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Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps made music; now it's being discovered and performed

The lost music of the Holocaust
Uncovering the lost music written by prisoners in concentration camps during the Holocaust 26:55

The sign above the steel gates of Auschwitz reads "arbeit macht frei" – work sets you free. It was, of course, a chilling lie, an evil hoax. But there was one surprising source of temporary escape inside the gates: music. Composers and singers and musicians, both world-class and recreational, were among the imprisoned. And what's not widely known is that under the bleakest conditions imaginable, they performed and wrote music. Lots of it.

More than 6 million people, most of them Jews, died in the Holocaust, but their music did not, thanks in part to the extraordinary work of Francesco Lotoro. An Italian composer and pianist, Lotoro has spent 30 years recovering, performing, and in some cases, finishing pieces of work composed in captivity. Nearly 75 years after the camps were liberated, Francesco Lotoro is on a remarkable rescue mission, reviving music like this piece created by a young Jewish woman in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944.

Correspondent Jon Wertheim with Francesco Lotoro

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): The miracle is that all of this could have been destroyed, could have been lost.  And instead the miracle is that this music reaches us. Music is a phenomenon which wins. That's the secret of the concentration camps.  No one can take it away. No one can imprison it.  

It seems unlikely, even impossible, that music could have been performed and composed at a place like this site of unspeakable evil, the most horrific mass murder in human history.

This is Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland. Set up by the Germans in 1940 as part of Hitler's "Final Solution," it became the largest center in the world for the extermination of Jews.    

More than a million men, women and children died here. For those who passed through this entrance, known as the "Gate of Death," these tracks were a path to genocide and terror.

After they disembarked from cattle cars, most were sent directly to their deaths in the gas chambers.

The sounds of the camp included the screech of train brakes, haunting screams of families separated forever., the staccato orders barked by SS guards.

But also in the air: the sound of music, the language of the gods. This piece, titled "Fantasy" was written for oboe and strings, composed by a prisoner in Poland in 1942. 

"In some cases, we are in front of masterpieces that could have changed the path of musical language in Europe."

At Auschwitz, as at other camps, there were inmate orchestras, set up by the Nazis to play marches and entertain. There was also unofficial music, crafted in secret, a way of preserving some dignity where little otherwise existed. 

During the Holocaust, an entire generation of talented musicians, composers and virtuosos perished. 75 years later, Francesco Lotoro is breathing life into their work.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): In some cases, we are in front of masterpieces that could have changed the path of musical language in Europe if they had been written in a free world. 

Francesco Lotoro's work may culminate in stirring musical performances, but that's just the last measure, so to speak. His rescue missions, largely self-financed, begin the old fashioned way, with lots of hard work, knocking on doors, and face-to-face meetings with survivors and their relatives. 

Jon Wertheim: I have heard that you've searched attics and basements. I imagine sometimes families don't even know the musical treasure they have.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): There are children who have inherited all the paper material from their dad who survived the camp and stored it. When I recovered it, it was literally infested with paper worms.  So before taking it, a clean-up operation was required, a de-infestation.

Lotoro grew up and still lives in Barletta, an ancient town on the Adriatic Coast of southern Italy.  His modest home, which doubles as his office, is stuffed with tapes, audio cassettes, diaries and microfilm.  

Grazia and Francesco Lotoro

Aided by his wife, Grazia, who works at the local post office to support the family, Lotoro has collected and catalogued more than 8,000 pieces of music, including symphonies, operas, folk songs, and Gypsy tunes scribbled on everything from food wrapping to telegrams, even potato sacks.

The prisoner who composed this piece used the charcoal given to him as dysentery medicine and toilet paper to write an entire symphony which was later smuggled out in the camp laundry. 

Jon Wertheim: He's using his dysentery medication as a pen and he's using toilet paper as paper.

Francesco Lotoro: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: And that's how he writes a symphony.

Francesco Lotoro: Yes, when you lost freedom, toilet paper and coal can be freedom.

It's a testament to resourcefulness, how far artists will go to create. It's also a testament to the range of emotions that prisoners experienced.  

Jon Wertheim: What kind of music is this? This is 1944 in Buchenwald, in a camp.

Francesco Lotoro: This here a march.

Jon Wertheim: This is a march?

Francesco Lotoro: This surely to be scored for orchestra. (SINGS) It's a march.

Lotoro isn't just collecting this music, he's arranging it and sometimes finishing these works.
Jon Wertheim: Is this completed work or is this only partial?

Francesco Lotoro: No, they're only the melodies.

This tender composition was written by a pole while he was in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Lotoro says that if music like this isn't performed, it's as if it's still imprisoned in the camps. It hasn't been freed.

This wasn't an obvious calling for an Italian who was raised Roman Catholic, but from age 15, Lotoro says, he felt the pull of another religion.

Jon Wertheim: You converted to Judaism. You say you have a Jewish soul. Define what that means.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): There was a rabbi who explained to me that when a person converts to Judaism, in reality he doesn't convert. He goes back to being Jewish. Doing this research is possibly the most Jewish thing that I know.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): We Jews have a word which expresses this concept. Mitzvah. It is not something that someone tells you you must do, you know as a Jew that you must do it. 

Lotoro's quest began in 1988 when he learned about the music created by prisoners in the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt. The Nazis had set up the camp to fool the world into believing they were treating Jews humanely. Inmates were allowed to create and stage performances, some of which survive in this Nazi propoganda film. Lotoro was amazed by the level of musicianship and wondered what else was out there.

Lotoro and Wertheim walk toward the "gate of death"

He reached out to Bret Werb, music curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington D.C. Werb says Francesco Lotoro is building on the legacy of others who have searched for concentration camp music, but Lotoro is taking it to the next level, making the scores performable.  

Jon Wertheim: Why did people in concentration camps turn to music?

Bret Werb: It helped people to cope. It helped people to escape. It gave people something to do. It allowed them to comment on the experiences that they were undergoing.

Jon Wertheim: Did music save lives during the Holocaust?

Bret Werb: there is no doubt that being a member of an orchestra increased your chances of survival

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is one of the last surviving members of the women's orchestra at Auschwitz. She is now 94 years old. We met her at her home in London.   
Jon Wertheim: What had you heard about the camp before you arrived?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: We heard everything that was going on there only we didn't – still tried not to believe it.  But by the time I arrived there, in fact, I knew it was a reality, gas chambers and... yeah…

Jon Wertheim: You came prepared for the worst?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: I came prepared for the worst, yes.

Saved by music: a Holocaust survivor's story 04:02

Her parents, German Jews, were taken away in 1942 and she never saw them again. She was just 18 when she arrived at the death camp a year later.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: We were put in some sort of block and waited all night, and the next morning there was a sort of welcome ceremony and there were lots of people sitting there doing the reception business. Like tattooing you, taking your hair off, et cetera. That's all done by prisoners themselves 

The numbers are still visible on her left arm.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: I was led to a girl also a prisoner and a sort of normal conversation took place. And then she asked me what was I doing before the war. And like an idiot, I don't know, I said, "I used to play the cello." She said, "That's fantastic." "You'll be saved," she said. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Jon Wertheim: And that's how you heard there was an orchestra?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: And this is your salvation?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: That was my salvation, yeah.

The conductor of the orchestra was virtuoso violinist alma rose, niece of the famous Viennese composer, Gustav Mahler. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch says Rose, a prisoner herself, had an iron discipline and tried to focus attention away from the profound misery of the camp. 

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: I remember that we were scared stiff of her. She was very much the boss. And she knew very well that if she did not succeed to make a reasonable orchestra there, we wouldn't survive. So it was a tremendous responsibility this poor woman had.

The orchestra members all lived together in a wooden barracks like this – in Block 12 at Birkenau – known as the Music Block.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: We were based very near the crematoria. We could see everything that was going on.

Jon Wertheim: You're practicing your orchestra and you can see everything going on?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: Yeah, I mean, once you are inside Auschwitz, you knew what was going on, you know.

Jon Wertheim: How do you play music pretending to ignore everything going on around you?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: You arrive in Auschwitz you are prepared to go to the gas chamber.  Somebody puts a cello in your hand, and you have a chance of life. Are you going to say "I'm sorry I don't play here I play in Carnegie Hall?" I mean, people have funny ideas about what it's like to arrive in a place where you know you're going to be killed. 

Jon Wertheim: What I hear you say is that your ability to play the cello saved your life.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: Yeah, simple as that.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

The main function of the camp orchestras: playing marches for prisoners every day here at the main gate, a way, literally to set the tempo for a day of work. And a way to count the inmates. 

Jon Wertheim: Right here is where the men's orchestra played?

Francesco Lotoro: Yes there was like a procession and the orchestra played there.

The orchestras also played when new arrivals disembarked from trains at Birkenau, to give a sense of normalcy, tricking newcomers into thinking it was a hospitable place. This, when at the height of the killings, Nazis were murdering thousands of men, women and children each day. Evidence of the scope and scale of the atrocity still exists here: mountains of shoes, suitcases, glasses, shaving brushes, murder on an industrial scale.

Auschwitz archivists showed us some of the instruments that were taken out of the camp by orchestra members at the end of the war and later donated to the museum. This clarinet, a violin, and an accordion, as well as some of the music they played.

Jon Wertheim: This is the prisoner's orchestra the concentration camp Auschwitz?

Archivist: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: And this is the inventory of instruments.

Archivist: Yes, what is inside.

The orchestras also gave concerts on Sundays for prisoners and for SS officers.  

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch remembers playing for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, known as "the angel of death." Mengele conducted medical experiments on prisoners. His notorious infirmary still stands just steps from the railroad tracks in Birkenau.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: What was interesting is that these people, these arch criminals, were not uneducated people.

Jon Wertheim: That this monstrous man could still appreciate Schumann.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: How do you reconcile that?

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: I don't.

Francesco Lotoro took us to another location where the Auschwitz camp orchestra played for Nazi officers and their families. It's just feet from the crematorium and within sight of the house of camp commandant Rudolf Hess.

Jon Wertheim: You were saying sometimes the smoke from the crematorium was so thick the musicians couldn't even see the notes in front of them.

Francesco Lotoro: Yes, it happened.

Jon Wertheim: It happened.

Francesco Lotoro: And it's tragic. Life and death were together.

Jon Wertheim: Life and death were intermingling.

Francesco Lotoro: And the point of connection of life and death is music. This is all we have about life in the camp.  Life disappeared. We have only music. For me, music is the life that remained.

Lotoro looks at music

Music may be the life that remained, music like this 1942 piece titled "Fantasy", but it is the people behind the music that animate Francesco Lotoro's long and ambitious project. Their compositions created at a time when fundamental values were in danger. 

Today, as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it's more often their descendants Lotoro tracks down. 

For 30 years, Lotoro has been on an all-consuming quest to collect music created by prisoners during the Holocaust. As he travels the world, mostly on his own dime, he is both a detective and an archaeologist, digging through the past to recover and discover actual artifacts. But maybe even more important, he meets with survivors and their family members to excavate the stories behind the music. We traveled to Nuremberg, Germany, to meet Waldemar Kropinski.  He is the son of Jozef Kropinski, perhaps the most prolific and versatile composer in the entire camp constellation.  

Waldemar Kropinski says his father's work was totally unknown before Francesco Lotoro brought it to light.  

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): I thought it was something that was of no interest to anyone because my father was already dead and not even one camp composition of his was performed in Poland.

Jozef Kropinski, a Roman Catholic, was 26 when he was caught working for the Polish resistance and sent to Auschwitz, where he became first violinist in the men's orchestra and started secretly composing, first for himself, and then for other prisoners. In 1942, he wrote this piece that he titled "Resignation".   

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): This is the list my father did seven months before his death.

Jon Wertheim: Oh this was all of his music. 

Kropinski wrote hundreds of pieces of music during his four years of imprisonment, at Auschwitz and later at Buchenwald,  including tangos, waltzes, love songs, even an opera in two parts.

Still more astonishing, he composed most of them at night, by candlelight, in a tiny room the Nazis diabolically called a pathology lab, where during the day, bodies were dismembered.  Other prisoners had secured the space for kropinski so he could have a quiet place to compose.
Jon Wertheim: This is where he worked? This is the pathology room where the cadavers mounted and he wrote music.

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation):  Yes.

Paper was in short supply, so Kropinski wrote music on items like this stolen Nazi requisition form…

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): Because on the other side you had clean paper and my father could write notes…

Jon Wertheim: What's the name of this piece?

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): A set of Christmas songs for a string quartet.

That's right, a few feet from piles of dead bodies, Jozef Kropinski wrote a suite of holiday songs. Waldemar says his father did it all to help raise the spirits of his fellow prisoners.

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): His music was really touching hearts and very positive. It was important that the prisoners could hear something else in this time, something touching, so that they could go back in their memory to the old times, and feel encouraged.

In April 1945, as the Allies approached Buchenwald, the camp was evacuated and inmates were forced on a death march. Kropinski was able to smuggle out his violin and hundreds of pieces of music, some hidden in his violin case and others in a secret coat pocket, but only 117 survive today. On the march, he sacrificed the rest to build a fire for his fellow prisoners.

Jon Wertheim: You're saying your father took paper on which he had written compositions and used that to start a fire to give people heat to save their lives?

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): Yes, not only his life but the lives of others. 

Francesco Lotoro says Kropinski, like so many other musicians, hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): He was a man who obviously suffered a lot in the camps, but made himself available to others, creating music. He was a man who must be understood not only as a musician but as someone who created solidarity, created unison in the camps.

"These musicians, for me, wanted only one desire: that this music can be performed."

Jon Wertheim: When did you first come into contact with Francesco Lotoro?

Christoph Kulisiewicz: Francesco Lotoro called me and he told me that he heard about my father, that he heard about his mission about his music I couldn't believe my ears so I immediately I wanted to meet him.

We wanted to see what one of lotoro's recovery missions looked like in practice, so we went along with him to the medieval city of Krakow, one of the oldest towns in southern Poland, to meet Christoph Kulisiewicz.

Christoph is the son of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Pole imprisoned by the Gestapo for anti-fascist writings and deported to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in 1939.  
During more than five years of imprisonment, Kulisiewicz became something of a "camp troubadour," helping inmates cope with their hunger and despair, and performing songs like this at secret gatherings. But he didn't just compose and sing. He also used his extraordinary powers of recall, memorizing hundreds of songs by other prisoners, which he dictated to a nurse after the war, so they could be recorded.  

Christoph Kulisiewicz says his father considered the songs to be a form of oral history, not just giving hope to his fellow inmates but laying bare the truth of what was happening inside the camp.

Christoph Kulisiewicz: He always said, "I am living for those who died. They can't sing, they can't talk, but I can."

Jon Wertheim: It sounds like music was a way to find just a slice of dignity, of humanity.

Christoph Kulisiewicz: Exactly.

Jon Wertheim: Amid all this horrible stuff.

Christoph Kulisiewicz: Exactly. That is what my father used to say, the slice of dignity. He said, "As long as you can sing and compose and you keep it in your mind, and the SS officer doesn't know what you keep in your mind, you are free."

Jon Wertheim: What was it like for you the first time you heard your father's work sort of brought out of the shadows by Francesco Lotoro and performed? What was that like for you?

Christoph Kulisiewicz: It was amazing.  It was amazing because I never thought that it would come (to) life again and now it was like the voice of my father coming back as a real music again.  So he was, you know, living again for me.

Waldemar Kropinski can relate to the joy of finally hearing his father's music performed.

Waldemar Kropinski (Translation): It was a very personal feeling. Even today, although I know these pieces, I go back and listen to them often, and every time I hear them, I cry.

To date, Francesco Lotoro has arranged and recorded 400 works composed in the camps, including those by Aleksander Kulisiewicz and Jozef Kropinski, and this piece by a Jewish musician in Theriesendtadt.

This spring, Lotoro will perform some of them at a concert to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.    

Francesco Lotoro: What happened in the camps is more than an artistic phenomena. We have to think of this music as a last testament. We have to perform this music like Beethoven, Mahler, Schumann. These musicians, for me, wanted only one desire: that this music can be performed. 

Lotoro is building what he calls a "citadel" in his hometown of Barletta. Thanks to a grant from the Italian government, in February he plans to break ground at this abandoned distillery. A campus for the study of concentrationary music, it will include a library, a museum, a theater, and will house more than 10,000 items Lotoro has collected.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): The real beneficiaries of this music aren't us who are researching it, not this generation. The generation that will benefit from it, that will enjoy this music, is the generation of those who will come in 30 or 40 years. It's an operation which is completely for the future.

He is continuing to raise funds from the public and hopes to complete the project in four years.

Jon Wertheim: You described what you're doing as a mitzvah, this Jewish term for a good deed.  I think a lot of people would say what you're doing goes well beyond a good deed.

Francesco Lotoro (Translation): I don't know maybe I am doing a good thing. When I complete this research we'll talk about it again. And then we will see if we truly did more than doing a good thing. For the time being I only see all of this as expensive, difficult, at times discouraging, but it has to be done until the end.

Like a musician who benefits from word of mouth, Francesco Lotoro and his remarkable work are starting to build a worldwide fan base.

Just last month alone, he performed in Toronto, Jerusalem and at a concert hall in Sao Paolo, Brazil. And that's where we end our story tonight, as Francesco Lotoro brings to life the music he has rescued.

Produced by Katherine Davis. Associate producer, Jennifer Dozor. Broadcast associate, Cristina Gallotto. Edited by Stephanie Palewski Brumbach and Patrick Lee.

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