In 1941, Polish violinist Józef Kropinski was sent to Auschwitz, located in southern Poland (then occupied by Nazi forces). Kropinski’s crime: he was involved in publishing an underground newspaper. Once inside the concentration camp, he realised that if he were to survive the medical experiments and the back-breaking labour, he had to hold on to music.
Kropinski, then 26, joined the camp orchestra. He managed to write 10 compositions in Auschwitz, according to his son, even as his comrades died every day. In early 1945, he was sent to Buchenwald, another concentration camp in east-central Germany. He would hide at night, in a room piled with human cadavers, and write music by the light of a single candle. Kropinski stayed at Buchenwald till the end of the war, and died in Breslau in 1970. He didn’t live long enough to see any of his music performed.
Can a person with nothing left in the world, find a redemptive spark or joy of any kind? “Yes,” says 55-year-old Italian pianist Franceso Lotoro in a Skype conversation. Since 1988, Lotoro has been on a journey to find the forgotten music of concentration camps. “It is the very notion of resistance, not allowing yourself to be completely beaten by people who want your physical and intellectual death… Music kept them alive. It was to preserve and assert their humanity,” Lotoro says in The Maestro: In Search of the Last Music (2017), a documentary film on his quest made by Franco-Argentine filmmaker Alexandre Valenti.
Lotoro lives in Barletta, a little town hugging the Adriatic Sea in Italy. Thirty years ago, he gave up a career as an active concert pianist to find, archive and record music composed by inmates in the “death camps”. “It is my duty as a musicologist, researcher and musician to restore this concentration literature,” says Lotoro.
A handful of musicologists had already done some work on this, including Polish musician Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who spent five years in the Sachsenhausen camp. Jewish music and Jewish classical musicians playing in conservatories were banned in the German Reich but they were allowed to play inside the camps “in controlled conditions”.
In 1988, Lotoro began a search for music made by Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. “The first four-five years I only did that. Then a musicologist in Prague suggested that I expand my research. Yes, Jews wrote a lot of music in the camps but there are many people who were deported or who were interned in these camps — Christians, Bahai, Sufi, Gypsies, Spaniards (refugees of Spanish civil war), Roma, the disabled, homosexual or political dissidents. There were also the political and war prisoners in America, Japan and India, incarcerated by various regimes. Soon, it became the only mission of my life,” says Lotoro, whose current collection of musical scores is about 8,000 and includes melodies written in concentration camps and in military captivity between 1933 and 1953.
Over these decades, Lotoro has met many survivors and their families. A lot of the interviews began with phone calls. These were tough conversations as they didn’t want to be reminded of that traumatic time, “but the music needed to be freed”. “The lives could not be restored or fully healed. But this is what I need to do,” says Lotoro.
On one such visit to Prague, in 1990, Lotoro discovered a five-act opera, an optimistic and joyous composition titled Three Hairs of the Wise Old Man, created by Czech composer Rudolf Karel, who was associated with anti-Nazi resistance and later captured by the Gestapo in 1943. He was held at Terezín concentration camp, in Czech Republic, where prisoners were kept before they were sent for extermination. The score was written on various pieces of toilet paper with charcoal provided by a warden in the hospital section, who also helped smuggle out the music and kept them hidden with his daughter’s homework. Karel died in 1945. But his music made it out. “I recorded it with an orchestra for posterity,” says Lotoro.
In the long list of musicians he met, there was famed Israeli pianist Alexander Tamir, originally a Lithuanian Jew who composed Shtiller Shtiller (Quiet, quiet), a song in Yiddish, for a music competition in the Vilna ghetto operated by Nazis in Lithuania. The song written by Tamir’s father spoke of the despair of his people but was sung as a lullaby so that the Nazis didn’t understand what it meant. Tamir survived the Vilna ghetto and lived in Jerusalem until August 2019.
Lotoro was born a Christian but converted to Judaism in 2004 along with his wife. The collection of catalogues, symphonies and recordings are going to be housed in a “citadel” for which the Italian government recently provided him with the site of an old brandy distillery in Barletta. Space will include a museum, a library, a theatre and a cafe, and will be constructed over the next four years. “In all the brutality, there was music, the seven notes that allowed them to express the human in them, a yearning to be free, sometimes just to get past the day. My life’s work is just a small effort in giving their music the voice they deserve,” says Lotoro.
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