhaps most disturbing is that the perpetrators enjoyed music too. Hitler famously idolised the work of Wagner, whilst Maria Mandel - the SS Officer who created the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz and who is believed to have been complicit in over 500,000 deaths - particularly favoured Madame Butterfly. Shockingly, the perpetrators were all real people, too.
There are many stories that shock a modern-day reader, we who are used to (and perhaps take for granted) the comforts and luxuries of modern life. This Holocaust Memorial Day, we should remember the individuals behind the statistics – the human stories the Nazis sought to destroy – and, in doing so, we ensure that the aims of the Holocaust are never realised. Seeking to destroy the humanity of the prisoners, instead the humanity was only magnified. The existence of music in such desperate circumstances proves that, despite the evil, somewhere there was decency. Emotion. Empathy. Although music could not prevent such savagery, its existence reminds us that despite chaos, killing and suffering, some people, somewhere, maintain a flicker of humanity.