Music in the Holocaust: Viktor Ullmann and the Theresienstadt camp orchestra

Nick Strimple explores the music of the Holocaust, focusing on Viktor Ullmann and the Theresienstadt camp orchestra, in an article on the history answers website.

The conductor, who will be presenting Singing in the Lion’s Mouth: Music and the Holocaust, 1933-2016 at the Pureland Series at China Exchange on Thursday, May 4, tells the story of Viktor Ullmann, a rising star among Prague’s young composers whose Jewish ancestry saw him sent to Theresienstadt in 1942.

Many of Europe’s finest musicians were also incarcerated in the camp, and fellow prisoners Raphael Schaechter, Gideon Klein and Karel Ancerl were organising musical activities focusing either on works from the standard repertoire or folk songs that could be arranged for various vocal groups, from children to adults.

Strimple writes: “He (Ullmann) therefore immediately sought permission from the Jewish Council of Elders to start the “Studio for New Music” which performed art songs and chamber music by composers such as Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alois Haba and himself.

He also encouraged composers already in Theresienstadt – Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and others – to compose new works that could be performed only by the finest musicians. Ullmann himself contributed numerous art songs, three piano sonatas (his 5th, 6th and 7th), a string quartet (his 3rd) and, with fellow inmate Petr Kien as librettist, the opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis.”

But these were not Ullmann’s only contributions to camp life. He wrote regular articles on the philosophy of music, especially regarding conditions in Theresienstadt, as well as reviews of concerts and other musical and theatrical productions. These could all be found in “Vedem” (In the Lead), a secret weekly publication produced by the boys in Barracks 417.

Strimple notes: “Music making in the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos was often controversial and in Ullmann’s most famous essay, Goethe and the Ghetto, he came down squarely on the side of those who endeavoured still to create. In a defiant and scathing reference to Psalm 138 he wrote: “In Theresienstadt . . . by no means did we hang our harps by the rivers of Babylon and weep . . .”

Ullmann came to realise that music was also needed for children, as well as other inmates with less sophisticated tastes, and so arranged ten Hebrew and Yiddish folksongs, two for male voices, three for children, three for women’s voices and two for mixed voices.

Being totally assimilated into secular Austro/Czech culture and knowing nothing about being Jewish, let alone speaking either Hebrew or Yiddish, Strimple notes that it is likely that he found them in the Makkabe Lieder Buch, a Zionist songbook published in Berlin in 1931.

Strimple said: “The two songs Ullmann chose to arrange for mixed choir are particularly interesting. The first, Eliahu Hanavi, is sung towards the end of every Sabbath morning service. It is a prayer for the Prophet Elijah to return and herald redemption. In Ullmann’s version, the petitions become more of a demand.

The second song, Anu Olim Artza is a Zionist song of hope: “We are going up to the Land with song!” Today in Israel this song is sung with updated words: Anu Banu Artza: “We have come up to the Land!” In Ullmann’s arrangement, the senses of urgency and aspiration are highlighted by a tempo that gradually gets faster and faster, so that by the end the music almost explodes.”

Both these songs, and other vocal music from the Holocaust (including Mozart and Mendelssohn), will be performed at event on May 4.