Born in Łódź, Poland, Henry Baigelman and his brother David were professional musicians who came from a large, well-known musical family. In 1940, Nazi authorities forced the Baigelmans into the Łódź ghetto along with approximately 160,000 of the city’s Jews. Conditions in the ghetto were desperate. Lack of sanitation caused widespread disease, while the limited food rations provided by German authorities led to mass starvation.1
Despite these extreme hardships, the ghetto offered some limited opportunities for Jews to participate in arts and culture. The ghetto’s Jewish council (Judenrat) established a House of Culture that held musical and theatrical performances from 1941 to 1942.2 David Baigelman, who was a celebrated composer of Yiddish music before the war, became one of the two conductors of the orchestra.3 Henry played violin in the orchestra, when he wasn’t working in a factory that made caps for the German army. Permitted very little time to practice, the orchestra still managed to perform operettas, symphonies, and Jewish music. Chroniclers of ghetto life noted that music and musical performances like these allowed prisoners to “salvage something of [their] former spiritual life.”4
Much is unknown about the origins of the violin featured here, but according to Henry, it could have belonged to David or another family member from the ghetto. It appears to be an instrument for a student or a violin used in outdoor or celebratory events where musicians would not have time to tune instruments.5
In 1944, when German authorities demanded that ghetto residents turn over their instruments, David was tasked with overseeing this process.6 A German expert purchased the instruments at very low prices despite David explaining their value. Henry later explained that David then hid this violin, along with another one, in a factory attic just before the ghetto’s last remaining Jews were deported to killing centers. Henry said his brother hid his instruments “for the sake of just putting them away, knowing he would never come back and get them.” Henry and David were deported, along with the entire Baigelman family, from the ghetto to Auschwitz. Among only three survivors from the Baigelman family, he lived through imprisonment in multiple Nazi camps and a death march to Dachau.7 According to Henry, after the war, a family member went back and retrieved the instrument.
After the war, Baigelman played this violin, as well as this saxophone, in a band called The Happy Boys.8 The band performed concerts at Displaced Persons (DP) camps and for US Army troops stationed in Germany from 1945 to 1949. The Happy Boys played Jewish music, as well as American hits that Baigelman knew from his time performing in nightclubs before the war. Henry also wrote new Yiddish songs for The Happy Boys, including “We Long for a Home.”9 This song relates the pain of the war and a nostalgia for better times: “We long for a home, a warm inviting home as before / We long for a home, for our misery the only cure.”10
In what ways does the Baigelmans’ violin help to tell the stories of the Holocaust's victims? What role might it have played in shaping and preserving Henry’s memories of persecution?