Amid the Horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish Musicians Composed Songs of Survival | Arts & Culture

todayAugust 29, 2023 4

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In 1988, Mark Ludwig, a tenured violist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was between events at New York City’s Carnegie Hall when he wandered into his favorite used bookshop. He picked up a biography of Leo Baeck, the 20th-century German rabbi and scholar. Baeck had been imprisoned during World War II at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. He’d survived, settled in London and become one of the foremost theologians of his day. Something in the book caught Ludwig’s attention—Baeck’s observation that despite the hardship and cruelty of the camp, inmates produced an impressive output of high-quality classical music.

Ludwig had heard of Terezin: The Nazis had established it as a way station to the notorious extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau. He knew that famous artists and musicians had been incarcerated there. He had seen I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a book of the children’s art created in secret classes at the camp. But he was not aware of the musical compositions. So the next time he was in Europe, he went to an archive in Prague, where the director handed him some sheet music written by one of the inmates.

“I opened the score and started playing it in my mind’s ear,” says Ludwig, who was then in his early 30s. “And the beauty of it was astounding. It opened up a whole new world to me in terms of music.”

Mark Ludwig at home in Boston. Along with his work on Terezin, he used music to raise money for war-torn Sarajevo, in 1997, and Czech flood victims, in 2002.

David Degner

The music was written by Gideon Klein, a Czech composer who was murdered by the Nazis at the age of 25. Ludwig was intrigued. As a musician who grew up in a family of musicians, he was acquainted with the classical repertoire, yet he hadn’t realized the inmates of Terezin had produced such beautiful music. He decided to investigate.

So began a lifelong obsession. Over the next 30 years he made more than 100 trips to Prague, searching through archives and interviewing historians and elderly Terezin survivors. He traveled throughout Europe, the United States and Israel, scouring museums and archives for handwritten scores. He sought out survivors of Terezin who might have known something about these composers—geniuses murdered in their creative prime. Who were they? What were they like? What drove them? How did they find the will to write music in such dire conditions?

As he learned about the composers, he felt compelled to bring their work to the public through concerts and lectures. Later he created a curriculum used by hundreds of thousands of students. He also established a foundation that sponsors new musical compositions and an annual award for people who have advanced human rights in any field. One recipient was Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who spoke so movingly at the 2016 Democratic National Convention about the son he lost in the Iraq War, and who continues to advocate for human dignity and human rights.

“Mark and his organization have become so dear to me; I pray for his health and for his mission,” Khan told me. “It’s a mission worth remembering, worth repeating, and telling future generations that what had taken place must never happen again.”

Cover image of the Smithsonian Magazine September/October 2023 issue

In a view from backstage at Boston’s Symphony Hall last October, David Hodgkins conducts pieces commissioned by the Terezin Music Foundation.

In a view from backstage at Boston’s Symphony Hall last October, David Hodgkins conducts pieces commissioned by the Terezin Music Foundation.

David Degner

Many historians and musicians agree that Ludwig has made important contributions not only to the musical repertoire but also to a fuller and more complex understanding of the Holocaust. His interviews with survivors have revealed insights into the Terezin composers and the human capacity to resist and survive.

“I have taught Holocaust studies for 20 years now,” says Holocaust scholar Ronald Weisberger. “And even I wasn’t aware of the depths of it that I now understand because of the work that Mark has done.”

“Through music he has found another way of telling the world what the Holocaust was about,” says Anna Ornstein, a distinguished psychoanalyst who herself survived Auschwitz. “With his concerts we listen to the music that was lost, the voices that were lost. People forget. But Mark won’t let us forget.”

Of the thousands of internment camps the Nazis constructed, Terezin was unique. Built on the remains of an 18th-century garrison, about 30 miles northwest of Prague, it was advertised as a model Jewish community—a cruel and cynical feat of Nazi planning. Knowing that concentration camps would bring international condemnation, the Gestapo decided to create a piece of living propaganda to produce the illusion that they were behaving benevolently toward Jews. This “preference camp” or “spa,” as they put it, would house elderly Jews and Jews who had served heroically fighting for Germany in the previous war. In 1941, the Nazis emptied the town of its gentile occupants and brought in forced-labor crews to convert the barracks in the old fortress to a detention camp.

A 1943 drawing by Dutch Jewish Terezin inmate Joseph Spier depicts the fortress walls in the shape of a Star of David.

A 1943 drawing by Dutch Jewish Terezin inmate Joseph Spier depicts the fortress walls in the shape of a Star of David.

Theresienstadt, Joseph Spier, 1943 / Leo Baeck Institute

Fritta’s drawing of the Terezin café captures the vacant looks in the prisoners’ eyes.

Fritta’s drawing of the Terezin café captures the vacant looks in the prisoners’ eyes. They could buy two hours of respite there with special ghetto currency.

Café, 1943 © Thomas Fritta-Haas, long-term loan to the Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

Then they started filling it. They forced Prague’s Jewish residents to abandon their property and sign “home purchase contracts” with a promise of medical care. “After they looted our hand luggage, we were led through the village,” wrote Terezin survivor Gerty Spies. “Incredible! … Where were the clean houses, where everybody would have their own well-furnished room? … Each person was allotted a living space about two feet wide … enough to sleep with bent knees.”

Thousands of other Czechoslovakian Jews were shipped in, soon to be joined by Jews from Germany, Austria and Nazi-occupied Holland and Denmark. Buildings that had initially housed 7,500 people soon held nearly eight times that many, crammed into tiered barracks of four and five decks. More than 15,000 children were imprisoned there. The inmates faced hard labor, disease, starvation and cruelty. No one knew when they would be called up for transport to Auschwitz.

The SS ruled with terror, torturing and killing anyone who wrote unauthorized letters, drew realistic sketches or did anything to reveal the true nature of the camp. Food was inadequate, disease was pervasive, hangings were common. Yet the occupants managed to keep hold of their humanity, smuggling in paper, paints and musical instruments. One prisoner had cut his beloved cello into pieces, sewing them into his garments, and he reassembled them in the camp. An inmate recalled seeing the virtuoso Gideon Klein playing a busted old piano that had been scavenged from the town and propped up on wooden blocks.  

Viktor Ullmann

Composer Viktor Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz and died before the war’s end. During his time at Terezin, he was able to write music that others shepherded to safety.

PM 4780 / Terezín Memorial

Gideon Klein

Pianist Gideon Klein was deported to Auschwitz and died before the war’s end. During his time at Terezin, he was able to write music that others shepherded to safety.

Gideon Klein by Charlotta Burešová, PT 5522, © MUDr. Radim Bureš / Terezín Memorial

Because the guards saw music and art as something that could support their myth of a “model” camp, they allowed it to develop. After their work details ended for the day, intellectuals gave lectures, artists painted, poets wrote poetry, musicians performed. Inmates could enjoy theater performances, libraries and other forms of enrichment—some clandestine, some in the open. The concerts ranged from classical concertos to jazz performed by a group called The Ghetto Swingers. (The Nazis considered jazz “degenerate Negro” music, but it was fine with them if the Jews wanted to play it.)

A beloved event was the children’s staging of the opera Brundibár, which Terezin prisoner Hans Krása had written before he was transported there. The opera tells the story of a brother and sister trying to raise money for their sick mother. When they go to the town square, a malicious organ grinder named Brundibár chases them. The children return, and with the help of a brave sparrow, a cat, a dog and other children, they drive Brundibár away. For the purposes of camp performances, Krása put a mustache on the villain and tweaked the libretto to make references to their Nazi oppressor. They rehearsed in bitter cold, wrapped up to their ears.

“When we finally defeat Brundibár, when all the animals chase him off the stage, I can barely breathe I’m so excited,” wrote Michael Gruenbaum, who performed in the children’s chorus and later ended up living in a Boston suburb. He added: “I still don’t understand why the Nazis even let us put on this opera in the first place … about fighting against an evil man with a mustache.”

Walter Heimann’s poster for a children’s opera by composer Hans Krása.

Walter Heimann’s poster for a children’s opera by composer Hans Krása.

PT 4010, © Zuzana Dvořáková / Terezín Memorial

Michael Gruenbaum in October 2022, five months before his death.

Michael Gruenbaum in October 2022, five months before his death. As a teen at Terezin, he met adults willing to educate him in history and music.

David Degner

The opera was performed dozens of times and boosted everyone’s morale. But it became a cynical tool when the Nazis prepared for a visit from the International Red Cross.

The organization had been pressuring the Nazis to let it see conditions in the camps, and the Nazis decided a beautified version of Terezin could suit their purpose. They forced inmates to spend months converting the camp into a Disney-like version of an Eastern European village. Streets were repaired; the ground floors of barracks were cleaned up, painted and given fashionable facades, with signs saying “Grocery,” “Bakery,” “Perfumery” and so forth. The main courtyard, where so many people had been beaten and hanged, became a charming village square with a lawn, rosebushes and a music pavilion. Paper currency was distributed, with pictures of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. To avoid the appearance of overcrowding, thousands of inmates were shipped off to Auschwitz; others were forced to stay hidden in their bunks. The remaining Jews were given fresh clothes, instructed under threat how to reply to the inspectors and ordered to attend a performance of Brundibár.

On June 23, 1944, three Red Cross inspectors arrived. They were greeted cordially by a committee of SS, who took them for an eight-hour tour. At one point Karl Rahm, the sadistic camp commander, handed out chocolates and sardines to children. “The children were coached to say, ‘Chocolate again, Uncle Rahm?’” former inmate Edgar Krása told Ludwig. “Most of them didn’t even know chocolate. They never tasted chocolate.”

Still from the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City (3)

Still from the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, in which Terezin inmates were forced to pose as contented audience members and musicians. Some musicians here died in the camps, while others, including conductor Karel Ančerl, survived Auschwitz and went on to musical careers in Europe and North America

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Fric

“We all knew it was propaganda,” Gruenbaum told me. “I was one of the boys who got cans of sardines and then had to return them.” Later, the Nazis made a propaganda film of the beautified camp and of the Brundibár performance. In the movie we see the face of a boy peeking between the children in front of him: Michael Gruenbaum, age 13.

The gullible committee believed what they were shown. “The total picture of the town makes a very favorable impression,” wrote the Swiss doctor Maurice Rossel. In the months following the Red Cross visit, more than 18,000 Jews were sent from Terezin to Auschwitz for extermination.

“They appeared to be completely taken in by the false front put up for their benefit,” wrote Baeck. “The effect on our morale was devastating. We felt forgotten and forsaken.”

Mark Ludwig, who has a kind smile and sympathetic eyes, grew up surrounded by music and European culture. His father was a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, his cousin was principal cellist with the Boston Symphony, and his brother became associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra and concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. As an “orchestra brat,” as he puts it, he’d often go backstage to meet musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin and Leopold Stokowski. There was always a virtuoso from Russia or Central Europe visiting the house. “Growing up in that environment, it was almost as if my future was preordained,” says Ludwig. He started playing violin at age 4, switched to viola at 15 and studied music at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and art at the Pennsylvania Academy. At 24, he auditioned for the Boston Symphony and made it in.

Half a dozen years later, he came across the biography of Leo Baeck that sparked his interest in Terezin. As the founder of a string quartet, Ludwig was always looking for new music to add to its repertoire. He visited the Czech Music Fund and the Terezin Memorial in Prague, whose archivists showed him some scores and agreed to send copies. (That was no small favor. It was the 1980s, and under the Communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia at the time, only people with special clearance could use Xerox machines, so the copying had to be done by hand.) An archivist also introduced him to a survivor who agreed to show him the camp.

The overcast day matched the mood of the old man, who grimly led Ludwig among the massive brick buildings where he’d spent his teen years. “Every few paces we stopped as another building or site evoked memories of unremitting hunger and fear,” wrote Ludwig. “We stood at the railway tracks, where he tearfully uttered the names of his family members who were placed on transports to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.” Ludwig called it “one of the most emotionally and intellectually overwhelming experiences of my life—as an artist, a Jew, and a human being.”

After that, Ludwig visited Prague again and again, digging into records and people’s memories. He scoured collections throughout Europe, the United States and Israel—any library, archive or private collection where a fragment of Terezin’s music might have survived. Some compositions had been smuggled to sympathetic gentiles outside the camp; others had been secreted under floorboards and behind walls. “It is staggering to think of the intellect that was going on in that concentration camp,” says Ludwig.

Through his contacts at the archives in Prague, he started meeting survivors of the camp, and through them, other survivors. One was Eliška Kleinová, sister of the young genius Gideon Klein. Ludwig recalls that a grand piano occupied the living room of her apartment in Prague, on top of which stood a portrait of her brother—dark-haired and handsome, with penetrating dark eyes. “She had an undying dedication to his memory,” Ludwig says. “I felt like I was really going into some special world.”

Still from the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City (2)

Still from the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, in which Terezin inmates were forced to pose as contented audience members and musicians. Some musicians here died in the camps, including violinist Egon Ledeč, front left. Others, including violinist Pavel Kling, front right, survived Auschwitz and went on to musical careers in Europe and North America.

Národní Film Archive, Prague

Eliška Kleinová, shown in a 1996 film, survived Auschwitz and returned to Prague, where she continued her own career as a musician.

Eliška Kleinová, shown in a 1996 film, survived Auschwitz and returned to Prague, where she continued her own career as a musician.

Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University Library

Kleinová, a woman of elegance and warmth, was a treasure. Not only was she the sister of a great composer—the camp’s survivors referred to Klein as “our Leonard Bernstein”—but as a musician herself, she understood the music and intimately knew many other composers who had been at Terezin, including Pavel Haas, Zikmund Schul, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann. She recalled their personalities and quirks: how Ullmann, a stylish urbanite, actually increased his musical productivity without the concerts, clubs and cafés that had once distracted him. Ullmann also wrote sophisticated critiques of the other musicians’ performances, as if they had been at a theater in Prague. Yet Kleinová warned Ludwig, “Don’t romanticize it. They were musicians and composers. This is what they knew, this is what they did. If they were bricklayers, they would have laid bricks.”

Undoubtedly there’s more to it than that. Producing music means remaining creative, and scholars, ethicists and artists have weighed in on how this was possible in places like Terezin. Certainly there was a need for distraction. H.G. Adler, a Terezin survivor who wrote the definitive history of the camp, said that people used music and art to anesthetize themselves, creating a life detached from the present, and give them a sense of meaning and control when they had none. “The prisoners defied their inevitable doom until the last day and stood their ground.”

Others see that creativity as an act of cultural resistance. The Nazis wanted to erase the Jews and annihilate their civilization. Any expression of creativity in the camps, be it art, literature, theater or music, was a way for Jewish prisoners to hold on to their humanity, says Holocaust scholar Weisberger—to declare, “Here I am!”

Osvaldo Golijov, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” who has composed music inspired by the Terezin children’s drawings, compares the situation of the prisoners of Terezin to that of Nelson Mandela, who did some of his greatest thinking and organizing while imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island. That disciplined defiance, says Golijov, gave Mandela a moral victory and set the stage for the liberation that followed.

Most of the prisoners at Terezin had no such liberation. Of the roughly 150,000 who passed through the camp, only 17,247 survived. But the artists of Terezin had been hand-picked by the Nazis for their talent and brilliance, and they found that even in the most dire conditions, creating art or music was as necessary as breathing. It was something they simply could not cease to do.

The composer Viktor Ullmann said as much before his transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. “We in no way sat around lamenting,” he wrote. “Our desire for culture was equal to our will to live.”

People age, memories fade. Ludwig felt an urgency to keep meeting with survivors as that window into history was beginning to close. “I’d spent much of my life studying the great composers, loving them, reading about them,” he says, “but I’ve never been able to meet somebody who knew them.” To meet someone like Kleinová, the sister of a composer who left behind a brilliant body of work, and who knew the entire peer group? “It’s a gift.”  

Ludwig visited Kleinová many times until her death in 1999. One day in her apartment, she brought out a package wrapped in yellowed paper. She wept as she handed it to him. Inside was a collection of music that her brother had written before the war. Just before being transported to Terezin, Klein gave the music to a friend, who’d entrusted it to his gentile girlfriend for safekeeping while he fled to the Tatra Mountains. The couple got married after the war and forgot about the music that she had stashed in an old trunk. Forty years later while cleaning out the attic, they came upon the music and had it delivered to Kleinová. And now Ludwig was seeing it for the first time.

“To look at these pieces and see the promise of this young voice, to see the development of this composer,” says Ludwig, “we were both overcome with emotion.” Several months later, Ludwig and his string quartet performed the world premiere of the pieces in Amsterdam. Kleinová was there as a guest of the ensemble and tearfully shared a toast to her brother’s memory.

The mission was taking over Ludwig’s life. In 1991, he formed the nonprofit Terezin Music Foundation, which disseminates the original compositions and commissions new works by young composers and well-established ones, such as André Previn, on the theme of liberation. In 1996, Ludwig won a Fulbright to take a year’s leave from the Boston Symphony and do full-time research in Prague. The next year, he performed a Terezin concert with students and faculty of the Sarajevo Music Academy, still recovering from the sieges that ravaged the city from 1992 to 1995. As Ludwig and the other musicians played, he could see a gaping hole in the wall left over from the bombardment.


The Terezin Music Foundation’s 2022 performance featured the Arneis Quartet and soloist Tanya Cosway of the LGBTQ+ group Coro Allegro.

David Degner

In 1999, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ludwig developed a curriculum for teaching the Holocaust, in collaboration with the civics education organization Facing History & Ourselves, that’s now available to more than 900,000 high school students. Then he created a curriculum for elementary school children. He lectures at colleges and civic events, and takes tour groups to the Czech Republic.

And each year, the foundation bestows a human rights award. Most recently the award went to Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and his wife, Rear Admiral Dr. Susan Blumenthal; Markey has advocated for human rights in the U.S. and abroad, while Blumenthal has spent her career working for health equity. As the composer Golijov puts it, “Mark has gone beyond the Jewish zeitgeist and is propelling the work toward something universal.”

In 2015, at the age of 58, Ludwig suffered an auto accident that damaged his shoulder and ended his musical career. Yet the Terezin work sustained him. “Sure, I miss that,” he says when remembering summer afternoons with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. But working with survivors helped keep him grounded. “You realize that nothing is permanent; you must treasure what you had and use it as a springboard to something else.”

Last year, the foundation published a collection of Ullmann’s music critiques, along with dozens of artworks never seen before. The book gives astonishing insights into the lives and minds of intellectuals at the camp. In addition to his lectures, tours, concerts and education work, Ludwig continues to host the annual gala at Boston’s Symphony Hall—an event that’s becoming increasingly important at a time when fascism is again on the rise.

Ludwig takes a seat at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Ludwig takes a seat at Boston’s Symphony Hall. The foundation’s next gala, on November 19, 2023, will feature classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

David Degner

Part of each gala involves a musical performance related to Terezin. In 2017, as in other years, Ludwig showed a portion of the Nazi propaganda film of the children’s chorus singing the finale to Brundibár, then he had the Boston Children’s Chorus sing the song to its completion. He asked Michael Gruenbaum, then in his 80s, to join the chorus. The children sang in English while Gruenbaum sang in Czech.

“I was thinking of all the kids I sang with at Terezin, and those who were sent on to the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” Gruenbaum told me before he passed away on March 8 of this year. “And how it was just by chance that I’m here singing today.”

The audience responded with a standing ovation. “I looked to my left and I looked to my right, and virtually all of us were sobbing,” recalls Khan, who was there to receive his human rights award.

A few years earlier, George Horner, who had played piano and accordion at Terezin, performed at the gala. After surviving the camp, he made his way to Australia, earned a medical degree and eventually moved to a suburb of Philadelphia, where Ludwig got to know him.

A stern and reserved man, impeccably dressed, Horner never agreed to play piano for Ludwig. But one night at a Ludwig family gathering, Horner sat down at the Steinway and started playing the music of Karel Švenk, who wrote cabaret songs while imprisoned at Terezin. This was an unusual burst of spontaneity from Horner, and it gave Ludwig an idea.

“I playfully said to him, ‘Maybe you’d like to play a couple of Švenk tunes at our next program.’”

Equally playfully, Horner replied, “Only if I can play a duet with Yo-Yo Ma.”

Ludwig is a good friend of Ma’s and was able to persuade him. The day of the performance, the two musicians rehearsed—Ma in the prime of his career, and Horner at age 90, his back crooked from an injury inflicted by the Nazis.

That night, at Symphony Hall, they played two Švenk songs. “They were two of the most consummate performers I’d ever encountered,” says Ludwig. “It was as though they had been playing together forever.”

The ovation rivaled anything Ludwig had ever seen as a performer at Symphony Hall. After the performance, Ludwig asked Horner how he felt about the event. “See, I made it here,” Horner replied. Then he added: “I am alive because of the music.”

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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