Discussion Papers Series
Music and the Holocaust
By Shirli Gilbert, Lecturer at the University of Southampton
In the Łódź ghetto, grieving the loss of his daughter Eva, the poet Yeshayahu Shpigl wrote a simple lullaby. He titled his lullaby Nit Kayn Rozhinkes, Nit Kayn Mandlen (No Raisins, No Almonds), referring clearly to the beloved Yiddish classic Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds). “Sleep, my little one, sleep,” sings a mother to her child. “The little goat under your cradle has gone trading. When he returns, he will bring you raisins and almonds.” By contrast, Mr. Shpigl’s version written in the ghetto poignantly laments: “No raisins, no almonds. Father has not gone trading and will never come back home. Where did he go? To the end of the world.”1
This song is just one of hundreds created during the Holocaust in ghettos and camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners —representing diverse religions, political affiliations, ages and nationalities —organized chamber groups and choirs, orchestras and theaters, communal sing-songs and cabarets. They performed a wide range of music, from folk songs and dance hits to film music and classical repertoire. Hundreds of new songs and compositions were also created by professional musicians and by ordinary people in the streets, soup kitchens, youth clubs, and barracks.
Like many other ghetto songs, No Raisins, No Almonds expressed the trauma of the victims’ by drawing on familiar pre-war musical traditions. Prisoners often turned to culture to connect with their pre-war lives or to seek solace through communal identity. Songs were a means through which victims tried to make sense of a frightening and continually changing reality. The songs that have survived bear witness to the victims’ shock and grief, to the constant uncertainty and enormous sense of loss. They bear witness to crises of faith and the desire to have their suffering acknowledged. In an alienating environment, songs became a storehouse for victims’ shared interpretations of what was happening. Today, they offer hundreds of portraits of lives lived under internment.
The Nazi camps imprisoned not only Jews, but also tens of thousands of political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and countless others. The Song of the Peatbog Soldiers was one of the first created by German political prisoners living in a Nazi camp. First shown in August 1933 as part of a variety show organized by prisoners, it was described by its composer as a “conscious protest song of resistance against our oppressors”. Its final verse and refrain defiantly proclaimed:
But for us there are no complaints
Because it cannot be winter forever.
Someday we will happily say:
Home, you are mine again.
Then the peat bog soldiers
Will no longer travel spade in hand
Into the moor!
Prisoners in ghettos and camps across Europe similarly used music to express their opposition to the regime, to build morale and camaraderie and to galvanise support for resistance. In the spring of 1943, news of the heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto helped spark the creation of some of the most popular and rousing Yiddish songs to survive this period. “The news of the uprising lifted our spirits and made us proud,” wrote the Vilna partisan Shmerke Katsherginski, “and although we were in agony at their unequal struggle, we felt relieved… our hearts became winged.”
In response to the news of the uprising, the 20-year-old partisan Hirsh Glik wrote Zog Nit Keynmol az Du Geyst dem Letstn Veg (Never say that you are walking the final road), better known today as the Partisans’ Song. The Vilna partisans quickly adopted it as their hymn, but as Mr. Katsherginski recalled, “the people did not wait for this decision […]; the song had already spread like wildfire to the ghettos, the concentration and labour camps and into the woods to other partisan brigades.”
One of the first people to record this song was the psychologist David Boder, a Latvian Jewish émigré to the United States, who travelled to Europe in 1946 to interview witnesses while their memories were fresh. Songs fulfilled an important role in his project and this song was taken from an interview in July 1946 with an 18-year-old Polish-Jewish survivor, Kalman Eisenberg. It is striking to hear the youthful voices of the survivors in these recordings, made immediately after the war rather than decades later.
Although the Partisans’ Song became the anthem of a military organization, it was less a battle cry than a defiant affirmation of Jewish endurance; of a collective, rather than an individual survival. Mr. Glik’s faith lay in the overriding fact that although the dawn might be “delayed”, the nation would always proudly be able to assert, “Mir zaynen do!”’ (We are here!).
Like Zog Nit Keynmol az Du Geyst dem Letstn Veg, songs were often a means of connecting with the outside world, or perhaps more precisely, with the future that many victims feared they might not live to see. Cut off emotionally and literally from the world, they felt it crucial that something or someone survive to bear witness to their experience. The explicit expectation — or challenge — was that in the absence of millions of witnesses, the song itself would, in Mr. Glik’s words, go “like a watchword from generation to generation”. Today, the songs survive as fragments of voices from the past, a precious glimpse into the lives of those who did not survive to give their testimony.
The final song turns our attention even more explicitly to the post-war world and the question of how, as surviving generations, we make sense of the Holocaust. The composer Steve Reich, in his 1988 work Different Trains, mixes his memories of being a Jewish child in the United States in the 1940s with those of child survivors of the Holocaust, who later recorded their testimonies. This is how Mr. Reich describes the project:
The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. [Due to my parent’s divorce], I travelled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942. […] While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew, I would have had to ride on very different trains.
Mr. Reich recorded three testimonies from survivors all around his age. He then selected sound clips and arranged them into a semi-coherent narrative. In response to Mr. Reich’s work, the critic Richard Taruskin wrote: Mr. Reich “has composed one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium to the Holocaust. There are no villains and no heroes. There is just the perception that while this happened here, that happened there, and a stony invitation to reflect.”
I have spent much of my own life reflecting on what happened. As I grow older, I struggle increasingly with the question of how best to convey the memory to my own children, to my students and to the generations that will succeed us. I grew up immersed in the stories of my maternal grandparents, who experienced more suffering and loss than I can contemplate. Their memory reminds me of the incalculable impact of war and genocide on countless individual human beings. Today we have fewer and fewer survivors among us. Our challenge as educators is how to convey a memory that is not abstract and superficial, but rather urges people to engage with the concrete consequences of hatred and opens their eyes to individual choices in extreme circumstances.
Our website is a modest attempt to confront this challenge. We work from the conviction that music offers a more intimate way into the history of the Holocaust. Music is also an emotionally engaging means through which people can reflect on the Holocaust’s legacy for humanity. The website contains dozens of musical recordings, some dating from as early as 1946. It also contains hundreds of articles about musicians and composers, about the ghettos and camps where musical life flourished despite the circumstances, and includes new compositions created in response to what was happening. The website contains resources for teachers who want to use these materials in their classrooms and includes lesson plans and lists of books, recordings and films. It is available in English, Spanish and Russian and aims to make these rich materials accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
The music that survived the Holocaust helps us to deepen the ways in which we remember its victims and the ways in which we pass on their memory. After all, it is we who are the future generations, confronted with the challenge to remember not only what was done to the victims, but how they responded as human beings to the realities they faced.
The musical compositions that have survived are a unique legacy: fragments of shared ideas and interpretation from communities that otherwise left few traces. The songs reveal to us the thoughts victims had about those who held power over them, the horrific realities about which they sang to their children, how they tried to distract themselves with memories of home or dreams of freedom, and how they imagined they would be remembered. The songs help us to think about the victims as human beings, unsure of what was happening to them and full of conflicting wishes, hopes, fears and expectations.
It is my hope that we can begin to revive some of these extraordinary musical works in our own commemoration of the Holocaust — at our ceremonies, in our choirs, in our classrooms — as a way of giving voice to the victims. Let us think of these artefacts as monuments to those who were destroyed: musical monuments that allow each of us to reflect on the legacy of the Holocaust for our present and future world.
- In her paper, Shirli Gilbert discusses the role that music played in the lives of people in the ghettos and concentration camps across Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust. How did music provide comfort and hope? How did music offer a way for people in ghettos and concentration camps express themselves while living in inhuman conditions?
- What kinds of songs were composed and performed created during the Holocaust? Which specific examples are most significant to you?
- The history of music is filled with examples of songs that tell stories about sadness, loss, love, survival and faith. Can you think of some examples of songs that you have heard that tell an emotional story? How does the music created in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust help us remember the victims of the Holocaust and pass on their legacy?
- Shirli Gilbert says that this music is a way of “giving voice to the victims”. (Listen to one of the songs). How does listening to recordings of the youthful voices of Holocaust survivors made right after the war help you comprehend what these people went through? How might these recordings help address the root causes of intolerance?
- How can listening to these extraordinary musical works – what Ms. Gilbert calls musical monuments -- help us become more tolerant of people different from ourselves? How can this music help us reduce our own prejudices?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.