The Music that Survived the Nazis

Broadcast dates: 22nd and 29th January 2022.

Access the recordings here:

And listen to the follow-up interview here:

Professor Shirli Gilbert has researched and written widely on music during the Holocaust. Music in the Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 2005) examines the role of music in the Nazi ghettos and camps and the insight it offers into victims’ responses. The book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. It was also the basis for the large-scale educational website Music and the Holocaust, a documentary feature on BBC Radio 3, and concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall and the Hampstead Arts Festival.

This 2-part series, broadcast on the BBC World Service to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2022, offers an engaging and moving overview of Jewish musical life during the Nazi period, including some rare recordings that have been painstakingly preserved and digitized.

A common impression of music in the Nazi era is that it all fell into one of two categories: either so-called ‘degenerate music,’ to be suppressed; or officially-sanctioned Nazi music, to support and promote the regime. In these programmes, Gilbert offers a different perspective, focussing instead on the richness and variety of the music that survived during this era.

Listeners learn about the Jewish Culture League (Jüdischer Kulturbund), which flourished in 1930s Berlin and eventually across Germany. The first performance, on 1 October 1933, took place to a sold-out audience, just months after the passing of laws that forced many German Jews out of their jobs. It might appear paradoxical that the Jewish Culture League was officially supported by the Nazis whilst Jewish life was being restricted and oppressed in Germany. It was useful, however, for propaganda purposes. In response to international outcry, Nazis could point to the League as evidence of their support for an autonomous and thriving Jewish life – provided, of course, that it remained separate.  

As well as performing a propaganda role, the Jewish Culture League was pivotal for hundreds of Jewish performers, offering an outlet for artistic creation and providing a space where Jewish patrons could enjoy music and theatre, and be distracted momentarily away from the growing horrors around them.

The programme introduces us to Rainer Lotz, who conducted painstaking research for the extant copies of records made during the Nazi period by the two record labels of the time, Lukraphone and Semer. Over many years, Lotz and his team have been able to locate over 99% of the recordings ever made by the recording companies. They have preserved a priceless record of the diverse Jewish musical life during this time. 

Breathing new life into the recordings issued by the Semer label in 1930s Berlin is the Semer Ensemble, led by American musician Alan Bern. He emphasises the wide range of genres performed by the Jewish Culture League: classical music, choral music, cabaret, folk songs and songs in a wide range of languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. His Ensemble ‘recognis[es] all the different kinds of life and lives in this music and allow[s] this to be felt and heard again.’

One of the songs showcased in the programme is the mournful ‘Vorbei’, recorded by the cabaret star Dora Gerson in Berlin in 1935. This icon of German culture was, like all Jews in Germany, stripped of her rights by the Nazi regime and barred from performing in so-called ‘Aryan’ productions. ‘Vorbei’, which translates as ‘it’s over’, was a love song, but one cannot help but feel her performance is imbued with a more profound depth of sadness by the persecution she faced in 1930s Germany. 

In November 1938, anti-Jewish persecution in Germany reached dangerous new heights. At the time, Kurt Singer, founder of the Jewish Culture League, was on a lecture tour in the US. He refused the opportunity to stay in the States, however, and returned immediately to Europe to ‘rescue what could be rescued’.

In 1941 the Jewish Culture League was dissolved by the Nazis. The final piece that the Berlin Culture League orchestra had been rehearsing when their haven of Jewish Culture was destroyed was Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, also known as ‘The Inextinguishable’. Written in 1916, in the middle of the Great War, this piece is ultimately optimistic and centres on the endurance of life. Nielsen wrote that ‘music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable’. The Nazis tried to destroy not only the Jewish people, but also all traces and memories of their achievements and culture. The digitised versions of the recordings of Jewish performers in Nazi Berlin now ensure these forgotten voices and styles are recorded for posterity. 

While Episode 1 focusses on music under the Nazi regime in Berlin, Episode 2 takes us inside several Nazi camps and introduces us to both the forced and spontaneous music making that took place behind barbed wire. 

Alice Herz-Sommer, a prisoner in Theresienstadt, gave more than 100 piano recitals during her internment. We hear from another survivor, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist in the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra. Her musical talent, she states, saved her life. She performed to entertain the Nazis, to accompany executions, and to send the prisoners marching to work and back each day. While being a performer offered a limited degree of relative safety, it also roused the hatred of some prisoners. 

Yet, beyond the official gaze, and in the bleakest of places and conditions, music found a way to thrive. ‘The Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers’ was written by German political prisoners in one of the earliest Nazi camps. It is included in many of the handwritten songbooks that survive from this era, offering us an insight into the rousing, encouraging songs these prisoners sang together in their barracks.

We hear of secret concerts performed in pathology labs, songs passed between prisoners, and music emerging from the ghettos, where life was squalid and dangerous. The words of these songs, such as ‘Hush, hush’ and ‘The Auschwitz Tango’ demonstrate the ways in which music was used in the most extreme human experiences to express fear, loss, and solidarity. 

It is thanks to the performers, the recording companies, the survivors who tirelessly documented the music of the camps and ghettos, and the researchers who have tracked them down and digitised this vast and rich body of music, that we can now turn to the work of ensuring that the music continues to survive and thrive. Music has a unique ability to be simultaneously an artefact from the past and something that also lives in the present. It is a small, surviving fragment of history, but one which we must bring back to life and perform in order to fully experience it. Music transported the Jewish performers and audiences under the Nazis beyond their harsh realities, and now, in the twenty-first century, it has the capacity to transport us back in time to a moment in history whose powerful legacy endures. Gilbert’s moving series introduces us to the rich trove of music that has survived from a time of death and destruction. 

Music that Survived the Nazis, by Professor Shirli Gilbert is available on the BBC World Service. 

Broadcast dates: 22nd and 29th January 2022.

Access the recordings here: