From tangos to lullabies, Jews made music during the Holocaust
Even in the midst of the despair, suffering and anguish of the Holocaust, there was music.
“It’s a tribute to the human spirit,” said Amy Spiegel Katz, who, along with Elaine Wertheim, is chairing the 32nd annual South Hills Interfaith Ministries Holocaust Observance Service. “People were still writing music.”
Several selections written in the ghettos, woods and concentration camps of World War II will be featured on Sunday, April 10, at Our Lady of Grace Church, as SHIM presents “Words & Music: Saving The Voice.”
Although the music was created during one of the darkest periods of human history, many of the compositions are surprisingly upbeat and hopeful, Katz said.
“I thought they would all be sad and mournful,” Katz said of the many Holocaust pieces she heard when choosing what to include in the program. “But they weren’t. There was even a tango. It’s mind-boggling. You would never think they were written during a period of history that was so turbulent.”
SHIM’s Holocaust observance is one of the oldest interfaith programs of its kind in the country, and involves the participation of more than 20 churches and synagogues. The program, which will focus this year on the music of the Holocaust, also includes readings, as well as the attendance of many local survivors. The event draws anywhere from 300 to 900 people.
“I believe SHIM has one of the biggest interfaith Holocaust services in the country,” said SHIM’s executive director, James Guffey. “I don’t think there are very many that do what we do.
The fact that we have been doing this for 32 years speaks volumes about the desire of the community to remember those who have perished, and certainly those who have survived.”
Music provided comfort to those victimized by the Nazis, said violist Paul Silver of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who along with Rich Pinkerton, director of music at Southminster Presbyterian Church, is directing the SHIM service.
“In any kind of terrible ordeal, music was something that could soothe and bring comfort and allow people to push on when at their desperate ends,” Silver said.
Music flourished in a variety of ways during the Holocaust, Silver noted. Compositions were created by partisan fighters hiding in the woods, as well as by prisoners in concentrations camps. Many compositions came out of Terezin, the model camp Hitler created as propaganda to show the Red Cross how well the Jews were being treated.
Some of the pieces composed by Jews in the camps were satirical, anti-Nazi send-ups, which they performed at cabarets to entertain the SS, Silver said.
“Sometimes the Nazis would get it (the satire), and sometimes they wouldn’t,” said Silver. “When they got it, the music would be banned, and go underground.”
Holocaust victims often composed music for strange combinations of instruments, using whatever happened to be on hand.
“If a German broke a string on someone’s violin, and he then had a three-string violin, he might compose a piece avoiding notes that would have to be played on the broken string,” Silver said. “If all they had was a saxophone and a tuba, they might compose a lullaby for tuba.”
The SHIM program will include vocalists Jack Mostow and Diana Roth, the Southminster Ringers, the hand bell choir of Southminster Presbyterian Church and a group of three teenage musicians from Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“We had the idea of getting more young people involved in the service,” said Silver. “First, it’s great for the survivors to see 14- and 16-year-olds learning about what they went through. Second, it’s about the idea of playing with whatever instruments you had.”
The Temple Emanuel teen group happens to have two saxophones and a violin, Silver said. He has taught them to play a music piece called “Itsik Vitnberg,” a partisan hymn that commemorates the life of the leader of the Vilna ghetto.
“It sounds patriotic,” said Silver. “I thought it would sound wonderful with whatever instruments the kids had.”
The program also includes an Italian song, a Yiddish song and a song called “We are Here,” written by Rosalie Gerut, a daughter of survivors and a co-founder of One by One, an organization which unites descendants of the Third Reich with descendants of survivors to work for social justice.
The Southminster Ringers will perform two pieces, including “Gypsy Dance,” composed by David Beyglman, a concert violinist from the Lodz ghetto in Poland.
The composers of the Holocaust created songs reflecting many moods and feelings, according to Silver.
“Some were upbeat and positive and hopeful, and some speak of the horror,” he said.
Silver said a quote from Chaim Kaplan included in the program reflects the importance of music to the victims of the Nazis:
“More than bread, we need poetry at a time when we don’t seem to need it at all.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)