A woman’s cry from the camps

There is plenty of darkness in the record, but there is optimism too.

Shulamit Ottolenghi connected strongly with the works of women Holocaust victims (photo credit: HAIM BARGIG)
Shulamit Ottolenghi connected strongly with the works of women Holocaust victims
(photo credit: HAIM BARGIG)
 It might be stretching the imagination a mite to classify a program of works by female Holocaust victims and survivors as “alternative,” but there is definitely a left-field flavor to the show that will take place at Tzavta in Tel Aviv on May 4 at 9 p.m.
The free concert is the brainchild of singer Shulamit Ottolenghi and is based on a CD she brought out a couple of years ago. The album in question is called For You the Sun Will Shine, with the subtitle of Songs of Women in the Shoa, which contains a dozen tracks.
All told, there are five known creators, four of whom were Jewish. The words for “Ein Jüdisches Kind” (“A Jewish Child”) were written by Erika Taube, to music by her husband Carlo. The other creators perished in the Holocaust, with Ludmila Peskarova, a Czech political prisoner who was imprisoned in the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück, the only survivor. Peskarova died in 1987, at the age of 97. The CD closes with the only non-original score, a rendition of a traditional reading of the Jewish community of Rome, of “Oseh Shalom.”
Ottolenghi’s emotive vocal delivery is complemented and enhanced by the polished instrumental skills, and daring arrangements, of renowned trumpeter and New York-based leading exponent of “radical Jewish music,” Frank London, and fellow Big Apple resident, Israeli-born jazz pianist Shai Bachar, with Israeli percussionist Yuval Lion completing the instrumental threesome.
The chief contributor to the record is Ilse Weber, a well-known songwriter who was born in Witkowitz in Germany, and was deported from Prague to Theresienstadt in February 1942, together with her husband, Willi, and younger son, Tommy. She managed to get her older son, Hanus, to safety in Sweden on a Kindertransport. Weber worked as a nurse in the Theresienstadt infirmary, without medicines, which were banned for use by Jews. In October 1944, she voluntarily joined her husband and son on a transport to Auschwitz because she did not want to split the family up. She and Tommy died in the gas chambers, while Willi survived the Holocaust. Willi also managed to bury some of the 60 or so poems Weber wrote, in Czech and German, during her time at Theresienstadt – she put some of them to music – before being sent to Auschwitz.
Erika Taube was a poet, and wife of composer Carlo Taube. Both, and their son, were also incarcerated at Theresienstadt. All three were sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where they were killed. Little is known about Camilla Mohaupt, who wrote the lyrics to “Auschwitzlied”(“The Song of Auschwitz”). It is the only song on the album that makes direct reference to the horrifying physical conditions at the camp, and talks about “malaria, typhus and other plagues.”
It also describes some of the work the prisoners had to carry out there, as well as the accommodation arrangements – “Rows and rows of barracks, built by prisoner’s hand, under rain and storm he still must carry blocks and sand.”
Italian-born Ottolenghi made aliya after high school, in 1973. She spent 25 years working as a clinical psychologist, but developed an interest in singing in her 30s. She took some private lessons, and things took off from there.
“I can tell you, as a psychologist, that some things are so hidden that you hide them even from yourself,” she states.
“Then I joined a choir and things just took off.”
Around the age of 40, Ottolenghi found herself performing a program of Neapolitan songs at the University of Haifa, and she gradually began to perform up and down the country, taking voice lessons from internationally acclaimed vocalist Miriam Zakai in the process. She put together various Italian-based programs here, and performed Jewish material in Italy and other countries. In between her musical exploits, she now makes a living as an interior designer.
The CD is dedicated to the memory of Ottolenghi’s father, who died in 2014 at the age of 93. It was not until four years before he died that Ottolenghi discovered her father had been deeply scarred by the Holocaust himself. Prior to that, the Shoah was not much more than a painful episode in Jewish history, but one that did not affect her personally.
Even so, she was drawn to the songs that eventually found their way onto the album, when she was introduced to the works of women Holocaust victims and survivors by Italian composer and musicologist Francesco Lotoro, over a decade ago. Ottolenghi soon found herself in at the deep end, and pulled inexorably to a growing desire to revive the work of some of the women, and to bring them into the contemporary public domain, and pay tribute to the writers.
She quickly discovered she had taken on quite a task, but was up for it.
“What I really love, also in design in which I now work, and also in music, is something I call in Italian ‘incontri improbabili’ – improbable encounters. I love it in music and I love it in design.”
Part of that oxymoronic ethos was channeled through her partners in creativity, particularly London and Bachar.
“I wanted to challenge them and myself, for this project,” Ottolenghi explains.
“For instance, on ‘Auschwitzlied,’ which is based on a popular German song, I asked Frank to break the waltz [tempo]. I think it came out incredible. The black humor in this was to take a very popular German waltz, speaking about the [German] homeland and, when I see the sea, the North Sea, and all the beauty there, and to write a song that talks about malaria and typhus, etc.”
Peskarova’s songs, naturally, offer a different perspective on Holocaust experiences. Her two contributions to the album include a lullaby and something akin to a protest song.
“She wrote ‘A Little Christmas Lullaby in Ravensbrück” to help console the young girls there, notes Ottolenghi. It is a beautiful song.
There is, of course, plenty of darkness in the record, but there is optimism too. In Weber’s “Emigrantlied” (“The Emigrant Song”), for example, she proffers a ray of light. The final three lines of the song read thus: “Evil will pass like a dark dream, your life will rejoice you again. Because all will be fine…” Even though she has performed the material live many times, in addition to the recording sessions, Ottolenghi says she has not become inured to the emotive baggage of the lyrics.
One song destroys me every time, she says. It goes: “have you forgotten me, my child?” The number in question is “Und der Regen Rinnt” (“And the Rain Keeps Falling”), written by Weber, in which she talks to the son she saved by sending him away, but whom she knows she will not live to see again.
“As the rain keeps falling, I think about you in the darkness, my child… And the rain keeps falling, why are you so far my child?” It is hard to remain emotionally detached when you hear a maternal cry of such plaintive intensity.