Musical Reflections of the Holocaust

From the curator

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing 

—Maya Angelou 

A volume subtitled Musical Reflections of the Holocaust undoubtedly raises questions. What can be said about a collection of music rooted in one of the greatest human tragedies in history? What role can a piece of music play in helping humanity come to terms with its own evils? Will the music help us grieve or heal? Can it enhance it our understanding? What purpose is served by curating a volume on “the music of destruction”? 

The initial decision to create this volume was one that the Milken Archive Editorial Board labored over and debated intensely. At the heart of the matter was (and is) the question of whether such art, by its very nature, is exploitative—that is, whether it inherently trivializes or devalues the human suffering to which it intends to pay homage. As justification, one can point to the Milken Archive’s credo that Jewish music is that which in some way reflects the Jewish experience. But doing so still leaves us wanting for an explanation as to why. My thinking on this issue ultimately comes down to four points. 

The first and most obvious point is memory. As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, as educating younger generations about its horrors becomes more difficult, as collective memory accrues new experiences, it is ever more important to commemorate the loss of life and compassion. Music can help hold the memory of the Holocaust in humanity’s collective conscious. 

The second is that for all the responsibilities artists have to society, confronting evil is paramount. The Holocaust may rank among the gravest of human tragedies, but it certainly wasn’t the last one. Structures of oppression remain rampant in our world, and art must remain a vital, confrontational force in the struggle against oppression and evil. 

Third, music validates the tenacity of the human spirit. While it is true that the world can never again be the same after the Holocaust, for all the havoc it wreaked the human impulse to create, to thrive, to triumph is strong as ever. Like the caged bird that sits perched, with clipped wings and tied feet, the human spirit opens its throat to sing. In doing so, it reminds us that in the long haul creation will always subjugate destruction—even if the creators themselves don’t always prevail. 

Finally, music’s ability to speak beyond words, to evoke emotion through pure sound, to re-present horrors that belie the limits of the imagination can bring us closer to events that we can never fully comprehend. Art should not provide an escape from reality; it should reflect our world back to us in ways that make us confront its ugliness. As Gershon Kingsley has observed in reference to his Voices from the Shadow, music can unlock “the silence that surrounds the Holocaust: the silence of guilt, the silence of shame, the silence of horror, and the futility of it all.” I think each piece in this volume, if nothing else, succeeds on this point. 

Whatever one’s individual feelings about art and the Holocaust might be, I have faith that music such as that which is presented in this volume can help keep the severity of this tragedy in collective memory and, in so doing, help us adhere to the Holocaust’s ultimate mandate: never again. 

—Jeff Janeczko


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