Music and Starvation: Spiritual and Physical Freedom

It will interest some to know that there was a great deal of music produced during and inspired by The Holocaust. The messages conveyed in music during this time vary from the mourning of lives and loved-ones lost, to describing the conditions in the camp, to making a mockery of German Nazis. Ultimately, this music served as a tool for victims to maintain hope and their Jewish identity.

Other forms of art also persisted during the war, including poetry, dance, and diary entries. What is most impressive is the surprising resilience, resistance, and even rejuvenation that victims of the holocaust gained through dance and music in the most unlikely circumstances. Aside from the psychological benefits of dance and music, these forms of performance were performed in transit camps, concentration camps, and extermination camps, and used as tools for continuing and maintaining collective Jewish identity. It gave Jews an outlet that was both private and public and encouraged Jewish expression and resistance, thus increasing the sense of hope and the commitment to surviving this horrible time. 

Convinced of the importance of music for survival, an inmate in Kovno named Tamara Lazerson wrote in her diary in December 1942:

As a diversion, concerts are being held in the ghetto … there are some excellent singers and poets, and that is how people forget where they are for one night, transporting themselves to an entirely different world.  Although some people object to what they are doing, they are wrong. 

Foundations such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, have spent years collecting and cataloging Holocaust documents, music, and research for the sake of public education and memory preservation. We’ve learned that music and dance were symbols of freedom within the repressive, violently censored environments cultivated by Nazis in the ghettos. Performers wrote and performed not only privately, but also publicly on the streets in some ghettos. Though censorship still occurred, many poems and music escaped censorship, as many songs were renditions or adaptations of older pre-war hits and poems and escaped the notice of the Nazis. Yad Vashem has documented the presence of orchestras and community center performance venues in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, and in Kovno, Russia. 


(Königseder, A. & Wetzel, J., 2001. Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.)


Dorothy Klement, OC '16