Rescued from the holocaust

JNF-UK and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael are helping teenagers gather and reconstruct music composed in the concentration camps.

Hagay Amar, manager of the Yeroham Conservatory (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hagay Amar, manager of the Yeroham Conservatory
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
"Did you practice?” asks a stern Italian-accented voice. After a young musician answers in the affirmative, he fires back skeptically, “Are you sure?” Members of the adolescent orchestra, busy in rehearsals at the music conservatory in Yeroham in February, are unfazed by the high standards demanded of them by their maestro as he tells them to repeat selections over and over, until they meet his satisfaction. These teenagers, who hail from the peripheries of southern Israel, appreciate the opportunity to be conducted by an international professional composer, Prof. Francesco Lotoro.
Moreover, they are aware that the challenge at hand is far greater than practicing for an ordinary concert. The music they are tackling is the fruit of a decades-long mission by Lotoro to gather and reconstruct music composed in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. These young musicians have been tasked with the important mission of bringing that music back to life.
They will play this music for the public for the first time on April 15, alongside the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, at a concert in the Jerusalem International Convention Center at the initiative of the JNF-UK and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL).
The concert is being staged both to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and to raise awareness of increasing levels of global antisemitism and Holocaust denial. The concert will also symbolically fall on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
The various pieces, which will be performed in ARTS Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Czech and Romani, were composed by inmates of a number of camps, including Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Westerbork.
For three decades, Lotoro scoured the world looking for hidden manuscripts from the camps, some only partial, some faded, some in old records, some retained solely in the memory of survivors.
Lotoro initially searched for music written by Jews in concentration camps, but after four years, in 1992, he decided to expand his research to other prisoners of concentration camps and military camps.
“It’s not possible to separate the music of Jews in captivity from that of Roma [Gypsies] or Christians,” Lotoro told The Jerusalem Post ahead of a February rehearsal at the Yeroham music conservatory.
Lotoro said that as a musician, it became important to him to collect all traces of musical phenomena of concentration camps or military camps, in light of the connections between the composers there. For instance, he said, music written by Jews was influenced by Gypsies.
Behind every featured piece is a story of suffering and resilience.
For example, Kreuzburg said, “We discovered that Wilhelm Hildesheimer, a Quaker who wrote music in an internment camp for Catholic prisoners in “was actually Josef Ben Mendel Hallevi. He hid his name so that he was taken to an internment camp as a British citizen instead of to a concentration camp” as a Jew.
Lotoro has traveled all over the world in this quest – including to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Austria, Croatia, US, Hong Kong China and the former Soviet Union. In some cases he actively searched for the music, and in others people sought him out, offering information.
A French colleague gave him a list of musicians and he made contact with their relatives.
“In some cases, the grandchildren helped me more than the kids, as they were not directly connected to the war,” he observed.
“Four days ago, I was in France. There are music sheets written in 3A Buchenwald by a Frenchman.
For 20 years I searched for his relatives in France and they told me they had records that his father recorded after the war, so I could listen and reconstruct the music.”
In other cases, the actual manuscripts were lost, but survivors remembered the music.
Josef Roubitschek composed Zitra for a Jewish singer in Theresienstadt. Manka (Miriam) Alter worked in the kitchen of the ghetto and Roubitschek wanted her to sing the song at the cabaret of the ghetto. In the end, she decided not to sing the song, out of fear that she would be moved to the culture department, as she knew that food was the key to survival.
She never sang the song and it was never documented, but she kept the memory of it firmly locked in her mind for the 70 years that followed, until her vocals were recorded as part of a project by Beit Terezin to preserve some of the songs that were sung in the Theresienstadt ghetto. For the first time it will be staged at the concert this month.
Famous Jewish musician Ilse Weber was also a prisoner in Theresienstadt. While working as a nurse there, she taught a melody to the camp’s young children. When Weber’s husband was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she voluntarily transferred to the camp with their young son in an attempt to keep the family together, but they were gassed upon arrival.
The melody was never written down or recorded, but more than 70 years later one of the Theresienstadt children Weber treated – Aviva Bar- On – will sing the piece from memory for the first time since the war.
“It’s a mitzva, it’s a treasure – a heritage for mankind,” Lotoro tells the Post.
“My duty is to reconstruct the intention,” he says. “Some of the music was written on toilet paper, some was composed in the soil of a potato field to circumvent bans against writing.” RUDOLF KAREL suffered from dysentery, so he wrote his music on toilet paper with the charcoal he was given to help treat the illness.
He wrote the five-act opera Nonette on hundreds of pages. Had he been seen doing it, he would have been killed, so he did it during his time in the infirmary, where the Germans didn’t enter so as to avoid proximity to the sick.
“His son gave me all the scrolls,” Lotoro tells the Post. “Some scrolls were missing. He wrote them, but sometimes he needed it for toilet emergencies so we lost some of it.”
“We have music from bakers and shoemakers...
the first response to the Germans was to make music,” Lotoro muses. “A lot of the deportees were beaten every day, some until the end. You have two solutions – either rebellion or you sing. It was the same situation when the Titanic went underwater – the last remembrance of the place is the orchestra playing as they went down.”
“Your life belongs to you and God, but your music belongs to mankind,” Lotoro reflects.
Lotoro says that Austrian musician and Auschwitz victim Viktor Ullmann was a source of a lot of music.
“We are grateful to Ullmann, not only for his music, but in his folder we also discovered music written by others. Some of young musicians hid their music in Ullmann’s folder because he was a prominent famous musician, so had a better situation that others,” Lotoro relates.
Ullmann’s music changes with his own philosophical beliefs.
His father was baptized and he came to the camp as an adherent to Anthroposophism, which is reflected in his first works in the camp. But in the camp he returned to Judaism. “You can listen to the Jewish fight in his last work, the 7th Sonata... his last piece was dedicated to his Judaism and is based on Jewish music.”
Ullmann was gassed in October 1944 with wife and son.
Lotoro, a member of Italy’s Anusim community, embraced his long-lost Jewish roots when he was a teenager. Some 15 years ago he helped reopen a former synagogue-turned-church in the town of Trani. This was what led the JNF UK to Lotoro. The vice chairman of JNF UK, Dr. Michael Sinclair, went looking for Lotoro, having read about his role in reopening the synagogue. The pair met and Sinclair proposed to Lotoro the idea of forming a youth orchestra with children from the south of Israel.
Lotoro told Sinclair the music would be difficult for the children, but he agreed to the plan and held auditions. “I am very surprised because the music is difficult, but they worked very hard and they play fantastically,” he said.
“The idea is to promote this music in Israel. This music belongs to the Jewish people, the natural physical side of this music.”
While the youthful amateur orchestra Lotoro is cultivating drastically contrasts with the ones he usually conducts, he remarks that this project transcends the aesthetic value of music.
“It’s more than music, it’s the declaration of beauty as an absolute value.”
Lotoro explains the meaning of the music to the children he teaches.
“At first they weren’t so interested but now they are very enthusiastic,” he remarks. “My work is to give them this treasure.”
CHEN WOLFF, 15, a flute player from Yeroham, says the project has helped connected her to the Holocaust in a unique and personal way.
“I’m playing things that were really played in the Shoah,” she says. She has taken what she had learned at the music school to the classroom, exploring how music saved Jewish pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived Theresienstadt.
While the project has been intensive, difficult and involved a lot of sacrifices, Wolff feels honored to be a part of it. She notes that while the 20 students involved, who range from 10 to 17 years old, are very different from each other, the music and the common mission have pulled them together.
“This is an opportunity to be part of something big,” says fellow flute player Hila Benishu, 14, from Yeroham. “I’m still a child and this is an opportunity for me to take something seriously. It’s a unique project at a very high level,” she notes, expressing admiration for her conductor, Lotoro.
“In my opinion this is very ethical and meaningful.
We are giving life to it. It’s what the Jews went through, and Francesco said that while their bodies are no longer here, we are immortalizing them.
Francesco made me understand that, yes, what they went through was very hard, but we are here to continue and not to give up. It gave me meaning that there is a story behind every piece.”
Benishu recalls the first time she heard a tango composed in Auschwitz. “I was in shock and at first I thought it was disrespectful, but it’s not – it’s a symbol of life.”
Pianist Yaakov Adinaev, 17, from Yeroham, also recalls his surprise at the joyful nature of many of the pieces.
“When I heard it was music made in the Holocaust I was really interested to hear how it sounded.
I was really surprised they were so happy – it’s very profound how they were trying to convey a happy message when they knew they might die the next day.”
Adinaev is playing a solo during the performance of Zitra, which is the piece he most connects to.
“It talks about how tomorrow will be better; I think it’s very deep. That’s what we are doing: implementing what they hoped for.”
Other pieces include Tatata by Willy Rosen and Max Ehrlich. Just before their deportation from Westerbork to Auschwitz, where both were murdered, Rosen and Ehrlich managed to smuggle a folder of their manuscripts out of the camp. Decades later, the folder was discovered in an attic in the Netherlands, about to be thrown away.
JNF-KKL decided to bring this collection of music to the nation via the children, rather than using just professionals, says Hagay Amar, the manager of the conservatory. “Lotoro is passing it on to the children of Israel, who will also pass it forward.”
Music, he said, is the fastest way to move and inspire people. “Music is a universal language.”
“JNF UK is delighted to be staging the ‘Notes of Hope’ concert in Jerusalem,” said Samuel Hayek, chairman of JNF UK.
“Throughout our history, we have helped in the development of Israel and supported the people of Israel, including aspiring youth in the Negev. We are delighted the concert is facilitating students from the JNF UK-supported Bikurim Performing Arts School and the Yeroham Conservatory to work alongside world-class musicians.”
“As the State of Israel prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the concert is a tribute to the memory of those who perished, but also a timely reminder of the enduring defiance and hope of the Jewish people,” he added.
Attendees are slated to include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, world dignitaries and Holocaust survivors.
“This moving event is made up of remnants in the form of musical creations that were brought together for an incredible show,” said Daniel Atar, KKL-JNF world chairman.
“With members of the Jewish world attending from around the globe, including Holocaust survivors, children and soldiers, the concert symbolizes the Jewish people and Israel’s triumph and acts as proof that the power of the Jewish people lies in its unity.”