Music with heroic Holocaust narrative

April 26, 2017

When we listen to Max Helfman’s Di naye hagode there is no denying its dramatic, innovative sound. The work, which is based on an epic Yiddish poem about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, strikingly presents a new post-Holocaust narrative, encouraging the appreciation of Jewish heroism rather than the portrayal of Jews as victims.

Helfman, the Polish-American Jewish composer best known for directing the Brandeis-Bardin Institute for 17 years, believed passionately that music must above all be original: “It is not achieved by breaking with the past, but by building on it and using it as a foundation,” he said.

In Di naye hagode, that fresh spirit is so alive and builds dramatically on Itsik Fefer’s poem, itself a tribute to the 750 Jews who rebelled against the Nazi liquidation of the ghetto and gave their lives fighting tyranny during World War II.

Music can be used to inspire a sense of hope as well as reclaiming the narrative. It reminds me of how inside the ghettos and concentration camps, many Jews were creating and playing music at the time – such as Wladimir Szpilman whose autobiography of his days in the Warsaw ghetto were turned into the Oscar-winning film The Pianist.

It’s instructive to remember that music in the camps and ghettos had many drivers. It was used for the same purposes we listen to our favourite concertos or choral works now: for consolation, for inspiration, and for prayer.

But music always has the potential for defiance too; Szpilman continued to play throughout the war simply because he was determined his life would not change.

“Even in the harshest of conditions, people find ways to make music,” says Professor Nick Strimple, of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC) and Music Director of the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale.

“Music gives victims a power their perpetrators can’t take away. In World War II, there was a great body of work coming out of the camps. Yiddish folk songs are about life. As they were being brutalized, Jews wrote new songs about life in the ghettos and the camps.”

The librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where he composed the famous anthem of the concentration camp, Das Buchenwaldlied (“The Buchenwald Song”) with his fellow prisoner Hermann Leopoldi at the end of 1938. The song ends with the words: “We nevertheless shall say ‘yes’ to life; for once the day comes, we shall be free!”

Years later Leopoldi remembered that the song “pleased the camp commander intensely; in his stupidity, he did not see how revolutionary the song actually was”.

This is music at its most powerful, sharing the message of its composer, and bringing strength to all of us who are prepared to truly take heed.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation