Lullabies in the concentration camp
Feminine diversity even in extermination
At ten o’clock in the morning of the day that Israel dedicates to commemorating the Shoah (Yom ha Shoah, this year 18 April), the siren is sounded throughout the country for two minutes and everyone stops to listen to it. On the previous evening I had gone to an extraordinary concert “A voice for the Shoah”, performed in a small theatre in Tel Aviv.
The songs were composed by women, heart-rending songs about far-away loved ones, lullabies, voices of hope and of extreme anguish. Singing them in her magnificent soprano voice was Charlette Shulamit Ottolenghi, who was born in Italy and moved to Israel some time ago. She had already spent much time researching this musical production, performing on many occasions (and recently at a concert for the Day of Remembrance in Rome at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart).
The study of the music in concentration camps has developed vigorously in recent decades, bringing to light letters and scores forgotten in time, reproducing the few existing recordings, resurrecting passages composed and played in the horror of the camps while the inmates waited to be taken to the gas chambers. In Italy, a very important work was carried out by the conductor Maestro Francesco Lotoro and the “Istituto di letteratura musicale concentrazionaria” of Barletta which he founded. This is the material that Charlette Shulamit Ottolenghi has used, but unlike Lotoro’s interpretation she accentuated its popular aspect. The singer thus chose to be accompanied by the accordion, wishing to convey the immediacy of these songs linked to every day feelings. The result was deeply effective and Ottolenghi's extraordinary voice mingles nostalgically with the folkloric accompaniment.
The best-known among the song-writers is Ilse Weber who was blind and died at Auschwitz at the age of 41, having spent almost two years in Theresienstadt, a fortress near Prague, which the Nazis turned into something halfway between a ghetto and a transit camp, in which even children were left to survive for a while and where the Jewish musicians from Central and Eastern Europe who composed and put on their important works were detained. Almost all those who passed through Theresienstadt continued the journey to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Ilse Weber wrote stories for children and was a poet and musician. When her husband was to be sent to Auschwitz, she voluntarily opted to follow him, taking their child. She and their little son were gassed immediately, whereas her husband survived. In Theresienstadt, Ilse wrote about 60 poems, setting some of them to music. Among those chosen for the concert, almost all in German (Rita Baldoni is editing an Italian translation of them), there was a tender lullaby in which she imagined herself wandering through Theresienstadt longing in vain for home and freedom. Many pictures of her, already a well known writer, have been preserved, including a very beautiful photograph of her playing a mandolin.
Camilla Mohaupt is another author, of whom we have no information and of whom the only extant work is the text, Lì dove il male dell'anima congela il cuore, found in Auschwitz. Then there was Erika Taube who composed a single song in Theresienstadt in 1942, Sei un bimbo come tanti altri, set to music by her husband, Carlo. They were devoted to their child, who was with them in Theresienstadt and who died with them at Auschwitz. And two more songs were written in Czech by Ludmilla Peskarova, who was deported to Ravensbruk and survived.
Whether or not it is possible to identify a diversity of genre in the context of an extermination of the magnitude of the Shoah is still an open question for historians. Yet, as in the memoirs of women (in which we notice an attention to the body that is almost absent in the writing of men who were deported), so in these songs very feminine forms and emotions can be perceived which are linked to daily life, words of reassurance and caring for children, whether they were present (as in Theresienstadt) or only dreamed of (as in Auschwitz).
Thus even though the extermination was the same for one and all, even though the readiness to kill the torturers was the same, the way in which this dreadful violence was seen by men and women was at least a little different. Listening to these voices of sorrow but also of hope helps us to understand them.
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