FEATURE: Music at UN event teaches about the Holocaust through victims' experiences

Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren participates in 'Learning about the Holocaust through the Arts' at the UN Headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

29 April 2014 – From Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 until the 1945 liberation, music played an integral role in daily life under Nazism, as illustrated at a United Nations event which used the medium of the arts to communicate fragments of the lives of victims of the Holocaust.

"It give us a deep, nuanced and complicated sense of who these human beings were who experienced these terrible things and how they responded," said scholar Shirli Gilbert about music that survived the Holocaust.

"And helps us to see them not as a faceless mass of six million people but as individuals who came from different places, from different backgrounds, and understood what was happening in different ways."

Working in partnership with Clive Marks, who spent most of his life studying European history and music, and who was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 for his philanthropic efforts, Ms. Gilbert created an on-line resource for music associated with and played during the Holocaust. The website is part of the Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training (World ORT).

"In his second symphony, Arthur Honegger writes about the streets of Paris during the German occupation the streets on a wet Sunday afternoon, and you actually feel that you can see the greyness of it all," Mr. Marks said in an interview alongside Ms. Gilbert ahead of the special event, Learning about the Holocaust through the Arts. Organized by the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme, the event was held in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress.

Written for strings in 1946, this symphony features a trumpet solo which plays a chorale tune by Johann Sebastian Bach.

"It's the most glorious ending of any symphony that I know," Mr. Marks said.

The symphony, as Mr. Marks explains based on information of which he has some gaps, was flown by partisans to England, where someone brought it to the BBC, and which was ultimately played for the first time publicly by a doctor who had a string orchestra.

Although that is one of his favorites, a piece which more appropriately commemorates the Holocaust, Mr. Marks noted, is Arnold Schenberg's 1946 'A Survivor from Warsaw', a seven-minute piece work for a narrator, men's chorus and orchestra which describes the German Third Reich shooting prisoners who sing the Jewish prayer Shema Yisroel.

Looking for the music is quite difficult, both scholars agree. Among her most exciting finds, Ms. Gilbert recounted rifling through a filing cabinet in an archival office on the site Sachsenhausen concentration camp in what had been East Germany.

"I found 16 original song books that had been written by prisoners and presumably hidden beneath their beds with hundreds of songs and illustrations that they had used in camp sing-alongs," she said, adding that playing the songs, or any of the music, is a way of bringing to life again an original artefact from that time.

"They really are portraits of a community, a diverse set of individuals representing different political affiliations, different ages, different religions," she said. "There are so many songs that will talk about how people feel about [those] holding power over them, how they feel about explaining what's happening to their children, how they remember their past and how they try to create a sense of community."

The goal of their project, which also includes anthems, jazz under the Nazis, Yiddish tango songs, theatre songs, among others, is to share the music with a wider audience and to engage young people in learning about the Holocaust, Ms. Gilbert said.

"The Holocaust] was so powerful that no one should ever be allowed to forget it," Mr. Marks noted. "Young people have to be encouraged to understand history. What happened during the Holocaust affects the whole of Central European history."

Mr. Marks said he would like to learn more about music in other parts of the world, such as in Afghanistan and the harassment of women or anyone else who sings even at home privately.

"Music seems to be a very dangerous subject, and can be a very dangerous subject, depending how its used for propaganda, marching songs, as a warning that something terrible is going to happen - ta ta ta ta," he said humming the beginning of Beethovens Fifth Symphony, which although written in the 19th century, became a symbol for the Allied Forces.

"Music is a call to action, something which can be used to soothe, bring back happier memories, to calm people down and to rouse them as well," he said, adding with a laugh: "A good German marching song certainly gets me going."

Opening the event at UN Headquarters in New York, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, stressed that incorporating the arts helps to further personalize the stories of the Holocaust.

"The arts help to highlight the impact that this tragedy has had on the individual and the community as a result of hatred, bigotry and ignorance," he noted.

An Austrian national, Mr. Launsky-Tieffenthal told a personal story of an Austrian-Jewish artist who taught children in concentration camps how to draw, among them Petr Ginz, who was killed at the age of 16 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the worst German Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Petr's story features in a recently published study guide by the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme.

"The seed of a creative idea does not die in the mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in darkness," Mr. Launsky-Tieffenthal said quoting Petr.

Hosting the event which included representatives from more than 30 universities, including The Juilliard School, the manager of the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme, Kimberly Mann, said that the arts "stimulate your mind and engage you to action".

Also participating in the event, Naomi Warren, who was born on 1 September 1920, and whose story of survival in Auschwitz-Birkenau inspired the Light / The Holocaust and Humanity Project at the Ballet Austin.

"We just bound together. It was so important not to be alone," she said. "When you are not satisfied with what you have and not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow it is just so, so hard to continue, but still there is maybe a little hope left."

"In 1945 British army liberated the camp. To describe your heart, to describe your mind, now you are free and you have really survived, its a miracle," Ms. Warren continued. "You build on your past but you look forward to your future."

She spoke alongside Artistic Director, Stephen Mills, who worked a decade on the dance project which he described as "very personal sharing between the audience and the dancer".

"How do you make a dance that is reflexive as catastrophic as the Holocaust?" he quipped. "There is no way to make an artistic representation, to quantify the suffering. It's an educational component. The goal is to educate with the dance being one strategy."

The event also featured literature, including a reading by Academy-award winning actress Olympia Dukakis and Nava Semel, an award-winning Israeli author and playwright; and a presentation about film by Olga Gershenson, a scholar on Holocaust cinema.

The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau January 27 has been designed by the UN General Assembly as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

On Holocaust Memorial Day, UN calls for unflagging vigilance to prevent new genocide

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews