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Rare music from Nazi death camps

SCRIBBLED in diaries, carved in wood, even jotted on toilet paper, prisoners' music from German war camps makes its premiere. Dorie Turner reports.

Some songs are slow, emotional, almost weepy symphonies. Others are driving and angry pub songs. A few are sarcastic jazz numbers.

Others are shockingly upbeat - happy almost - as if the music lifted the composers out of the Nazi prison camps where they lived, saved them for just a moment from their horrific, torturous existence.

A handful of the countless songs written by victims of the Holocaust and other World War II prisoners made their world premiere at Emory University in Atlanta, US, on September 27 during "Testaments of the Heart," a program to help raise money to collect and preserve the music produced by captives of Germany and other countries, including Japan, from 1933 to 1945.

Already thousands of the songs have been collected by Italian pianist and conductor Francesco Lotoro - who was in Atlanta to play in the concert - in a 20-year effort to ensure the music is preserved for generations to come.

He plans to house that collection at Emory once he raises the money to transfer it to the private university's library.

"We as the world are the ones who have all been denied this wealth," Lotoro said through a translator. "There is a gaping hole in the musical history and culture of the world. This work has to continue to fill that hole and be the foundation for current and future musical culture."

With musicians from the Atlanta area, Lotoro presented - some for the first time - pieces that were scribbled in diaries, carved into wood and even written on toilet paper. The music ranges from short songs to full operas and symphonies.

Lotoro's ultimate goal has been to present the music the way the composers originally intended, which can be an odd combination of sounds. Many of the writers had few instruments available to them, so some music is written for a guitar, two flutes and a clarinet or a trombone, an alto sax and a clarinet.

At the concert the group played the last piece ever written by Austrian musician and conductor Viktor Ullmann, who studied under Arnold Schoenberg and who died at Auschwitz in 1944. The haunting piano melody is set to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about a warrior from the 17th century.

Another piece was by British pianist William Hilsley, who was prolific during his time in various German camps for British nationals and wrote sarcastically about his prison.

Before he died in 2003, he published his diary from his time in captivity.

"Numbers, that's what we are now," goes one song by Hilsley. "Not for thieving, nor deceiving, not for cheating nor wife beating are we locked in here."

Another piece called "Banner in the Sky" was written by an American prisoner of war, soldier Gordon Sage, held by the invading Japanese army in the Shenyang prison camp in China's Liaoning Province; he survived the death march to Bataan, the Philippines. It featured a full band and chorus and has strains of the National Anthem throughout.

Another song is by Emile Goue, a French composer who died in 1946 from health problems developed in a German POW camp.

His dark string quartet piece was accompanied by a slideshow of family photos of Holocaust victims before they were imprisoned, images found by photographer Ann Weiss at Auschwitz in the 1980s.

Weiss' photos are on exhibition at Emory until November 12 with dozens of the images scattered in buildings across the campus.

The music of the prisoners was preserved in many ways: passed on from person to person in camps until it was smuggled out, given to family members who were safe from the Nazis or found after the camps were liberated.

Many of the songs were written in Theresienstadt, a Czech town used as a Nazi propaganda tool where prisoners could stage operas, concerts and cabaret shows. The camp saw many Jewish leaders and prominent artists from all over Europe.

But some songs are from prisoners who had never written music but felt the urge to create something beautiful in their horrific surroundings.

Lotoro has slowly been recording all the music on a set of 24 albums whenever he can cobble together the money and the musicians.

Ultimately, Lotoro hopes to record all 4,000 pieces he's found so far and estimates there are another 1,500 in existence, a tiny fraction of the music lost during the war.

He began collecting music in 1991 during a trip to Prague.

Alfred Schneider, 83, a Holocaust survivor at the concert, called the music "electrifying."

He is a retired Georgia Tech professor spared from the death camps by the mayor of his Austrian hometown, Czernowitz, which is now part of Ukraine.


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