Posts Tagged Holocaust Memorial Day

Transformation of Sounds

W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).

In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image.   This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving.  But:

‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version.  In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)

The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.

The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however.  A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here.   There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.

The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings.  Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.


Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944

Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers.  Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.

Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.

Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals.  Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.

Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work.  He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.

Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague.  After Krasa and many of  his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film.  Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.


Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed.  Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son.  Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.

“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”

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More than a Name on a List: Hélène Berr


It’s Holocaust Memorial Day.   I’m thinking about how we can build bridges between past and present, by telling individual stories, by giving back to the people who were swallowed up in that terror their names, their faces, their uniqueness.



Frieda Linder-Kornweitz, from Vienna, died aged 31 with her daughter Karin (aged 7) at Auschwitz, December 1943 (




Sulamite-Solange Ast, age 18, died with her younger brother Marc and their mother, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Their father survived.


Sometimes we just have a name, sometimes a photograph and fragments of a life. And sometimes from the darkness a voice emerges that is so vivid that as you read you hear it, you hear the urgency, the passion, the despair and you want to reach out.  Helene Berr’s is such a voice.

Her diary describes her life in Paris between 1942 and 1944.  It  wasn’t published till 2008, but since then it has become an essential document of the Holocaust and specifically of the Occupation of France. After the Liberation, her fiance and surviving family members circulated the manuscript amongst themselves, but eventually it was offered to the Shoah Memorial, published to great acclaim, and since then has been translated into 26 languages.  It’s inspired an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial , which uses Helene’s story and her words to illuminate some of the darkest corners of those dark years.


Hélène has been called the French Anne Frank, but whilst both kept journals which have become key documents of the Holocaust, and both died in the last weeks before Liberation, they’re very different.   Others have noted the parallels between the publication of her journal, and the discovery of the manuscript of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.


However, these comparisons don’t do justice to the remarkable and unique qualities of this diary.  Hélène lived in the heart of Occupied Paris, walked its streets wearing the yellow star, worked with Jewish orphans, played music, fell in love.   And she wrote this poignant, vivid and impassioned account of the events she witnessed, ‘pour ne pas les oublier, parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier’, setting herself the task of recording everything, giving the unfolding tragedy its full weight, showing it raw, naked, without distortion.


16 April 1942

S said ‘The Germans are going to win the war’.   I said ‘No!’.  But I didn’t know what else to say.  I was conscious of my cowardice – the cowardice of not standing up in front of him for what I believed – so I shook myself – I exclaimed ‘But what will become of us if the Germans win?’.  He shrugged: ‘Bah! Nothing will change ‘.  I knew what he would say.  ‘There will always be the sun and the water’.  I was all the more irritated because deep down, at that moment, I felt the supreme pointlessness of all these arguments, in the face of beauty.  And yet I knew that I was falling under a malign spell.  … I forced myself to say: ‘but they won’t let everyone enjoy the light and the water’.  Happily, this phrase saved me.  I don’t want to be a coward.

8 June 1942

My God, I had no idea it would be so hard.  I was so brave all day.  I held my head high, and looked people straight in the face, when they averted their eyes.  But it’s hard.  …. This morning I went out with Mother.  Two kids in the street pointed at us, saying ‘Hey, have you seen? Jews’. But otherwise things seemed normal.  … A young couple were waiting, I saw the woman point me out to her companion.  I heard her say. ‘It’s heartbreaking’.  On the bus there was a woman, probably a domestic servant, who had already smiled at me before getting on board, and who turned serveral times to smile; a smart gentleman stared at me:  I couldn’t interpret the stare, but I looked back proudly.

18 July 1942

I felt guilty, that there was something I hadn’t seen, this reality.  This woman, her sister who has four children has been taken.  The evening of the round-up, she hid, but unluckily went back up to the concierge just as they came to find her.  Mme Bieder is like a hunted animal.  She’s not afraid for herself.  but she’s terrified that they’ll take her children from her.  ….  At Montmartre, there were so many arrests that the streets were blocked.  The faubourg Saint Denis is almost deserted.  They’re separating mothers from their children.  I’m recording the facts hastily, so as not to forget, because we musn’t forget.

31 January 1944

I used to quote, not long ago, a phrase from a Russian play: ‘We shall rest, Uncle Vanya, we shall rest’.  It meant the sleep of the tomb.  But more and more I say to  myself that only the dead escape this persecution; when I hear of the death of a Jew now, I think, ‘they’re out of the reach of the Germans’.  Isn’t that horrible?  We hardly weep for the dead any more.

15 February 1944

Why then does the German soldier who I pass in the street not attack or bother me?  Why does he often hold the train door for me, or say ‘Excuse me’ if he blocks my way?  Why?  Becuase people don’t know – or rather they don’t think any more, they’re just about whatever they’ve been ordered to do right now.  But they don’t even see the incomprehensible illogic of holding the door open for me, when tomorrow they may send me to be deported, and yet I will be the same unique person. … Also no doubt they don’t know everything – one atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They don’t know all of the horrible details of the persecutions, because there’s only a small group of torturers, and of Gestapo who are implicated in it. Would they feel it, if they knew?  Would they feel the suffering of these people dragged from their homes, these women separated from their flesh and blood? They’re too brutalised for that.  And then they don’t think – I always come back to that – I believe it’s the source of evil and the thing on which this regime bases its power.  Annihilate personal thoughts, the reaction of the individual conscience, that’s the first step to Nazism’.



Cultured and intelligent, a student at the Sorbonne until the anti-semitic laws prevented her from continuing her studies, 21 year old Hélène begins her journal in 1942 with an account of her visit to the home of poet Paul Valéry, who’s signed a copy of a book for her.  She is ‘overwhelmed with joy’.  At this stage, the war is, in a sense, just background noise.  Even so, even this early on, she senses a chasm opening up between her life, and that of her non-Jewish friends.  Little by little she is overwhelmed as she grasps the reality of what is happening around her, and the last words of her journal are a quotation from Macbeth  ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’


Hélène constantly questions herself.  Should she try to get away, or stay in Paris?  She asks herself why, knowing what her fate is likely to be, she’s done nothing to avoid it.  She understands that the danger is increasing: ‘There aren’t many Jews left in Paris, and it’s the Germans who are arresting people now [rather than the French police], so there is less chance of escaping, because we won’t be warned.’  She believes, nonetheless, that to flee would be a defection, an act of bad faith.


In January 1944, Hélène writes ‘Will I make it to the end?’.  After several months of moving around each day and staying with different friends, she and her parents went home, for just one night.  That’s where they were arrested, on 8 March.


They were taken to the Drancy transit camp, and then deported, on Convoy 70 to Auschwitz, where Antoinette Berr was gassed on 30 April, and Raymond Berr was murdered in September.  Hélène survived for more than a year.  She was moved to Bergen-Belsen in November, where she was killed, just  five days before the camp was liberated.


She so nearly did make it to the end.



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