Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 19

Out of the Whirlwind: Musical Reflections of the Holocaust

by Neil W. Levin

“Two terrible things happened to the Jews in the 20th century: The Holocaust, and the interpretation of the Holocaust.”

—Boaz Evron, Israeli historian and philosopher, 1980

V1Of all the minimizing euphemisms that have come to pollute the English language and obfuscate direct confrontation, perhaps none is more strange, more misleading, and more inadequate than that which is now reluctantly accepted as the defining term for the Third Reich’s war against the Jews, the Germans’ systematic and wholesale destruction of European Jewry, and the bid by Germany and its willing and often enthusiastic collaborators to annihilate the Jewish people: the Holocaust. The literal meaning of the word (from the Greek holokauston) in fact refers to an offering—historically to some “god”—the whole of which (holos) is burned. “To reach God,” remonstrated filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 film, Shoah, is considered by many to be the benchmark of sober, unsentimental reflection, “one and a half million children have been offered?” The application of the term with that admittedly unintended connotation was, for him, obscene, “a catastrophe, a disaster. This was by no means a holocaust.”

Rarely recalled now is the fact that the word “holocaust” was previously used more generically, with reference to unrelated catastrophic fire-related events ranging from a devastating conflagration to the once-ubiquitously expressed fear of a “nuclear holocaust”—a generic usage that would now be impossible. Like many euphemisms, its acceptance was largely owing to passive failure to insist on linguistic precision, although we must confess that no one has come up with a more satisfactory rubric. It has been regretted by so prominent a witness to—and voice of—the event as Elie Wiesel. But by now we are, as even he has grudgingly acknowledged, irrevocably saddled with it. It is too institutionally entrenched to reconsider it.

The Hebrew term sho’a (lit., disaster), which was attached officially in Israel only in 1953 and is at least free of its English counterpart’s philological derivation and its unfortunate connotations, is far more apt, but not completely so. Perhaps that is unavoidable. For despite the interminable human record of perverse barbarism, sheer evil, and inhumanity perpetrated by one nation or people against another, the intentionally genocidal and eerily cooperative German war against the Jewish people remains sui generis as a chapter in Jewish and world history. Its uniqueness resides not only in its scope but in its intellectual justifications; its economic, scientific, and industrial pursuit in the name of progress and benefit to the world; its concoction by a leader and a regime that came to power originally as a result of modern democratic procedures; and—perhaps most frightening of all—its instigation and prosecution by what we perceive as the most educated and most highly cultured society in human history. 

Thus there is probably no language that contains any single word or phrase capable of more precise, more profound, or more appropriate evocation. Even the word “genocide” did not exist in the English language until the 1940s. It was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, in response to Winston Churchill’s earlier lament in 1941 that “we are in the presence of a crime without a name.” (Even then, under pressure from the Soviet Union, Lemkin felt forced to compromise. Therefore he supported the exclusion of murder of “political groups” from the United Nation’s 1948 resolution on genocide.)

In its initial discussion concerning the title of this volume of the Milken Archive series, the Editorial Board considered calling it “The Music of Destruction.” Perhaps that would have been the most suitable title, but we felt that it might be too transparent an echo of David G. Roskies’s landmark 1989 anthology, The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, which embraces the biblical era and Jewish antiquity through the Shoah and its aftermath. We chose instead the current title, “Out of the Whirlwind,” drawn from Bruce Adolphe’s song cycle—which is one of its components.

Throughout our discussions about this volume—and on another, more substantive plane—we remained concerned about other issues, including the dangerous inclination on the part of younger generations to mold Jewish identity and affiliation around the Shoah and even to confuse the two.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a major cross-generational, well-supported, and all-inclusive conference was convened in the United States under the heading, “Why Be Jewish?” As that banner suggests, its purpose was to explore and articulate concrete, rational, and positive reasons and incentives for fortifying and maintaining Jewish identity; for practicing Judaism and conducting Jewish lives in one recognized form or another; for infusing those lives with Jewish learning and knowledge; and for transmitting such warrants to future generations of Jews who, in the context of a free and open postmodern society, will increasingly demand tangible justifications beyond purely emotional, historical, or familiar attachments. The conference attracted participants, registrants, and leaders from virtually all principal elements of American and Canadian Jewry—in itself no small achievement. Among the three subjects that were forbidden and excluded from all lectures, symposia, and formal discussions—which the attendees were asked to refrain from discussing even among themselves outside formal sessions—was the Holocaust. (The other two were antisemitism and Israel.)

This exclusionary caveat was in no way intended to negate the mandate to remember and the responsibility to study the Shoah in its proper contexts. Rather, such a creative and even courageously imposed condition was born of the awareness that even if the calamity has served in the short run to galvanize and promote solidarity, this function will diminish as the Shoah recedes from collective memory. Moreover, the Shoah cannot and ought not be the self-sufficient cornerstone of Jewish identity; nor can it—nor will it—serve as the principal motivator for lasting Jewish adherence, commitment, and observance. Clearly, the architects of the conference, whose goal was to encourage participants to explore and arrive on their own at positive incentives for Jewish living and Judaic continuity, were well aware of frequent superficial seizures upon the Shoah as a commitment-free proxy for religious or cultural identity, a convenient replacement for Judaic learning, and a self-contained and self-fulfilling badge of Jewish distinctiveness.

Even superficial American pop culture has occasionally played on that theme. In one episode of a rather coarse but exceedingly successful television series, for example, an affable young Jewish lawyer—who maintains neither synagogue nor secular Jewish cultural affiliation, for whom no aspect of Judaism is part of his consciousness, and who has no interest in even the most basic observances or celebrations of Jewish life—explains to his girlfriend and lover why he cannot marry her: not only has he promised his now deceased mother that he would marry a Jew, but, as he casually tells her, “We even lost family in the Holocaust.” The Shoah was his sole Jewish identity—all that he could articulate—even though it can be assumed that he really knew little if anything about it.

That particular scene occurs in a superficial vehicle of mass popular entertainment that is infused with questionable taste. Nonetheless, it is all too indicative of real-life situations. Professors and admissions committees at colleges, universities, and seminaries across the United States have reported dismal encounters with prospective candidates and students who cannot name the five books of the Torah, let alone the other books of the Hebrew Bible; who know no Hebrew; who cannot identify or articulate the basic elements of the liturgy; who are unaware that the Yiddish language developed in Europe; who cannot give even the most rudimentary definition of the Talmud, the Haskala, or Hassidism; and who cannot identify Isaiah, Rashi, Maimonides, Bialik, Peretz, Moses Mendelssohn, Sholem Aleichem, or Herzl, but who insist that they are Jewishly conversant by protesting innocently that they “have read a lot about” or “know a lot about” the Holocaust—which, to no one’s surprise, they usually don’t anyway.

At a number of American universities, undergraduate (and sometimes graduate) elective courses on the Holocaust are among the most consistently oversubscribed—and have the longest waiting lists—of any courses on campus. These are not units within courses on Jewish history, European history, the Second World War, or even the history and literature of antisemitism. They are self-contained courses on the Shoah. Yet very few of the students who are so intrigued by the offering elect to take any other Judaica or Jewish studies courses, and many come to these Holocaust classes with little if any background in Judaica. There are no such prerequisites in most if not all cases.

Similarly, “music of the Holocaust” classes are offered in a vacuum, nearly always without a single course in the same music department devoted to core Jewish music studies or topics with the depth one should expect in higher education: the music of the synagogue; the history of Jewish folk music; the vast repertoire of cultivated Judaically related art or classical music and the movement that spawned it; or the music of modern Israel. One instructor even unwittingly described his “Holocaust music” class as “the most popular class in the department.” That strange popularity might stem from an almost morbid but well-intentioned curiosity (with no similar curiosity about other aspects of Jewish music), from a misdirected sense of emotional solidarity, from an admirable urge to consider the dangerous consequences of racial and ethnic hatred or religious intolerance, or, for Jewish students, from a need to confirm Jewish identity—or perhaps some combination of these motivations. But whatever it is that sparks this interest, such characterizations as “popular” tend to vindicate those who long ago, with the advent and proliferation of American Holocaust museums, pandering Hollywood films, and easily palatable television presentations with optimistic endings, warned against the “Americanization of the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust must of course be studied and commemorated perpetually. That is no less than a sacred obligation; and, in fact, recent studies indicate that even otherwise educated Jews often know too little about it, too little of its facts, and too little of its context. But the Holocaust is not a generic metaphor for bigotry, intolerance, hatred, evil, or human suffering. It is about the calculated annihilation of the Jewish people—an accomplishment that was to leave behind only a museum of “an extinct race” for the world’s beneficiaries of that triumph of progress to visit.

No one should question the importance of educating our citizenry—and particularly the younger generations—concerning the evils of persecution, respect for differences, or the end to which roads of unchecked hatred can lead. But the Holocaust is not the proper vehicle or instrument for such education; nor should it be studied in order to draw analogies to other mistreatments, subjugations, persecutions, or genocides before or since. Using it for such purposes allows it to enter the murky realm of relativism and deflects from its central significance to Jewish history. “These [humanistic values] may be worthy goals,” prominent Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt has insisted. “But the Holocaust should not be reduced to a means for trying to fulfill these or any other ends. The instrumentalization of the Holocaust, the use of it to fulfill something else, is the ultimate degradation of the event.” As we have observed in this volume with reference to the use of Anne Frank and the related music as a symbol (see the notes to Lukas Foss’s Elegy for Anne Frank), one of the most significant aspects of the Holocaust—one that denies it any analogue in history—is that it can contain no benefit of lessons, no reaffirmations of hope for mankind, no redemptive truths, and, in the end, no meaning. “Auschwitz destroyed all meaning,” declared one of its most eloquent survivors. To grant it the tiniest degree of meaning, to grasp idealistically at some potential lesson is to accord it a measure of beneficial status for humanity. That is the least acceptable memorial to the millions who were murdered for nothing—for no cause, to no purpose, to no benefit even for their murderers—having no meaning.

Lucy Dawidowicz, a leading Holocaust historian whose The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 set the bar in many respects for all future studies, was once asked if she thought the Holocaust should be taught in public schools. The implication, of course, was that it might serve (obviously to non-Jewish and Jewish students alike) to reinforce the principles of civil and human rights inherent in the conception of American democracy. “I’d feel a lot safer,” she responded, “if they learned the meaning of the Constitution instead.”

The collective musical repertoire legitimately related to or arising out of the Holocaust is also not an artistic metaphor for the music of diversity, the music of the human spirit, the music of interethnic or interreligious amity, the music of ecumenicism, or the music of mankind’s record of cruelty or suffering. And it is certainly not the music of Jewish identity. It is indeed the music of destruction.

Reliance on the Shoah as a primary if not exclusive engine for Jewish identity or as an instrument for inculcating humanistic values and principles are only two of its contemporary abuses. Equally if not more troubling are its romanticization, its trivialization, its perception in universalistic terms, and its reduction to sentimentalism and even nostalgia, which can be a natural by-product of or accompaniment to art. “To turn the Shoah into nostalgia is a criminal betrayal of the victims,” opined writer Steve Stern. “So for a long time I shared the view that the Shoah was entirely off-limits for art—that any attempt to depict it was to reduce the event to symbol and thereby diminish its reality.” Yet he subsequently reconsidered ipso facto taboos concerning art in principle, allowing that “there is something irresistible [for artists] about the encounter as well.”

These various abuses have been well documented, harshly criticized, and condemned by numerous observers with respect to film, television, theater, and popular literature. If not carefully controlled and free of any commercial goals, these media carry the risk of inuring us to the abomination, of transmuting the Holocaust to a state of quasi-normalcy, and of reinforcing the age-old stereotype of the Jewish people’s vulnerability to victimhood and consignment to suffering.

Less commonly noticed (if at all) in the same vein is the expanding array of musical treatments. Many of these are serious, sober, and genuinely personal reflections on the Holocaust, without recourse to diversionary sentimentality or platitudinous optimism. But many others exude kitsch, opportunism, gimmickry, and even vulgarity. CD cases exhibit images of 1940s German freight cars, stretches of railroad track, barracks surrounded by fences of barbed wire, and starved prisoners—not for aesthetic values, but to attract the attention of potential purchasers. Reenactments of so-called female concentration camp orchestras or other ensembles, with the women players in full period costume, may draw crowds, but it is difficult to fathom what they contribute apart from theatrical satisfaction.

There are innumerable recordings, songbooks, and live presentations purporting to revive and disseminate “songs of the camps”—as if to invite us to imagine that even the concentration camp experience could not extinguish the inmates’ will to sing, in some defiant expression of “spiritual resistance” that triumphed over the torture, death, and destruction. We are presented with such song titles as “The Prisoner Rises,” “In Buchenwald,” “The Train,” and “The Striped Ones”; and we are asked to believe that the incarcerated, emaciated Jews sang such lyrics as “Our thoughts so somber, our hearts so mournful,” “What is this prison to us? The strength of our spirits will conquer the tortures; the suffering cannot overpower us,” “In Buchenwald the birch trees rustled sadly,” “Running still behind the train in fool’s futility, farewell my love!” or “Their striped clothes veil the pride that now slumbers inside.” Entire compositions are titled Holocaust Symphony, Holocaust Oratorio, and Holocaust Cantata. The very appropriation of the word “Holocaust,” to be read in tandem with the time-honored forms of Western music culture, carries with it a whiff of exploitation. Worse are a host of newly written trite songs, often with quasi-pop features, that claim to imagine the camps or existence therein—as if anything about those German-built, German-sponsored, and German-maintained camps can lend itself to description in a song with clever lyrics.

Even the well-known and perhaps by now overexposed musical scene at Terezin demands delicacy in its handling, since the entire episode was to all intents and purposes a cruel ruse. But songs and singing in Buchenwald? In Mauthausen? In Treblinka? In Auschwitz? “Yes, there was music in the ghettos, but no one sang in those camps,” admonished an Auschwitz survivor at a Milken Archive oral history interview when asked about the “camp song” publications. “If you think we sang there, you just don’t know what a camp was.” We are reminded, too, of Elie Wiesel’s cautionary statement that “only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.”

With all these issues, questions, dangers, and reservations in mind, the Editorial Board deliberated carefully and at length about the wisdom of singling out the Holocaust as a self-contained theme and devoting a volume to its musical reflections by American composers. Would it not be wiser or more appropriate, we asked ourselves, to follow David Roskies’s model by devising a volume of music inspired by the full historical range of Jewish catastrophes and persecutions? But that proved to be difficult because—despite a few exceptions (Marvin David Levy’s Canto de los Marranos in Volume 2, for example, or Zavel Zilberts’s Al naharot bavel in Volume 14), we could not identify a sufficient body of music written to reflect previous calamities. Moreover, we were intensely mindful of the mandate not to link the Shoah with other events and thereby not to shadow its uniqueness or misrepresent its significance. Of course, we simply could have incorporated the works now in Volume 19 into others according to music genres (Volumes 9, 10, and 11, and 16, for example), but in the end we felt that the Shoah and the works it has generated was deserving of special, undivided attention on artistic grounds. After sifting through the entire corpus and rejecting anything that suggested opportunism or tasteless gimmickry, we selected the present offering of pieces, each of which we believe stands on its own musical merits.

During our deliberations we also addressed the nature of art in this regard: the common but simplistic assumption that it must in some way qualify as “beautiful” and the perception of high art’s desiderata as redeeming, uplifting, truth-seeking, and spiritually elevating even if it probes the depths of despair and provokes us to grapple with questions for which there are no answers. For there is no ultimate redemption, truth, or spiritual elevation to be expressed in music reflective of the Shoah—no measure of hope for or faith in mankind. Legitimate musical reflections must, in our view, relinquish any such aims and focus primarily on memory. Most important, such musical reflections must speak for themselves as music, and any attached libretti or other words must speak for themselves as literature.

The music in this volume must be considered within the context of the full range of pieces that the twenty volumes of the Milken Archive comprises—illustrating collectively the creative impulse of American composers in connection with Jewish content—and of the full sweep of Jewish history. Whether in the end we have decided wisely in allocating an entire volume to the Holocaust as a theme in American music of Jewish experience remains an open question, one that only time might answer.

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