Italian musicologist Francesco Lotoro is on a
decades-long mission to find and resurrect music composed by prisoners
at camps before and during World War II. Here, he plays music in his
home in Barletta, southern Italy.
Sylvia Poggioli /NPR
For the past two decades, in a small town in southern Italy, a
pianist and music teacher has been hunting for and resurrecting the
music of the dead. Francesco Lotoro
has found thousands of songs, symphonies and operas written in
concentration, labor and POW camps in Germany and elsewhere before and
during World War II.
By rescuing compositions written in
imprisonment, Lotoro wants to fill the hole left in Europe's musical
history and show how even the horrors of the Holocaust could not
suppress artistic inspiration.
Lotoro's solitary quest began in
1991, with his first visit to a concentration camp. Since then, he has
traveled from his native Italy to more than a dozen countries, searching
through old bookshops and archives, and interviewing Holocaust
Lotoro displays a copy of music by Rudolf
Karel, a Czech composer (in 1945 sketch at left) imprisoned by Nazis for
helping the resistance in Prague, in a music shop in Rome, Feb. 22,
2007. Denied access to regular paper, Karel wrote his compositions down
on toilet paper. He died of dysentery at the Terezin camp.
He has collected 4,000 pieces — original scores and copies of
compositions — some scribbled on scraps of paper and even newsprint. His
collection includes works by many non-Jews, Roma and even American
soldiers held captive by the Japanese. 'They Wanted To Leave A Testament'
self-effacing 48-year-old music teacher lives in a modest ground-floor
apartment on the outskirts of the small Adriatic town of Barletta. The
rooms are filled with bookshelves; musical scores are piled high.
Lotoro believes that whenever a human being is deported and imprisoned, music is born.
"I think is an almost automatic response to a situation of
detention," says Lotoro. "They wanted to leave a testament; they leave
to us music."
On his piano, Lotoro plays an excerpt from Nonet,
a composition for nine instruments the Czech composer Rudolf Karel
wrote in Prague's Pankrac prison.
"[The music] is like a
telegraph — 'di-di-ti-ti di-di-ti-ti' — and at a certain moment I
imagine this is a Morse code," Lotoro says.
As an anti-Nazi
political prisoner, Karel was not allowed access to notepaper. But he
suffered from dysentery and was able to use toilet paper to write down
his compositions. In 1945, he died at the Terezin camp in
Decades later, Lotoro tracked down pieces of
the original score and has reconstructed it for the first time since
Karel conceived it.
Some compositions were smuggled out of the
camps and preserved by survivors. Others were simply found after the
camps were liberated.
Austrian musician Viktor Ullman composed more
than 20 operas while imprisoned by the Nazis. In an essay, he wrote:
"By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon
and our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to
live." He died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944.
Courtesy of Francesco Lotoro
Lotoro's mission to find the lost music of the Holocaust was one
reason he converted to Judaism in 2004; he later learned his
great-grandfather was Jewish.
Lotoro has arranged and recorded
400 of the works he discovered. A selection was released last year in a
box set of 24 CDs called Encyclopedia of Music Composed in Concentration Camps.
The compositions Lotoro has resurrected were written in conditions of intense suffering.
he plays an excerpt of a piece by Viktor Ullmann, Lotoro notes the
composer's anguish at not having enough time to complete his work, as
well as the sense of urgency in the music.
Ullman, who studied
with fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, has long been
recognized as a prominent composer. Confinement in the Terezin camp made
him prolific: In captivity, he composed more than 20 operas.
quotes from an essay Ullmann wrote before he was moved to Auschwitz,
where he died in the gas chambers in 1944: "By no means did we sit
weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon and our endeavor with
respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live." Artistry Amid Death, Profound Brutality
The Third Reich banned the performance of all Jewish music, from Mendelssohn to cabaret.
at the camps — with the notable exception of the extermination camps —
musicians were allowed a degree of artistic freedom. The Terezin camp
was unique. It was an all-in-one ghetto, concentration and transit camp
that the Nazis used as a cultural showcase to deceive the Red Cross and
for propaganda purposes.
Frida Misul, a singer from Livorno, Italy,
was deported to Fossoli and eventually was at Auschwitz. She survived
World War II and died in 1992.
Courtesy of Francesco Lotoro
Terezin became a crossroads of contemporary music, Lotoro says,
before its inmates were transferred to the gas chambers. The same day
the Nazis killed Ullmann, they gassed a dozen other prominent musicians.
a few hours in Auschwitz, an entire generation of musicians, composers,
famous piano virtuosos, the fifth column of the Jewish musical elite of
Central and Eastern Europe disappeared," Lotoro says.
The compositions rescued by Lotoro cover the entire musical range: classical, folk, swing and some disconcertingly lively tunes.
instance, a 19-year-old Lithuanian Jew in a camp in Riga, Ljowa
Berniker, wrote a syncopated cabaret song, "Reischsbahlied" (Railway
Song). Its carefree tone belies lyrics describing the miserable
treatment of Jews in the camp.
Berniker died of exhaustion at the Stutthof camp in Poland in April 1945.
Bret Werb, curator of music at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, says it's not surprising prisoners could write upbeat tunes.
them, time had pretty much stopped at the time of their incarceration,
and music became a great escape hatch for them," he says. "There are
really hundreds, if not thousands of topical songs, original songs, in
the style of light music, cabaret music, and so this is what these young
people had in their heads."
By no means was all of the music
composed in captivity the result of free expression. The Nazis often
corralled musician inmates into orchestras at camps like Auschwitz and
ordered them to perform while other prisoners were marched out for
Or they forced inmates to write compositions.
the Sobibor camp in Poland, when a cobbler named Shaul Flajszhakier of
Lublin refused to beat other prisoners, he was beaten and ordered by the
Nazi commandant to compose a song praising the camp's living
The song, "Fahijad," included these lyrics: "Our life is happy
there. ... We receive food. ... How happy it is in the green forest,
where I stay." According to scholars of Yiddish, the word fahijad in this song could be a disguised expletive to hide its real meaning from the German guards. Documenting A Lost Chapter In Musical History
many cases, compositions were never written down, but the melodies and
lyrics were passed on from prisoner to prisoner. For example, in Israel,
Lotoro tracked down the words of a tune sung by female prisoners at
Auschwitz. Esther Refael, a Jew from the Greek island of Corfu,
remembered by heart the lyrics written by her fellow Auschwitz inmate
An Italian Jew from Livorno, Misul penned scathing new lyrics to
the tune of what was then a popular polka in her song "Lagerue" — the
Italianized form of Lagerruhe, the 8 p.m. curfew at Auschwitz announced with a whistle over the loudspeaker.
female prisoners in block 31 defied the Nazi ban against "Lagerue" and
sang that one day they would take their vengeance on the brutal guards
After two decades hunting for the lost music of
the Holocaust, Lotoro is now deeply in debt. But he's determined to
carry on what he sees as his life's mission — to right a historical
wrong and help rewrite the history of 20th-century European music.
He also wants to demonstrate that the creative mind cannot be imprisoned even in conditions of brutality.
"The artist," he says, "is able to separate the external situation from the creativity that belongs to the mind, to the heart."