On November 15, 1936, a statue of Felix Mendelssohn, a famous Jewish composer, was destroyed in Leipzig, Germany.This signaled the beginning of discrimination against Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany.
After that, the music of Jewish musicians and composers was no longer heard in concert halls and opera houses. However, the musicians weren’t completely silenced. They were forced to play music in ghettos, concentration camps, and for the Nazis’ special private events.
Imagine being forced to flawlessly play music while your enemies were marching your relatives and friends to the gas chambers. In Auschwitz alone, there were six orchestras.
Theresienstadt―Terezin was a camp in Czechoslovakia, where musicians, including children, were deported. Although they were starving and desolate, they could forget about their misery for seconds at a time ― while singing, playing instruments, performing, and composing music. The Nazis used these camps for propaganda purposes.
Representatives of the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross were fooled when they inspected the camp in 1944. Gardens had been planted, and the barracks renovated. They watched a children’s opera. They didn’t know that many of the residents had been deported to Auschwitz to be killed.
Although the Holocaust ended years ago, unbelievably, there are still a handful of these musicians still alive.These survivors are being documented by a notable Israeli composer, Dr. Nurit Jugend.
She’s composed over thirty works, and orchestras all over the world have played her musical compositions. This includes the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta.
She is a lecturer at Stanford University and all over the world. Not only is she asking the musicians about their lives, but she is reuniting some of them after years of separation. She has also interviewed their children and grandchildren. She wants to document their stories before they are gone.
Recently I got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Nurit Jugend about this project. She was very forthcoming about what she’s learned from the participants, and why it is so important to get this project completed. What follows are some excerpts from our interview:
Q.What motivated a busy composer to make a film about the Holocaust?
A. My initial research about music during the Holocaust led me to the survivors and their stories. I immediately knew that I had to capture them on film before it was too late, and this opened the door to documentary film making.
Q. What did you want to find out when you started this project?
A. I knew that works had been composed during this period of time in the ghettos and the camps. I wondered what kind of music was being composed. How had it sounded? How did people under such circumstances such as sickness and death survive? How did they find it in themselves?
Q. What impressed you most about the survivors that you’ve met?
A. I was impressed with how they found some joy from music during the Holocaust as they were forced to play for the Nazis. I expected these people to reject music because it was forced from them. I was really surprised that none of the people I interviewed lost their love, passion or need for music.
Quite the opposite, they believe it saved their lives. It had an emotional meaning. These people are full of hope, able to look at life and see the beauty and the joy
Q .Can you tell me something about your experiences with the survivors?
A. One of the survivors Alex Tamir, who lives in Jerusalem, did contribute feelings of particular intimacy and deep excitement due, to his unique creativity of the song “Ponar” (shtilar shtilar) when he was 11 years old in ghetto Vilna. …A beautiful, quite difficult and melancholic song which became the hymn and song of hope and spiritual resistance among Jews in the ghettos and the Jewish brigade. It spread from camp to camp and became very well-known, ….I was very moved to learn that the person who wrote this song is still alive and meeting with him in person was one of the most memorable days I’ve spent in my life at his home in Jerusalem.
Q.How have some of the survivor’s used their experience from the Holocaust in a positive way?
A. Chaim plays the accordion, talks about his experiences, and goes to high schools and plays them the music he played during that period of time. Greta played one of the leading roles in an opera at Terezin when she was a child. She talks to children and tells them what it was like to experience the Holocaust as a child. Anita, a cellist, toured Europe, especially in Germany. She told about her experience as a musician in Auschwitz. They used music as a means to educate the world about the Holocaust. I do interview their children and grandchildren. Survivors do talk about music making in the family. I believe that making music in these families is a way to communicate about their experience. Many of the survivors insisted on teaching their children the music they played during the Holocaust.
Q. What do you want to accomplish with this documentary?
A. I want to raise questions. I want to look at the Holocaust through a different perspective. I want to talk about music making and what role that had in the concentration camps and ghettos. I want the film to come from a more uplifting and positive place. For these musicians, music was able to provide physical need and emotional escape. It saved their lives.
The film’s mission is to educate future generations about the Holocaust and strive for more tolerance and acceptance among people worldwide. Their stories have not all been recorded yet. We are running out of time. Soon, they will all be gone. I want to find them, identify them, make sure they’re still capable of telling their stories.
To find out more about this project, look at the website: http://www.theyplayedfortheirlives.com. You can donate money to help this project.
It is a special way to commemorate all the musicians who died during the Holocaust, especially during this month of April, the month of Yom Hashoa, when we remember the Holocaust victims.