Uncovering the Music of the Holocaust

German-born singer Ute Lemper has made it her business to give Holocaust victims a voice.

by Danielle Cantor

Raised in a Roman-Catholic family in Germany, Ute Lemper studied music, dance and drama and went on to star in musicals, film and television and perform concerts all over the world. She is internationally renowned for her interpretation of the work of composer Kurt Weill.

A prolific recording artist, Lemper was named Billboard's Crossover Artist of the Year in 1993/1994. She is also a painter, and authored an autobiography in 1995.

Most recently, Lemper collaborated with Italian pianist Francesco Lotoro, founder of Last Musik – an initiative to track down, transcribe and record all the music written in concentration camps during the Holocaust – in a New York City concert. Lotoro has already collected 17,000 scores, and Lemper performed a selection at the Center for Jewish History on April 6, 2016.

Lemper’s next concert – “The 9 Secrets,” a collaboration with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho – will be Friday, May 13th, 2016 at Symphony Space in New York City. 

How did you come to create your latest concert at the Center for Jewish History in New York?

Ute Lemper: Last year I was invited on the 27th of January – the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years later – to a concert in Rome commemorating the Holocaust. But I’ve been involved for years now – it was almost 30 years ago that I recorded the first album in a series of “degenerate music” – as horrendous as that sounds; Entartete Musik is what the Nazis called it – music that was banned by the Nazis, most of it by Jewish composers. I’ve been the protagonist of this material for so long and pioneered it at the time. It was the first time these works had been recorded after the Weimar Republic. So I was very touched and honored to be invited to perform a few of those songs that were written in the ghettos and concentration camps.

 A composition by Waleria Anna Felchnerowska (Piecach/Starogard Gdański, Poland 3.11.1902 – 1984).  Image courtesy Last Musik.

A composition by Waleria Anna Felchnerowska (Piecach/Starogard Gdański, Poland 3.11.1902 – 1984).  Image courtesy Last Musik.

I started to research this material – especially the composers in Theresienstadt, which was the one concentration camp that united all the cultural elite at the time, and people were encouraged to compose and keep creating – and I met Francesco Lotoro, who is a very important man in this research. He has dedicated his life to archiving thousands of these songs collected from all over the world.

It’s unbelievable that there are only a few survivors left, and the world barely has time to listen to the stories that they carry around. That’s the biggest tragedy about it – and that’s really how I became involved in creating this concert evening.

I also have kept on my desk for 10 years now a book called Songs Never Silenced by Shmerke Kaczerginsky that my Mexican promoter Orly Beigel gave me – she’s half Israeli, also a child of a Holocaust survivor. And now inspired by this concert in Rome, and inspired by this friendship with Francesco Lotoro, I finally picked up this book again and was completely captivated by the songs. Shmerke Kaczerginsky survived the war and started collecting these songs that he had heard in the ghetto, in the camps, through word of mouth, through friends and through scripts that he had found. Some of them were songs that were sung at the labor camps – songs of joy, almost; like gospels in the cotton fields. There are lots of cradle songs for children – goodnight songs; songs of consolation. There are songs that portray the destiny of the Jewish people as they were driven out of the cities and into the ghetto, or when they walked in long lines like cattle over the fields, the mud, the dirt, toward wherever they were being driven. Some songs portray the murder of children in the ghettos, or mothers smuggling children out to give them a chance to survive with non-Jewish families. There were also songs sung in the lines waiting for a watery cup of soup, or walking toward the gas chambers. And there were some songs of hope – a lot of people still believed there was hope, especially in Theresienstadt – some of the composers and writers thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

The book is an unbelievable, heartbreaking collection. I looked through it and decided to create a concert with a selection of songs from the ghettos and the concentration camps.

JW: Growing up in Germany, how did the Holocaust figure into your social and cultural consciousness?

UL: It was a strange time. I was a child of the 1960s, so this was very close to the end of the war. We know that the Nazis went straight back into their jobs after the war – into their leading positions in factories and banks, and there was anti-Semitism for a long time after the war, and probably a complete denial of the Holocaust for quite a while. Also denial, by the way, of people who tried to fight Hitler and the Nazi party: They were called traitors until probably 15 years after the end of the war, before anyone admitted they were heroes.

So altogether I find this Germany that I grew up in quite scary. Of course, as a child I wasn’t much aware of that. It was when I started thinking independently and educating myself in the 1970s that I became very angry as a teenager and young adult. Officially there was a lot of compensation, rebuilding cities and compensating the victims of the Holocaust. The politicians tried to apologize, which of course is not possible. But I would say in the broad population of Germany, it took a long time to create grief about it, because everyone was so selfishly involved in recreating every part of their own lives. 

But it was a complicated situation. I remember my mother had trouble watching documentaries about the concentration camps. She said it was too terrible to watch, but at the same time, she avoided not just watching something painful, but also thinking about the responsibility. A famous book came out in the 1990s by Daniel Goldhagen about the collective guilt- it was a very intricate book that shattered the German mind to think about the collective guilt that really should not be avoided. Even those who weren’t direct collaborators were still involved in this massive orchestrated movement of genocide.

JW: You perform all over the world: Has your German heritage influenced your career in any way?

UL: As soon as my career started outside of Germany, especially when I came to New York, I realized that I had to be a lot more than a young German. I had to be almost an activist; I had to be ready for all these questions that came into my face – questions about the Holocaust, about the Nazis, about the generations of my parents and grandparents in postwar Germany. Those questions were at first overwhelming to me, but the more I started to confront these issues, the more I had to say. And what I had to say was often not loved in Germany, and there was a time at the end of the 1980s when I was alienated by the Germans for speaking openly about their lack of personal grief.

Then I had a career in Paris, where the French people are also very tortured about their history of collaboration with the Nazis and going along with their anti-Semitic politics, delivering the Jews to them. Of course, there were lots of Jewish people whom they helped to escape too. I had to face a lot of interesting dialogues with French journalists about this complicated past.

The more my career grew internationally at this time, the more I became kind of an ambassador for Kurt Weill music and music written by other Jewish composers at the time, and known as a thoughtful postwar German who really dug into some of the wounds of our generation.

JW: Do you identify as a Jew?

UL: Yes, I would say so. I’m a free spirit, but there’s a very large part of me that thinks in honor and identification and pain and compassion with the Jewish culture. It’s a mission for me, and it has always been that way. I always questioned my parents about their heritage – they don’t look German at all. They have dark eyes and hair; they look more Italian. There’s something in the Lemper heritage that is definitely not Aryan.

My first husband was Jewish; we were married for 10 years. Now my second husband is also Jewish. My kids were bar mitzvahed. Though in general I don’t really support organized religion, I believe in a personal religion of love and equality and spirituality. I am very much involved in the Jewish culture through my marriages and family and in-laws, and the life I lead. My first husband’s father was a cantor so they were actually quite religious.

JW: That must have been interesting when he brought you home to meet his parents!

UL: Oh, yes – it was! But what I stand for – that I sing this music by Jewish composers and very much represent and honor Jewish culture in the work that I do – it compensated for their frustration that I was not Jewish-born. Just to be born Jewish is like being born rich or poor or any nationality – it’s a coincidence. But if you dedicate your life to support a specific issue, and you give your flesh and blood to that on a daily basis through your work, dedication and love, I think that’s even more honorable.

I did my first concert in Israel with Zubin Mehta in 1989. It was all Kurt Weill music and the hall was filled with survivors. Most of them had numbers tattooed on their arms, and many spoke German and understood every word I sang. The people were crying to hear this music again, which they had grown up with at the time of the Weimar Republic. It was first of all about bringing this music back to the survivors who had lost it, but also telling the story of Kurt Weill as an example of the German Jewish composer who immigrated and started a new career here in America.

Today, when I see Syrian immigrants held back behind barbed wire to keep them out of Austria or Turkey or Slovenia, I want to talk about the Holocaust. These policies leave children and elderly people sitting on the ground, waiting for hours and hours and hours, in the rain, in the mud, having the sleep in tents. Humanitarian aid doesn’t get there, food doesn’t get there. We have to think about the past to make no mistakes in the future.

Through the chapters of history, my mission is really to keep this dialogue alive – to face the history and make sure “Never Again.”

 photo by Karen Koehler

photo by Karen Koehler

By Shmerke Kaczerginsky, Velvel Pasternak