1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How music raises awareness about the Holocaust

Jan Tomes
April 30, 2018

"My project shows that music and art can give people something to live and hope for," says Israeli pianist and composer Amit Weiner about his project that revives the works of composers who were murdered by the Nazis.

Jüdische Komponisten während des Holocaust gestorben
Image: Yad Vashem

Ancient Romans used to say that when the guns roar, the muses are silent. Amit Weiner's project "Music in Times of Tragedy," however, proves the old proverb wrong. It revives the oeuvre of the Jewish composers who died during the Holocaust and shows that despite the atrocities the prisoners in the ghettos and extermination and concentration camps had to endure, their spirits were not as easy to break as the Nazi would have hoped.

Weiner admits that he is personally invested in the project, and not just because he is a composer and pianist himself. "I come from the third generation of Holocaust survivors," he recalled. "The entire family of my grandfather, Israel Weiner, was murdered. His parents, siblings, aunts and uncles — they all perished," he said, adding that the Holocaust has always been a subject he wanted to explore in depth.

Read moreThe cello saved her life: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Israelischer Pianist Amit Weiner
Pianist and composer Amit WeinerImage: Dalia Desiatnik

"In 2012, just a year after I graduated from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, I approached Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and asked them if I could volunteer for them," recalled Weiner about the origins of his project.

Yad Vashem allowed Weiner to delve into their archives, where he discovered the immense heritage Jewish composers and musicians left behind in the ghettos and camps.

When music is more important than food

The scale of cultural life inside the camp walls surprised Weiner even himself. "While researching, I came across a story from the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania," he said. "Music was forbidden there, but the prisoners managed to smuggle in a piano. How? They dismantled it, carried it piece by piece, and then assembled it again," he said. "When you think about it. They could have smuggled in medicine or food but chose a musical instrument instead. That shows how important music was for the prisoners."

Read moreEnough is enough! Artists on anti-Semitism in Germany

Deutschland  KZ-Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen
Former concentration camp Sachsenhausen, now a memorial siteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik

In other cases, prisoners would hide instruments in sewer systems and take them out at night to perform. "It fascinates me how much music was actually performed in those dire conditions, especially in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, but also in ghettos and other camps," Weiner pointed out.

Jazz, folk and opera all thrived in the Holocaust

But do not imagine plaintive melodies and mournful lyrics — music performed during the Holocaust comes in a whole variety of styles. As Weiner explained, prisoners would play jazz compositions, folk and guitar songs or even sing a cappella. "Some of them were sad, of course, but others very joyous and even in the style of cabaret," he noted.

As for original compositions, the diversity is just as stunning. Jewish composers would conceive classical pieces, modern classical music in the style of Arnold Schönberg, Stravinsky or Bartok, or even operatic works. Weiner also highlighted the children's opera "Brundibar" written by Czech composer Hans Krasa, which was performed 55 times in Theresienstadt.

Likewise, he pointed out Austrian Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, who had been appointed conductor of the Prague State Opera before the war.

"If he hadn't been imprisoned and later murdered in Auschwitz, I am sure he would have become one of the most important musical forces of the 20th century," said Weiner.

Read more: 75 years on: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in film 

Ilse Weber
Composer Ilse Weber was a folk singer who wrote her own songs while working in a hospital in TheresienstadtImage: Yad Vashem

Further, he mentioned female composer Ilse Weber, a rarity during the Holocaust. "She was a folk singer and wrote all of her songs when she worked as a nurse in the children's hospital in Theresienstadt," Weiner said. "Her songs lived on only thanks to her husband, who miraculously survived the Holocaust and returned to the camp after the war and looked all over the place to find her music," Weiner said.

Eventually, Weber's husband gathered together more than 100 songs and published them under the name "Theresienstadt." Ilse Weber had died in Auschwitz together with their son.

Raising awareness through music

Despite Weiner's on-going effort and research, much of the music written in during the Holocaust seems to be lost for good. He now features six to eight composers in his concerts that he has staged since 2012.

"The first show took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and it was intended for teenagers from all parts of the country," recalled Weiner. "You see, we study the Holocaust from a very early age, but we always focus on the struggle and dying and never on cultural life. The truth is, however, that culture existed even in the Holocaust, and it always was one of the Nazi's main objectives to eliminate it."

Gedenkstätte Auschwitz-Birkenau | Reise zum Jahrestag des Völkermords an Sinti und Roma
Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2018Image: DW/A. Grunau

Needless to say, the students' reactions were overwhelming — and it did not take long for the international community to take notice. Weiner now regularly tours countries such as Nepal, China, Vietnam and Myanmar and spreads awareness about the Holocaust to audiences that might not have ever heard about it before.

"In Europe and Israel, it is a part of our history. But in many countries, especially in South East Asia, people usually do not know anything about it," claimed Weiner, relaying an incident that happened a few years ago at a university in Bangkok, Thailand.

"There was a student who dressed up as Adolf Hitler for some festive occasion. It was not an anti-semitic gesture — he thought Hilter was a comic book character," Weiner said. "I was invited to perform on the campus by the Israeli embassy since music is common to all people, and it is a natural tool for passing on knowledge."

Read moreHow Jewish artists in Berlin experience anti-Semitism

Music as the sign of hope

Nevertheless, "Music in Times of Tragedy" may be more relevant than ever — even in Europe and the US.

"I am still shaken by the anti-Jewish attack in Berlin. How is it possible such a thing can happen in Europe?" he asked, refering to the video from this April that captures two men being assaulted in the German's capital for wearing a kippa.

The news followed a study showing that 41 percent of Americans cannot say what Auschwitz was.

"My project shows that music transcends wars and violence, that music and the arts can give people something to live and hope for," said Weiner, adding: "I think we need that hope again."

Adam: 'People just walked by'