How One Man Dedicated His Life to Preserving the Music of the Holocaust

May 7, 2020 | Makana Eyre
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In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Gentile prisoners were privileged in comparison with Jews, insofar as they were to be worked and starved to death more slowly, and were less likely to be shot or gassed. Among them was a Pole named Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who was arrested by the SS in 1940 for writing newspaper articles critical of the Nazis. Not long after his arrival at Sachsenhausen camp, Kulisiewicz befriended a Jewish inmate named Martin Rosenberg, who was the conductor of a clandestine choir. Makana Eyre writes

As soon as an opportunity arose, he snuck into block 37 to watch one of the choir’s secret rehearsals. He stood in the back of the room, up against a wall. Some 30 men were arrayed before him, warming up their voices. All of them wore the Star of David. . . . The men didn’t seem to be professional musicians, but that didn’t matter. Their conductor knew how to draw out the best possible sound. He would stop the men’s singing to adjust the division of voices, making sure there were four strong groups—altos, tenors, basses, and basso profundos—able to sing in harmony. He assigned each man to a group based on the tone, timbre, and range of his voice.

All the while, Kulisiewicz composed his own songs, putting new lyrics to melodies he remembered from his youth. He did it for entertainment and to avoid thinking about the camp’s conditions. He also used music to create a record of life in Sachsenhausen.

As a child, Kulisiewicz had developed an exceptional capacity for memorization in order to overcome a stutter. He put this talent to use:

[Kulisiewicz] couldn’t write the songs down. Doing so would mean punishment, even death. Nothing could be saved—except in his memory. [He] began to build a catalog of music and poetry. At first much of it was his. But some pieces came from [the Jewish] choir, and over time they increasingly came from other prisoners. A man in the barracks after a long day of “sport,” [the SS’s terms for the brutal daily exercise routines], would begin to sing, and Kulisiewicz would listen, committing the words and melody to memory.

Soon, his power of memory became as well-known as his musical skill. Prisoners started coming to him, asking that he remember their songs.

[When Rosenberg] feared that the Jews had little time left, he told Kulisiewicz that he saw omens that he was sure presaged their deaths. One evening in early October 1942, he came to Kulisiewicz. “You are not a Jew,” he said. “If you survive, you must sing my song of bitterness and revenge, my death song. You have to sing it all around the world, or else I will curse you and you won’t be able to die in peace.” Kulisiewicz promised he would.

Kulisiewicz indeed survived and spent much of his life after the war writing down and recording the songs, and performing them wherever he could.

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