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Music of the Holocaust is Heard Again

Yiddish scholar and sociolinguist Miriam Isaacs was worried that no one would show. But her fears quickly subsided this May as dozens of people filled the lobby of New York’s Hotel Marseille to hear a selection of songs performed by Holocaust survivors, recorded nearly 70 years ago in the exact same spot—songs Isaacs had worked to transcribe, translate and categorize over three years. They were part of an archive totaling more than 1,000 pieces. A cappella voices, laced with static, recited lyrics racy and humorous, lovesick and mournful, and reflecting on topics such as exile and faith.

The music of the Holocaust—written during the Shoah, or sometimes before it—is now finding new life in a revival of sorts. There are orchestral compositions and piano solos, pieces written in ghettos and concentration camps as well as resistance hideouts. The careers—and lives—of most of these composers and musicians were cut short by the rise of the Third Reich, and the music was often lost along with its creators.

Today, scholars like Isaacs and musicians around the world are making it their mission to rediscover and perform this lost music. In San Francisco, California, the Ger Mandolin Orchestra is an 11-person recreation of a traditional Eastern European Jewish mandolin club. In New York City, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater premiered a piece at Lincoln Center called No Longer Silent, set to the music of Erwin Schulhoff, who perished in the Wülzburg concentration camp, which grew out of a project at The Juilliard School based on Nazi-banned works. “To imagine an artist… stifled in that way,” says choreographer Robert Battle in a video on the dance company’s website, “it’s like a death before the death.”

In another effort to breathe new life into what was nearly lost, Italian-Israeli singer Charlette Shulamit Ottolenghi is bringing her own touch to songs composed by women in the camps—some of them from scores buried in soil and miraculously retrieved, preserved in an encyclopedia compiled by Italian musicologist Francesco Lotoro. At first Shulamit—as she is known—sang the music classically, in the way she’d been trained. But it just didn’t feel right. “I felt the words lost a lot of their impact with this kind of interpretation,” she says. So in 2013, Shulamit began collaborating with trumpeter Frank London—known for his klezmer and world music—and the pianist Shai Bachar. The trio took a more modern approach—an interpretation that some critics might call sacrilegious, but that Shulamit says is a respectful, meaningful way of keeping the songs alive. The result is For You The Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoa, an album of 12 songs—from delicate lullabies to cabaret protest anthems—that survived the death camps, even as some of their composers did not. Bringing back the music that was lost, says Shulamit, “is a way to make memory part of our own lives.”