A March for Forced Labor and Other Music

Haggai Hitron
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Haggai Hitron

The doctorate that Moshe Hoch received in 1992, at the age of 72, was an academic seal of approval for a long-time project: Hoch worked for many years on a comprehensive documentation of the music of the ghettos and concentration camps in Poland. His work is a record of an apparently absurd situation: entertainment and art on the threshold of death. Hoch himself wrote that "there was a symbolic connection between music and Auschwitz, a connection that added a special dimension to the horror of the Final Solution."

Hoch, a multi-faceted musician, was born in a town near Lvov, and spent most of the Nazi occupation wandering and hiding. After immigrating to Israel in 1948, he was active in many frameworks: He worked at the Israel Opera, he started a vocal ensemble, he taught in schools, he established children's choirs and founded conservatories in the center and on the periphery of the country.

One of his achievements was the restoration of the partitura of the opera "The Emperor of Atlantis" by Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, which was written in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Hoch and his wife Lia also produced, together with conductor Shalom Ronly-Riklis, the premier performance of this opera in Israel. From 1983, the year when he retired from his job as the director of the Musical Youth Movement, Hoch devoted himself to researching music of the Holocaust; he interviewed survivors, searched for written material, and perused a large number of documents, books and newspapers, both in Israel and in Poland.

He received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University for a study that summarized his findings, and after his death, in 1998, his friends, composer Zvi Avni and his wife, journalist Hanna Yador-Avni, agreed to adapt his doctorate into a book, "Voices From the Dark," which has recently been published by Yad Vashem.

"Voices From the Dark" is not meant for consecutive reading. It maintains a cautious approach, expressing scientific skepticism about sweeping generalizations. The book is for the most part a diligent anthology of information and a memorial to the artists who were murdered, many of whom are mentioned by name.

Hoch describes extensive musical activity that served, as he puts it, "for forced labor, for deception, and for enjoyment": forced labor and deception for the Jews, entertainment and enjoyment for the murderers.

The text presents a question that has many answers: Did the concerts in the ghettos in fact provide some consolation for thousands of Jews in their time of travail, or did they serve mainly the emotional needs of the musicians? A more difficult and more terrible question relates to the influence of the music on the prisoners in the concentration camps, who were marched to hard labor to the music of German marches. Hoch mentions an interesting example of organized opposition to cultural activity in the ghetto: On the day when the theater in the Vilna ghetto was dedicated, he writes, many flyers were distributed in the ghetto, including one with a black border: "One does not have theater in a cemetery."

Anti-Semitism and erotic piano playing

The first chapter in the book - a kind of treat - presents the Jewish virtuosi in the musical life of Poland between the wars, including some who were internationally famous: Bronislaw Huberman, Arthur Rubinstein, Henryk Szerying, Ida Haendel, Gregor Piatigorsky, Emanuel Feuermann, Joseph Kaminsky. Independent Poland was quite anti-Semitic, but most of the criticism written by Polish critics about the above-mentioned artists was full of admiration, and only in a few reviews is there an anti-Jewish tone. An almost amusing example is what one Polish critic wrote about a recital by Arthur Rubinstein: "His caressing sound and his playing arouse an impression of lust permeated by an erotic foundation - therefore it is hard to listen to his interpretation of the music of Bach and Beethoven, and his playing cannot be measured by international standards."

As for the Holocaust years, the book does not, as noted, engage in creating a thesis, but in facts and in memorializing. For example, dozens of concerts performed in the Warsaw ghetto are described in great detail, including quotations from the critics. The repertoire of the ghetto orchestra was limited: They were forbidden to play Aryan works - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, for example. But sometimes they played them anyway, because in the ghetto the notes of permitted Jewish works could not be found. There were orchestras in other large ghettos as well, including in Lodz, Vilna and Lvov.

Arbeit Macht Frei

In contrast to the ghetto concerts, which the Jews initiated, the music in the concentration and death camps was performed entirely at the initiative of the Germans, and under their direction. The music served several purposes for the Germans: Music was a link in the process of extermination (for example, deceiving those brought for selection and for death); it was used to create an "atmosphere" - by accompanying the prisoners with marching songs as they left for hard labor in the morning, and on their return in the evening; and it provided entertainment for the SS (the Auschwitz orchestra performed a regular concert for the staff, every Sunday night).

Over the years, the Auschwitz orchestras included about 800 musicians, and there is no information about the percentage of Jews among them. Unlike what happened in the ghettos, here the repertoire was very Aryan, mostly German, and the playing of Jewish and Soviet melodies was forbidden. One fact is dryly reported, probably for lack of more information: The first conductor of one of the Auschwitz orchestras composed a song called "Arbeit Macht Frei."

Auschwitz also had a women's orchestra in the women's camp, and its director was the kapo Alma Rose, an outstanding musician, the daughter of a famous Austrian violinist, and a distant relative of Gustav Mahler. The story of this orchestra, which even played for Heinrich Himmler, appears in a controversial book, "Playing For Time," which was eventually written by one of those who participated in it, singer Fania Fenelon. Some of the survivors from the women's orchestra immigrated to Israel.

Moshe Hoch's book does not deal extensively with murder and terror. His tone is restrained, and his treatment of the horrors is limited to events with a musical connection. Such is the story of harmonica player Shmuel Gogol, who played in Auschwitz, saw his aunt being led to the gas chambers, and from that time on chose to play with his eyes shut - as he himself later testified. A horrifying page is dedicated to the "Treblinka Anthem," written by one of the prisoners in the camp, violinist Arthur Gold. The following are the words of the first stanza: "With a free look at the world/ Row upon row we will march to our work/ Today only Treblinka is ours/ It is our fate."

Treblinka survivor Rachel Auerbach wrote that the musicians "would play wedding marches and Jewish folk songs, and to the sounds of the tune `Yoske on the violin and Shmerel on the bass,' those being led to their death would walk barefoot on their last journey."

In the camp in Belzec, in eastern Poland, the orchestra was used to deceive: Those arriving at the camp would be received with music, in order to divert their attention from what was awaiting them. Decades later, Moshe Hoch and his wife interviewed a Polish carpenter who was employed in the camp. The carpenter testified that he saw and heard the orchestra in action - the musicians were once forced to play while the SS was engaged in torturing the head of the Zamosc Judenrat, before they killed him. According to the carpenter, the orchestra also played for the enjoyment of the Ukrainian guards.

Moshe Hoch also thoroughly surveys the well-known incidents of playing Jewish religious music during the Holocaust, including the song "Ani Ma'amin" [I Believe], opposite the gas chambers. The musicological part of his study is also the most emotional: In this chapter, he brings the words (with Hebrew translation) and melodies (with examples of notes) of many songs composed during the Holocaust. He analyzes 20 of them in detail, pointing out the characteristics that distinguish them from Jewish songs composed before and after the war. Holocaust songs are usually short, their melodies are simple and without ornamentation, their range is limited and their rhythm is usually slow. These were not only songs of despair and horror, but included songs of humor and satire, and even of hope. This is true of the proudly Zionist song "Our Land," which begins: "Our land, our homeland/ You are so dear to us/ Our land, in our hearts/ We will preserve you with pride." Jewish prisoners brought from Greece sang it in Ladino before they were murdered, and the German guards neither knew nor understood.