BSAG revisited: Holocaust


[First published 27/01/2005]

It seems appropriate — on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — to talk about a film I watched the other night. Holocaust - A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz interspersed interviews with people who had been forced to play music while imprisoned in Auschwitz and photographs from the time, with performances of various pieces of classical music within the camp and buildings themselves. It might sound like an odd idea, perhaps even rather disrespectful, but that isn't the way it came across. Mr. Bsag commented at one point that it was like a musical exorcism, and perhaps it was. Certainly, music was corrupted and perverted there; people were forced to play marches and jolly little pieces while their fellow humans were marched off to the gas chambers. Playing beautiful pieces of music — some of which were composed in response to the Holocaust seemed a good way to remember and pay respect to those who died or were scarred by their experiences there.

As you might expect, it was unbearably moving at times. I'm ashamed to admit that I couldn't watch it all in one go. I had to look away, which is terrible. It isn't much to ask of us that we should be witnesses, 60 years on, but I still couldn't do it.

I don't believe in ghosts (or life after death for that matter), but it was difficult when Cantor Steven Leas was singing a Hebrew lament for the dead (El Male Rachamim) in the women's barracks not to imagine that he was singing directly to the spirits of the women who had once lived in that bleak and dank room. Similarly, when Iva Bittova played the violin and sang a Gypsy Lament in the ruins of one of the many huts where Roma people where housed and then massacred, it felt as if she was sending a message of condolence and hope back in time. The programme ended in a very symbolic way, with Maxim Vengerov playing Bach's Chaconne on the violin while walking out of the camp. Liberation.