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finding hope through music in WWII

March 18, 2010

finding hope through music in WWII

Nazi propaganda poster (bzg.biz)

During World War II, the Nazis deemed countless works of art and music “degenerate.”

In 1933, the Civil Service Restoration Act initiated an era of censorship, granting Nazis the right to forbid non-Aryan musicians from teaching or performing. Sensing the imminent threat to their creativity and their livelihood, many Jewish musicians fled Germany. After the implementation of this act, the Nazis overtook the national broadcasting system and banned jazz. They established the exclusive Reich Chamber of Music and dictated that musicians had to obtain membership to the group in order to make money as an artist. Naturally, membership was determined by loyalty to Nazi-ism and Aryan blood.

In 1938, the Nazis created the Reich Music Days, a convention that brought together a number of music organizations to celebrate a newly determined definition of acceptable “German music.” At the Reich Music Days, the Nazis created a Degenerate Music exhibit, vilifying jazz, modern music and works by Jewish and Bolshevik artists. The Nazi propaganda poster seen here depicts an unflattering image of a black musician performing jazz music, wearing a Jewish star. This image was meant to represent an amalgamation of all races, creeds and music considered “degenerate.” Soon after the Reich Music Days, the Nazis targeted non-Aryan musicians and sent many to concentration camps.

This fascinating article in Time magazine from May 1938 provides an American perspective of the Reich music conference.

Among those whose music was forbidden were the three composers whose works will be performed at LACO’s Hope concert this weekend. The Hope concert is a celebration of the power of music to transcend adversity. And during the Holocaust, many Jewish concentration camp inmates used music as a mental escape, a fleeting sense of uplifted spirits.

Originally, Jewish musicians were not allowed to play their instruments in the camps. So they practiced and performed in secrecy. But as time passed, the Nazis began to realize that music might be a diversion to prevent the Jews from organizing and uprising. They also exploited the musically inclined Jews, using photographs of the inmates performing, to portray the concentration camps as culturally rich communities.

At one concentration camp in particular, Theresienstadt, or Terezin, the joy and culture of music thrived. The inmates performed together, wrote music together and entertained their fellow inmates. Historian Joza Karas poignantly interpreted that in this particular camp, where there was not food for the body, there was food for the soul. One of the prominent composers whose music survived his time in Terezin was Viktor Ullman. An excerpt from the final entry of his journal is below.

“Theresienstadt was, and for me still is a school of form. Earlier, and in other places, the burden and the compelling force of material life were not so noticeable because they were repressed by comfort, this magician of civilization; in those places it was easy to create beautiful form. Here, where one has to overcome matter through form just to get through another day and where everything of an artistic nature is in total opposition to the whole environment; this place is the true master-school (in Schiller’s sense), who sees the secret of a work of art to be the destruction of substance/matter by form — which is presumably the mission of the human being in general — not only the aesthetic human being but the ethical one as well.”

“I have written quite a bit of new music in Theresienstadt, mostly to satisfy the needs and wishes of conductors, directors, pianists and singers as well as the demands of organizing and occupying my leisure time in the ghetto. It seems pointless to me to count them all up, just as there is no point in stressing that it was impossible to play the piano in Theresienstadt as long as there were no instruments. Future generations also will not be interested in hearing about the appreciable lack of manuscript paper. The only thing worth emphasizing is that Theresienstadt has not hampered my musical activity, but has actually encouraged and supported it. In no way have we merely sat lamenting by the rivers of Babylon; our cultural will has been adequately proportional to our will to live. And, I am convinced that anyone who is striving to wrest form out of resistant matter, both in life and in art, will agree with me.”

A Terezin survivor, violinist Dr. Herbet Mandel recounted the following about his time in the camp.

“Culture in Terezin taught me one thing – you can learn from history. In this case you can learn that the human spirit, if you keep it at peak activity, can help you to survive. It is incredible, but listening to Bach’s Chaccone can help you overcome hunger, which, when it reaches life-threatening dimensions, displays all the characteristics of a deadly mental illness. This was, of course, valid not only in Terezin, which had an impressive number of cultural institutions by 1943; it is a valid finding with reference to all other camps, jails and all the situations the characteristic of which is the lack of freedom.”

Several organizations now exist to preserve and celebrate the music of Terezin. Learn more about the composers and the preservation efforts.

The music created in the concentration camps was relegated to performances in these spaces, forbidden for public performance. But the prolific creation of this music is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, the power of music to heal and to inspire hope.

Join LACO this weekend as we pay tribute to the composers whose music was banned by the Nazis and the musicians who, against all odds, still found a way to create beauty in a time of incredible horror.

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