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Along with poetry, song is one of the most prevalent artistic forms for conveying experiences from the Holocaust. Some songs were composed to reflect the wartime context. Others were repurposed from earlier periods with new force and meaning. Studies of music and the Holocaust have focused primarily on the history of ghetto or concentration camp songs and have tended to focus on the role of music as a form of spiritual resistance to the Nazi regime. For scholars like Yehuda Bauer and Joseph Rudavsky, the existence of music in the ghettos and concentration camps represent the drive to survive at any cost.1

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Shirli Gilbert argues against the assumption that all Holocaust music was redemptive, life affirming, and somehow inherently righteous. While interpretations along these lines are certainly not to be discounted, Gilbert offers a different understanding of the role of songs within the ghettos themselves. She resists any notion to label them as heroic or unheroic from a post-war perspective.2

Songs require their own kind of analysis due to the combination of words, melody, and performance.3 Musicologist Amnon Shiloah labels songs a kind of "oral poetry," noting the importance of song as a medium that combines several different means of expression. He characterizes song as follows: "This is wholly integrated creativity in which text, music, and performance are the product of the mind and heart of one creator; hence it is the embodiment of uninterrupted cultural continuity. It continues to inject vitality into many customs, forms of thinking, and linguistic idioms, even after ordinary usage has discarded them, either because of radically changed conditions or pursuant to contact with foreign cultures. These more archaic cultural manifestations can be touchstones for understanding changes and permutations that have resulted from the conflux of different traditions."4 Songs combine poetry, melody, and orality in order to create a new, vital whole.

Holocaust songs have been transmitted and preserved within audio-visual oral histories, forming a unique type of testimony all their own.5 No matter how we encounter these songs, however, similar questions emerge. For example: What is the expressive function of these songs where and when they occur?  What is the historical context of these songs, and how does that intersect with their role in memory? Finally, what is the role of the listener for these songs? How does the audience for the song change over time, and how does that impact its meaning and interpretation?

This resource features songs both from ghettos and camps and songs composed in the immediate postwar era. Original songs from ghettos and camps often directly reflect the conditions of the place they were created. They may do so with emotional intensity, with humor, or both, and are sometimes preserved as written compositions or recalled as part of a given oral testimony. Other songs commonly sung during the war may also constitute repurposed compositions from earlier, pre-war periods with renewed meaning. 

Songs composed in the immediate postwar era reflect upon the immediate past or the current, postwar conditions faced by the survivor. Like their wartime counterparts, they may contain both realist and sardonic overtones, and offer the perspective of hindsight.  These compositions are also more readily available in published or printed form. 

No matter their form or context, however, what all of these songs have in common is their role as a snapshot of the conditions and ever-evolving understanding of the various ways in which the Holocaust and its aftermath unfolded.

 

See for example Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) and Joseph Rudavsky, To Live with Hope, to Die with Dignity: Spiritual Resistance in the Ghettos and Camps (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997).

 

Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

 

There are several collections of songs from the concentration camps and ghettos, including Yes, we sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). In his collection, The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), David Roskies translates several key ghetto and partisan songs. Additionally, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a web-based exhibit with historical recordings, translations, and commentaries of concentration camp, partisan, and displaced persons songs, as does ORT. These studies contribute to an historical understanding of music during the Holocaust. They also aim to preserve these songs in written form, lest they disappear with the deaths of the survivors who sang them.

 

Alan Rosen has examined the role of music within David Boder’s early testimonies, see Alan Rosen, The Wonder of their Voices: the 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Scholars Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub have reflected on the role of music within Claude Lanzmann’s epic film, Shoah, see Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1991). Leah Wolfson has further examined the role of music within the USC Shoah Visual History archive in her article, ""Is There Anything Else You Would like to Add?" Visual Testimony Encounters the Lyric." South Atlantic Review 73, no. 3 (2008): 86-109.