Music Amid the Madness
The men and women behind the music of the Holocaust
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"I found myself fighting to preserve the memories of these artists
and their music, to not allow evil to have its final victory." —
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Phillip Silver was in London when he
first heard the Third String Quartet by Viktor Ullmann.
As a musician, he was struck by the quality of the music. As a
second-generation Jewish American searching for his Judaic roots, Silver
wanted to know about the composer behind the music.
When he learned that Ullmann had composed the work while in a Nazi
concentration camp, Silver understood his mission as a music scholar.
"Once I heard the circumstances under which Ullmann composed in his last
years, it was as if a door had opened," says Silver, assistant professor
of music at The University of Maine. "I had to find out more, not only
about the music but the circumstances under which it was composed. I
wanted to know how normal people — people like any of us — can be thrown
into a nightmarish reality, where all norms of civilization are
abrogated, and still find the inner resources to create music such as
Ullmann was one of many prominent Jews, including visual and performing
artists, who were rounded up and deported to a concentration camp in
Terezín, Czechoslovakia. There he and other musicians continued to
perform and, most importantly, to compose some of their most brilliant
works before being murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
For years after the Holocaust, it appeared that the last music composed
by Ullmann and others during their incarceration at Terezín had been
lost. Only in the last two decades has research uncovered the music —
and the stories of the courageous men and women behind it.
Today, international performers and scholars like Silver are ensuring
that the voices of these composers are heard through their music. In
addition to performing works by Ullmann and others, Silver has taught
and lectured extensively, most recently in London and Germany, on the
music and musicians caught up in the Holocaust.
"This is a musical quest, a humanitarian quest," says Silver of his
years of research. "This is a generation of composers whose music has
suffered from lack of exposure and we are the losers. We need to pay
attention to this music both because of its relation to the human
experience, as well as its innate artistic quality."
These works become very different compositions once you know the
environment of crisis and imminent destruction in which they were
created, says Silver. "Despite the circumstances, we rarely find
resignation in the music, but rather the philosophy and attitude of
survival. It is a clarion call to strength and maintenance of
"Such music is proof that, without culture, we can not survive," he
says. "This music shows me that even in the midst of horror, we can rise
above our immediate environment and find a way to believe in something
Silver, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., began his career in music at the New
England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the University of
Washington. He and his wife, cellist Noreen Silver, then spent six years
"Israel was at times a frustrating place to live, a veritable pressure
cooker, but at the same time, it was very nourishing," says Silver, who
participated in the peace effort in Israel. "There I became much more
involved in the dynamic of music, its underlying meaning. The experience
changed me and the way I play. My music became much more whole."
Silver first heard about the music of the Holocaust in Israel. But when
he started his research, he found little information. By the time he
joined The University of Maine faculty in 1998, German publishing
companies had claimed the rights to some of the music and made it
"I was struck by certain things, including the volume of music written
in the camps," says Silver. "Initially, I imagined what the music would
sound like — intense, depressing and harsh. While some works do manifest
these elements, there are many that are polar opposites. These works are
brighter, almost vivacious, tinged with nostalgia and sarcasm, but
ultimately imbued with hope.
"That's when I knew, more than ever, that I had to analyze what was
going on with these artists and their music. How could they be in camps
and write music like this? Ultimately, I found myself fighting to
preserve the memories of these artists and their music, to not allow
evil to have its final victory."
Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann was particularly astute at using his
music to preserve the memories of better times, Silver says. Ullmann was
a highly respected musician whose works had been performed in many
European centers. Before the start of the Second World War, he had
composed almost 40 works, including orchestral, vocal, chamber and piano
In 1942, Ullmann and his family were sent to Terezín, a concentration
camp designed as a showpiece for the International Red Cross and the
rest of the world. As part of the Nazi public relations effort at
Terezín, prisoners were allowed to partake in a rich cultural life,
including musical performances, theater and lectures.
While thousands of prisoners died at Terezín from malnutrition and
disease, the camp was considered more of a way station for Jews
ultimately headed to death camps like Auschwitz.
In Terezín, Ullmann continued to compose, creating what are considered
to be some of his finest works, such as the opera Der Kaiser von
Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis).
Shortly after the completion of his opera, Ullmann was transferred to
Auschwitz. He died in the gas chambers in October 1944.
For Silver, Ullmann's Sonata No. 7 for Piano is one of the most
provocative and compelling of his compositions. In it are shadows and
ever-present fear, darkness and dissonance, sarcasm and strength. Found
mid-work are snippets of music banned by the Nazis, such as a Zionist
song of the '30s and the Czech national anthem.
"This is the work in which Ullmann unambiguously declares a return to
his Jewish roots and envisions a better future for his people," says
Silver, who has extensively studied Ullmann in recent years. "He is
composing for the people of the camp, imbuing the music with symbolism,
using a type of underground language to urge the prisoners to live,
survive and remember."
Ullmann "writes like someone possessed," Silver says. In those two years
of internment, he composed 22 works.
Among the other extraordinary musical artists sent to Terezín was Gideon
Klein who, like Ullmann, also is a primary focus of Silver's research.
Klein's career in the performing arts was just getting started when he
was incarcerated in 1941 at the age of 21. But in the concentration
camp, Klein succeeded in writing some extraordinary music, Silver says,
and would have been a major composer after the war.
"My favorite piece by Klein is a piano sonata," says Silver. "In it I
hear an honest response to his situation. It is a violent piece of
music. Obsessed. Dark. Expressionism on steroids.
"This is music that helps me understand (the Holocaust) better. Behind
it is a young person who is denied the right to live, and he's not going
out without letting you know how he feels."
As a result of his research, Silver has brought many Holocaust-related
works to the stage. They include compositions by Czech composer Erwin
Schulhoff, who wrote operas, symphonies and chamber music. Schulhoff,
who also wrote and performed jazz works as a pianist, died in Wülzburg
Concentration Camp in 1942.
In addition, Silver has performed a massive piano sonata by German
composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Living in Germany during the Hitler
years, Hartmann opposed the regime, suppressing all public performances
of his music while secretly composing anti-fascist works. After World
War II, his compositions surfaced, including a sonata subtitled 27 April
1945, written after Hartmann witnessed a death march from Dachau
Last year, Silver started researching the life of Alma Rosé, a renowned
violinist and member of one of Vienna's most respected musical families.
Her father was Arnold Rosé, violinist and concertmaster of the Vienna
Opera and Philharmonic Orchestras. Her mother, Justine, was the sister
of Gustav Mahler.
Alma Rosé's story came to widespread public attention when the movie
about her life, Playing for Time, was released in 1980. The film was
based on a book of the same title by Fania Fenelon, a member of the
women's orchestra in Auschwitz. Fenelon's negative depiction of Alma
Rosé is at odds with accounts by other survivors. This discrepancy led
Silver to research Rosé's life.
Among the milestones in Rosé's career was the founding of an all-women's
orchestra called the Vienna Waltzing Girls. The formation of this
orchestra, Silver says, was a foreshadowing of things to come.
In 1942, Rosé was arrested in France as she tried to get to Switzerland
to escape the Nazis. She was taken to the medical experimental block at
Auschwitz, where she would have been put to death if she hadn't been
recognized as a famous musician. Rosé was then transferred and put in
charge of the camp's women's orchestra.
The women's orchestra at Auschwitz performed marches as laborers moved
to and from their blocks every evening and morning. Rosé used her clout
to put Jewish musicians in the orchestra, virtually ensuring that they
would be spared the gas chamber. It is estimated that up to 40 women
musicians owe their lives to their conductor, who herself died at
Auschwitz after an illness.
"Like so many of the musicians in these circumstances, Rosé was an
artist obsessed with details such as intonation, and she demanded all in
the orchestra operate on this level," Silver says. "She knew the
musicians' survival was dependent on the SS liking what the orchestra
"Alma Rosé required strict performance standards from the women in her
orchestra even as the smokestacks visible from the window belched human
ash," notes Silver. "The music is what protected her and many prisoners
like her from succumbing to total depression."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.