When composer Joelle Wallach stood atop the watchtower at the Birkenau death camp on a cool, rainy day, she looked out over the remnants of dilapidated smokestacks and perceived a “forest of chimneys.” She saw swirls of mist rising from the ground and thought of them as “lost songs” that those who died there never got to sing. It was a powerful image she translated into musical form in an octet titled From the Forest of Chimneys, which appears in the Milken Archive’s volume Out of the Whirlwind: Musical Reflections of the Holocaust, alongside works by David Stock, Jan Radzynski, Ruth Schonthal, and Lukas Foss. Wallach tells the story in her own words in a newly released oral history video:
For Ruth Schonthal, the Holocaust was something she had always avoided as a composer. As a German-born Jew who endured Germany through 1920s and 30s, she understood all too well that the event was too horrific to take lightly, and she feared that even an earnest attempt could turn out to be trivial. She overcame this fear with her String Quartet No. 3: In Memoriam, for which she conceived of each instrument as an individual experience and did not shy away from depicting violence or death
Works by David Stock and Jan Radzysnki take inspiration from liturgical contexts. Stock’s Yizkor is an orchestral work of contemplative character, slowly shifting textures, and elegiac melodies that emphasize strings. Its title is a reference to the formal Jewish memorial service. Radzynski’s Kaddish: To the Victims of the Holocaust was inspired by Aramaic liturgical text recited in memory of the dead. Its intense—at times, jolting—style reflects the influence of his teacher, Krystof Penderecki.
The album closes with the moving Elegy for Anne Frank by Lukas Foss, a piece for orchestra and piano that Foss composed for a 1989 concert and symposium marking the 60th anniversary of Frank’s birth. “It is one of the most soulful things I’ve ever done,” Foss reminisces in a new short documentary video about the work. Like Schonthal, Foss was born in Germany in the 1920s and witnessed the rise of the National Socialist regime firsthand. The piece evokes a range of moods, from slow, dream-like passages to ominous, percussive sections that suggest marching military troops.
This Friday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day—an event recognized by a UN resolution in 2005. The January 27th date was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, the same camp that compelled Joelle Wallach, so many years later, to give voice to the “lost songs” of those whose lives were tragically cut short when they entered its gates.