In order to escape deportation to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, prisoners of Theresienstadt concentration camp tried to join the Freizeitgestaltung, a group of artists and musicians who put on concerts and operas in Theresienstadt, said David Brown, a Ph.D. candidate of music at the University of Southern California.
Stories of Jewish composers and their unfailing spirits and dedication to their art in the midst of the Holocaust were told as part of the Butler School of Music’s two-day commemorative symposium, titled “Empowering Voice: The Banned and the Damned.”
“We’re thrilled about [the symposium] for a number of reasons,” said assistant music professor Sonia Tamar Seeman. “We’re bringing these moments back to life. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the power of music, that it can be used for violence or as an attempt to surmount that violence.”
Brown gave the first lecture on the lives of composers and musicians at concentration camps. Brown touched on the history of Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was Czechoslovakia, and mentioned the impact music had on the lives of prisoners.
“Knowing they were going to die, they spent their last days making music,” Brown said in his lecture. “For these people, music was their reason for living.”
Brown said that most of the people at Theresienstadt ended up at Auschwitz, and only 17,247 of the 144,000 survived.
Brown discussed musicians and composers of the time period and also played musical selections from those composers in his presentation, many of whom are not well-known to listeners today.
“We tend to think that they just didn’t make the historical cut,” Brown said. “But a lot of people who wrote great music aren’t well-known because of circumstance.”
Philip Bohlman, a professor of humanities and music at the University of Chicago, talked about the meaning of the arts during the Holocaust. Bohlman’s lecture focused not only on music, but also on literature and poetry.
“This makes us think about music in different ways,” he said. “This music does live. It is a part of our lives.”
The evening concert featured the music of Viktor Ullmann, who was sent to Auschwitz shortly after composing it and never got to hear his music performed, said music professor Darlene Wiley. Ullmann’s compositions were performed by Philip and Christine Bohlman and by instrumentalists of the Butler School of Music.
Before the concert began, Wiley asked the audience to think about what courage meant in the context of music and the life of Ullmann and also in our own lives.
The lectures will continue today, including a remembrance of Gypsy songs and writings by Petra Gelbart of New York University, strategies of music in World War II-era films by music professor David Neumeyer and political protest in music by music professor Elliott Antokoletz.
Tonight’s concert will feature often-forgotten gypsy music, as the gypsy community was also profoundly affected by Hitler and had much of its music lost, Wiley said.
She said that the purpose of the symposium was to highlight the works of great composers that are often ignored and to highlight the brilliant works of composers and musicians produced during this difficult time.
“This music is profound — it’s great music,” Wiley said. “Of course we should pay homage to anyone who has died for the arts under political oppression. The works that were composed were great and should not be neglected.”