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Website explores history of music that flourished in Nazi concentration camps

12:00 17 May 2014

Dr Shirli Gilbert and Clive Marks outside the United Nations building in New York

Dr Shirli Gilbert and Clive Marks outside the United Nations building in New York

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Philanthropist Clive Marks tells Tom Marshall about his website charting history of Jewish works under Nazi oppression

Members of the Westerbork transit camp string orchestra pose on stage with their instruments. Dutch Jews were detained at the Westerbork camp, in the Netherlands, during the Second World War, before transport to other Nazi camps. Picture: USHMM Photo ArchivesMembers of the Westerbork transit camp string orchestra pose on stage with their instruments. Dutch Jews were detained at the Westerbork camp, in the Netherlands, during the Second World War, before transport to other Nazi camps. Picture: USHMM Photo Archives

Viktor Ullman was interned in a Nazi concentration camp when he wrote The Emperor of Atlantis, a one-act opera about a warmongering tyrant called Emperor Uberall.

Shortly after its final rehearsal in 1944, the Austrian composer was transported to Auschwitz, where he was gassed along with his librettist Peter Kien.

It is believed that the Nazi authorities viewed the opera as a satire on Adolf Hitler – and that Ullman knew it would lead to his death.

He is just one of the figures whose life and work is explored in a remarkable online project charting the “neglected” history of brave musicians killed in the Holocaust, alongside those who survived and others who supported the Nazis.

An inmate orchestra at Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria, “accompanied” the recaptured inmate Hans Bonarewitz on his way to execution. SS photo from the Mauthausen Memorial Photo ArchiveAn inmate orchestra at Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria, “accompanied” the recaptured inmate Hans Bonarewitz on his way to execution. SS photo from the Mauthausen Memorial Photo Archive

Music and the Holocaust is the work of philanthropist and London Jewish Cultural Centre president Clive Marks, 82, and Dr Shirli Gilbert, a senior lecturer in Jewish history at the University of Southampton.

The project recently took centre stage at an event at the United Nations, a forum on the Holocaust and the arts held last month at its New York headquarters.

Mr Marks, a former accountant and amateur pianist, said: “The website is trying to bring together various types of music that were in the camps, ghettos and prisons, and then looking at the lives of the composers – those sent to their murders and those who survived.

“In the history of music, it’s been somewhat neglected.”

Mr Marks said many musicians continued to perform and compose while in the concentration camps.

“They managed to continue playing,” he said. “Music was written in the camps, including two symphonies and an opera.

“The musicians found writing materials, they found paper and there were instruments which had been stolen from others.

“The Germans had the idea that it would be peaceful: ‘Let them compose, it’s harmless’.”

There were six orchestras in Auschwitz and groups of Jewish musicians would play to those being taken to the gas chambers.

“They went to their deaths more quietly, having been beautifully deceived by the orchestra,” said Mr Marks.

Ullman was originally in the Theresienstadt camp, in what is now the Czech Republic. When he arrived in 1942, he was told to focus on music rather than being given a normal work assignment.

“There was an absolute flourishing of music at Theresienstadt, which people are only beginning to know about, so many years after the event,” said Mr Marks.

He added: “When you hear music from that period of the world, one realises how brave these people were.

“They performed until most of them were sent to their deaths.”

Outside of the camps, the Germans banned “any music written by Jews, or with any form of Jewish influence”, calling it “degenerate music”.

“During this period, from 1933 to ’45, a hell of a lot of it disappeared for good,” said Mr Marks.

When it was discovered that Johann Strauss had a Jewish grandfather, the Nazis tampered with the records “so Germany and Austria would not be without Strauss waltzes”.

The website also covers those who fled the Nazis, including Ullman’s teacher, the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who emigrated to America in 1934.

Dr Gilbert said the project gives a unique insight into how people understood “what was happening to them at the time of the persecution”.

“In place of the huge, faceless number of six million victims, music offers perhaps a more personal way into understanding the Holocaust,” she said.

Music and the Holocaust is part of World ORT, a non-governmental organisation focused on Jewish education, which was founded in 1880 and has its main office in Albert Street, Camden Town.

n Visit holocaustmusic.ort.org.

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