When many of us reflect on the Holocaust, the beauty of the arts is the farthest thing from our minds. Yet in the death camps of Auschwitz, Dachau, and elsewhere, creativity in captivity flourished as imprisoned artists composed and performed in inhuman conditions.
On June 18, the State Department hosted foreign diplomats, NGO representatives, academics, and others at a multi-media event, "Lost Music of the Holocaust."
It is difficult to imagine how one could create in the face of the adversity and trauma experienced in the concentration camps and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. But what can one do to hold on to and assert one's humanity as it is forcibly stripped away? Some victims of the Holocaust wrote their experiences and emotions on paper as a means of preserving themselves and documenting history. Some formed their words into songs and operas, and others, like Polish POW Leon Kaczmarek, composed instrumental music.
Victor Hugo once said, "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." As a universal language, music has the power to cross chronological and geographical borders to share a story, a history, to awaken in us the emotions that once compelled the composer and which were originally shared with an entirely different audience. Although Kaczmarek’s piano variations may have been heard for the first time in the United States on June 18, his music was initially played for Holocaust victims in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The creation of this music and its journey through time represents the strength of the human spirit.
This focus on the creativity and the art that came out of the Holocaust highlights our common humanity, as it was not only under Nazi cruelty that music played a role in rescuing individuals from darkness, despair, and death.
As my recent trip to Auschwitz with a group of Imams and Islamic scholars from around the world gives us hope that there are ways to build bridges between people by focusing on our common humanity, perhaps the music created during the Holocaust can inspire us to see a world that can move past hate.
About the Author: Ira Forman serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.