An Encyclopedia of Music from the Concentration Camps
The laborers of art
The final twelve volumes of a twenty-four volume set of the Encyclopedia of
Music Composed in Concentration Camps will be released in the next few days by
Muskistrasse. The volumes comprise music produced in concentration camps from
1933 to 1945. The Encyclopedia is the result of twenty years of research
conceived and conducted by Maestro Francesco Lotoro, pianist and founder of the
Orchestra Musica Judaica in Barletta and of the Instituto di
Letteratura Musicale concentrazionaria as well as interpreter of the piano
repertory of the Encyclopedia.
is an immense work which involved retrieving lost papers and musical scores,
accessing private papers dispersed all over the world, and piecing together bits
of musical recordings which already existed, in order to allow the musicians who
survived detainment to once again speak, play and sing. The vast research
contributes to the work already done by the Holocaust Museum of Washington, the
University of Wurtzburg and other studies that aim to collect the music of the
concentration camps of those twelve tragic years of history. Much has been
recovered and re-constructed, says Lotoro, but much remains to be found. Emory
University in Atlanta recently named Lotoro Director of the Thesaurus
Musicae Concentrationariae, a project which aims to transfer all of the
material collected by Lotoro to the University in order to archive and catalogue
it and make it available for research. A project which was conceived and
conducted in Italy but almost entirely ignored there, will thus be brought to
fruition in the USA, under conditions more favorable to musical research than
those found in Italy, despite the country’s reputation as one of the cradles of
What does Lotoro mean by “music of the concentration camps” and what were the guidelines which delineated his research? The music includes the entire corpus of every type created in all camps of prison, transition, forced labor, concentration, extermination, military penitentiaries etc. It includes camps of the Third Reich and Axis and Allied countries all over the world from 1933, the date of the opening of the camp at Dachau, through 1945, the date of the end of the war, from musicians of every nation, social group and religion. The research includes Jews as well as Christians of all confessions, Rom, political prisoners, civil and military prisoners who suffered, “discrimination, persecution, imprisonment, deportation, those killed and those who survived.” Concentration camp music also includes the marches and anthems that prisoners were forced to compose to accompany the orders, executions and transfers in the camp and those composed to entertain the Nazis.
In the name of the universality of music and out of respect for artistic creation, Lotoro also includes music composed by German and Italian prisoners in the Allied concentration camps. In this sense, his emphasis is on “music”, or more precisely, “music in captivity” rather than “concentration camps,” because Lotoro’s declared intent is to reconstruct a lost piece of musical artistic experience rather than a piece of the experience of concentration camps. The music of the concentration camps, he writes, is not different music, it is music. Music which must come out of the exceptional context in which it was created and from the specialized research which has recuperated it, to enter into the programs of concerts and theater and be listened to in the same way as other music.
Naturally, many of these musicians were Jewish, deported for racial reasons from Germany and the occupied countries. Many were held at Theresienstadt, a fortress near Prague transformed by the Nazis into something between a ghetto and a transition camp. Theresienstadt was used as a propaganda camp which the Red Cross was permitted to visit in 1944, where Nazis filmed their propaganda films and where even babies were allowed to survive for a while. Behind the façade, however, lay a very different reality. Sooner or later, almost everyone who passed through Theresienstadt continued on to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. At Theresienstadt, there was concentration of Jewish musicians from central and eastern Europe who composed significant works. The most important musicians of the generation, Haas, Ullmann, Kaff, Krasa, Taube and many others were deported from Theresienstadt on October 16, 1944 to Auschwitz where they were immediately sent to the gas chambers. There was something particularly perverse in the Nazi decree that Jewish musicians were prohibited from playing music in the countries of the Third Reich yet once deported to Theresienstadt, their musical activity was encouraged until the moment they were to be gassed at Auschwitz. An aberration similar to that which brought Hitler to project a “Museum of an extinct race” in Prague, to document the nature and history of Judaism after the completion of his project to exterminate all the Jews. Important Jewish scholars were retained to catalogue pieces to be exported for the museum and they too were killed once they had completed their work.
In other camps as well, and in worse conditions, deportees composed and played music. There were orchestras in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Lichtenburg and indeed six orchestras at Auschwitz, including one for women and a jazz group. The production of Catholic religious music was also very important: Solemn Masses, Offertories, and Graduals, were composed at Dachau by the many Catholic priests held there. Even military interns, who were in less dramatic situations compared to those prisoners at Auschwitz or Dachau, composed important musical productions, often religious. In the work camp of Gorlitz, Olivier Messiaen, taken prisoner in 1940 at Verdun, composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which was performed in the camp in 1941. Giovannino Guareschi, while a military intern in Germany, wrote Favola di Natale, for Christmas 1944 which was put to music by Arturo Coppola, another military intern.
What did music mean to the prisoners? What was its role in maintaining a human and artistic identity for those in a concentration camp with little hope for survival? And what would have been the history of music without this generational gap? What would have happened had those musicians, singers and composers been allowed to live and continue their musical experimentation and give expression to their creative impulses? What would have been their musical journey without Nazism and the war? As in other fields destroyed by Nazism and its project of annihilation, such as science, philosophy, mathematics, and figurative art, such questions leave us only with utopian answers.
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