Photo inspires thoughts on remembrance

Photo inspires thoughts on remembrance

Menachem Rosensaft
Menachem Rosensaft

NEW YORK — There is such a thing as kismet, fate. The Yiddish term is beshert — something that is meant to happen.

The black and white photograph is of a young man, not yet 30 years old.  He is standing near the tower of a 14th century castle in the southern Polish town of Będzin, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and tie, but no jacket.  He holds a hat in his hand as he looks into the camera.  The picture was taken before the Germans arrived, before the Jews of Będzin were forced to live in a ghetto, before the young man’s sisters and brother were taken to their death at Auschwitz Birkenau.

The young man did not know that day that he would eventually be deported from Będzin with his wife and her daughter, or that he would escape from the Auschwitz-bound train by diving out of a window into the Vistula River, or that he would return to the ghetto even though he had been hit by three German bullets, or that he would learn that all the Jews on his transport had been taken directly to the gas chambers.  He did not know when his picture was taken beside the Będzin castle that he would survive the as-yet unbegun war, would survive Auschwitz-Birkenau (including many months in the notorious Block 11, known as the death block) as well as the Lagisha labor camp and the Langensalza, Dora-Mittelbau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. All that was still to come.

The photograph itself also survived Auschwitz. It was one of approximately 2,400 photographs that Jews had brought with them as they arrived there, unaware of their fate, and that they were forced to surrender together with their other meager belongings — their suitcases, their clothes. We will never know whether the picture had belonged to the young man’s wife, or to one of his sisters, or to a friend.

All we know is that the photographs were rescued by inmates and hidden in the camp, lest the Germans burn them.  For decades after the war, they lay in a storage room in one of the buildings at Auschwitz.  In 1986, Ann Weiss, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, came upon them almost by accident. She returned to Poland two years later and painstakingly copied the photographs.  In 2001 many of them were published in Ann Weiss’ book, “The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

Fast-forward to several weeks ago when I was invited to a multimedia program on the “Lost Music of the Holocaust,” organized by Olivia P.L. Hilton, director of special projects in the office of the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.  And so I found myself in the State Department auditorium in Washington, D.C., on a rainy June afternoon, listening to music that had been collected by an Italian pianist, Francesco Lotoro, over the course of many years.

“It is difficult to imagine,” Ira Forman, who had only recently been appointed as the special envoy, explained, “how one could create in the face of the adversity and trauma experienced in the concentration camps and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  But what can one do to hold on to and assert one’s humanity as it is forcibly stripped away? … Victor Hugo once said, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.’  As a universal language, music has the power to cross chronological and geographical borders to share a story, a history, to awaken in us the emotions that once compelled the composer and which were originally shared with an entirely different audience.”

Bret Werb, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s music collection curator, spoke eloquently about the composers of both classical and popular music in the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi dominated Europe whose works illuminate a far too often overlooked dimension of the genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II.  Theirs was simultaneously a manifestation of defiance and a preservation of individual sanity and communal culture in the face of uncompromising barbarity.

A short film montage followed Werb’s lecture, including excerpts from works by composers Robert Heilbut, who composed while an inmate at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen; and William Hillsley, a London born pianist and music teacher who had moved to the Netherlands in 1935 and was imprisoned by the Germans in civilian internment camps.

A handful of images from Weiss’ book accompanied a string quartet by the French composer Emil Goué who had spent the war years in a prisoner-of-war camp.  Without warning, I saw the photograph of my father, Josef Rosensaft, as a young man standing near the castle in his hometown of Będzin.

At that moment I remembered the lyrics of a song by the Yiddish poet Yosef Papiernikov and I could almost hear my father singing it in his beautiful tenor voice:

Zol zayn az ikh boy in der luft mayne shlesser
Zol zayn az mayn Got iz ingantsn nishto
In troym iz mir heller, in troym iz mir besser
In kholem – der himl – nokh bloyer fun bloy.

It may be that I build my castles in the air

It may be that my God does not exist at all

In my dream it is brighter, in my dream I feel better

In my dream the sky is even bluer than blue.

I understood as never before that perhaps the most important aspect of all the music composed and poems written during the years of the Holocaust was that they enabled the composers, the interpreters, the writers, the listeners and the readers to escape, if only for a little while, into dreams where the sky was even bluer than blue.

And I am deeply grateful to Special Envoy Forman and to Olivia Hilton for giving me the incomparable gift of seeing my father on the screen in the State Department auditorium, 38 years after his death, as he had been before.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)