Pianist revives music created in concentration camps
Since 1991 Italian Francesco Lotoro has traveled the globe to bring to light music that was composed and often performed in camps.
Francesco Lotoro introducing a concert of cabaret Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber
TRANI, Italy - Francesco Lotoro resurrects the music of the dead.
Since 1991 the Italian pianist has traveled the globe to seek out
and bring to light symphonies, songs, sonatas, operas, lullabies and even jazz
riffs that were composed and often performed in Nazi-era concentration
“This music is part of the cultural heritage of humanity,” Lotoro,
48, told JTA after a concert in Trani, a port town in southern Italy, that
featured surprisingly lively cabaret songs composed in the camps at Westerbork
in the Netherlands and Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague.
formed part of Lech Lecha, a week long Jewish culture festival in early September
that took place in Trani and nine other towns in the Apulia region, the heel of
“When I started seeking out this music, my interest was
based on curiosity, on passion,” said Lotoro, who was the festival’s artistic
director. “I felt that someone had to do it -- and that someone was myself.
Today it has become a mission.”
Lotoro has collected original scores,
copies and even old recordings of some 4,000 pieces of what he calls
“concentrationary music” -- music written in the concentration camps, death
camps, labor camps, POW camps and other internment centers set up between 1933,
when Dachau was established, and the end of World War II.
In the 1990s he
formed an orchestra to perform the pieces, and in 2001 began recording the
compositions. A selection was released earlier this year in a 24-CD boxed set
called "KZ Musik," or “The Encyclopedia of Concentrationary Music.” (KZ is the
German abbreviation for concentration camp.) Some of the pieces have long been
known, including music by several prominent composers who were interned in
Terezin. The Nazis used Terezin, a ghetto concentration and transit camp, as a
propaganda tool, allowing cultural life to develop.
Other musical pieces,
however, had been long lost or totally forgotten until Lotoro deciphered,
transcribed and arranged them.
Many compositions had been jotted down in
notebooks or scribbled in letters or on scraps of paper. In the Pankrac prison
in Prague, the Czech composer Rudolf Karel scrawled music on sheets of toilet
“People continued to create despite being in those places,” Lotoro
said. “These composers felt that the camp was probably the last place they would
be alive, and so they made a will, a testament.
“They had nothing
material to leave,” he said, “only their heart, only their mind, only the music.
And so they left the music to future generations. It is a great testament of the
Jews who were killed in the Shoah wrote most of the music that
Lotoro has collected. But his collection also includes pieces by Quakers,
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), political prisoners, homosexuals and others
held in camps and prisons as far afield as Asia. He also has music written by
German officers and troops in POW camps run by Allied powers and even American
GIs held captive by the Japanese.
“Everybody made music, wrote music,”
Lotoro said. “Because, you know, music is a social phenomenon. You can be a
musician as an amateur, because you have a good ear, you can improvise, you can
play the harmonica. Of course there are the great composers and musicians. But
music is all of this, from amateur to professional.”
Lotoro, who lives in
the town of Barletta, near Trani, and teaches at a music conservatory, believes
he is descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity centuries
ago. He was drawn to Judaism as a teenager; he and his wife formally converted
But Lotoro said this was not the reason he began his search for
the lost concentration camp music.
“Of course as a Jew, I now feel that
this is a mitzvah; it is something I have to do,” he said. “But I think that if
I had not become Jewish I would anyway have done this.”
His first foray
to seek out music came long before his conversion. It was a 1991 trip to
Terezin, where imprisoned composers such as Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein --
both killed at Auschwitz -- had written works, such as Ullmann’s opera “The
Emperor of Atlantis,” that already had become part of the international musical
“I started there because I thought it would be easier,”
Lotoro recalled. “But from Terezin I went on to research other former camps in
the region, and at the end of three weeks I had to buy another suitcase to bring
home all the material I found.”
Since then he has scoured antiquarian
bookshops, catalogs, archives, libraries, museums, private collections and other
holdings in more than a dozen countries for traces of lost music. Along the way
he has amassed a trove of 13,000 items: scores, notebooks, papers, diaries,
microfilms, photocopies, photographs, recordings and other material that he
continues to sift through, catalog and sometimes reconstruct. He hopes to load
all the pieces he has found onto a digital database for posterity.
part of his research, Lotoro has consulted with scholars who specialize in the
music of the Holocaust, and also has interviewed some of the few surviving
musicians as well as relatives of those who perished. But he has carried out
most of the work on his own.
“It is yet another testament to Italian
creativity -- the ability to address such global issues from a relatively
‘remote’ place, and as a single-handed initiative,” Francesco Spagnolo, an
Italian musicologist who is the curator at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art
and Life in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.
Much of Lotoro’s work also has
been self-financed. Although he has received some grants over the years, he told
JTA that he had gone into debt and even taken out a second mortgage on his home
to cover costs.
Still, Lotoro said, he must continue.
stop because if I stop, all the research stops automatically,” he
“And how many works are still out there that I haven’t found? How
many works am I missing? How many will I be able to save?”