Two years ago, music theory professor Patricia Hall traveled to Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. She hoped to learn about the music performed by prisoners in World War II death camps.
Hall, who teaches music at the University of Michigan, had heard that the museum had handwritten manuscripts of such songs.
But, she was surprised by what she found at the museum: unexpectedly happy and popular works, with names such as “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” and “Sing a Song When You’re Sad.”
Hall returned to the Polish museum several times over the next two years. She continued to study other handwritten manuscripts of songs arranged and performed by prisoners.
And this week, a musical group performed one of these songs for the first time since Auschwitz prisoners played it during the war.
Hall told the Associated Press, “I’ve used the expression ‘giving life’ to this manuscript that’s been sitting somewhere for 75 years….Researching one of these manuscripts is just the beginning – you want people to be able to hear what these pieces sound like.”
From 1940 to 1945, more than 1 million people, most of whom were Jewish, died in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers, or from hunger, disease and forced labor.
Hall said she felt it was important for modern audiences to hear the prisoners’ music. So, she asked Josh Devries, a University of Michigan student, and university professor Oriol Sans to rewrite the manuscripts onto special music software. This made it easier to read and play the music.
Sans is also director of the school’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble. Last month, the group of musicians gathered to play and record “The Most Beautiful Time of Life.” The recording is to become part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.
That is the same song the group played this week during a free performance at the University of Michigan. The performance was live-streamed for audiences around the world.
Hall estimates that the song was last performed in 1942 or 1943 by Auschwitz prisoners. The prisoners would sometimes put on concerts for German soldiers.
The prisoners themselves did not write the piece. They may have heard the song in the years before they were put in the concentration camp, as it was a popular song in the 1940s.
The prisoners did, however, arrange the music to work for the few instruments available. Hall has so far identified two of the three prisoners who arranged the piece. They are Antoni Gargul, who was released from Auschwitz in 1943, and Maksymilian Pilat, who was released in 1945. Both were Polish political prisoners.
Survivors and museum officials have said musicians received more food than most other prisoners, had clean clothes and did not perform the hardest labor. But museum director Piotr M. A. Cywinski said that they also experienced some of the worst terrors of the camp.
And Hall said of the musicians, “We like to think (that) the musicians were saved because they had that ability to play instruments. However, it’s been documented by another prisoner that [about] 50 of them ... were taken out and shot.”
Hall said she was surprised that no one discovered the manuscripts earlier. She said she found about eight other manuscripts that she hopes will get recorded and performed in the future. She says she will let someone else do that, however; she describes the environment in Auschwitz-Birkenau as “quite depressing.”
“I go back and forth about how much further I’m going to research these manuscripts,” Hall said.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
museum – n. a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public
manuscript – n. the original copy of a play, book, piece of music, etc., before it has been printed
arrange - v. to organize
audience – n. the people who attend a performance
software – n. the programs that run on a computer and perform certain functions