CULTURE Songs for Eternity in New York City

lotoroBy Jon Sobel*

For three decades, Italian musician Francesco Lotoro has traveled the world collecting manuscripts of music written in concentration camps and the Jewish ghettoes during World War II by victims and survivors of the Holocaust. He has transcribed and recorded some 5,000 of the 17,000 works he has already unearthed.

But thousands more remain hidden, likely to be lost forever as the remaining survivors die of old age over the next not-so-many years. Last Musik, a new foundation set up to support Lotoro’s ongoing efforts, held a fundraising concert and dinner Wednesday night at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, featuring renowned chanteuse Ute Lemper accompanied by a small pantheon of musicians associated in one way or another with the project: noted Israeli violinist Daniel Hoffman, bandoneón player Victor Villena, well-known klezmer revivalist and all-around virtuoso clarinetist David Krakauer, and Lotoro himself on piano.

Lemper is a consummate master of the kind of staged concert that we denote today, rather inadequately if you ask me, by the word “cabaret” (which derives from the German “kabarett” shows of the late 18th century through the Weimar period). To have crafted so lovingly and carefully a concert completely unrelated to her current album and separate from the performances with which she’s promoting it (see my recent exclusive interview with the singer) would be an impressive accomplishment with any material. Yet these songs made it not just a concert, but something of a happening, complete with gasps and sobs from the audience.

It was, as Lemper put it, “a difficult journey, but a necessary journey.” If she wrote those words, as I imagine, in days past while preparing the concert, she wouldn’t have known how perfectly accurate they’d be: On the same day she spoke them to a packed house at the Center for Jewish History, French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was fined 30,000 euros for calling the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of World War II, thereby running afoul of French laws against Holocaust denial. Plus ça change, I’m tempted to say.

As we rapidly turn into a world devoid of living survivors of the Shoah, it becomes ever more important that projects like Lotoro’s and events like “Songs for Eternity” continue to keep that history alive as an urgent lesson for new generations.

Having said all that, this moving concert was far more than a lesson. It was an exquisite work of art, including many sad songs but others of comfort, grace, even defiant celebration. It also included several clips from Alexandre Valenti’s upcoming documentary film The Maestro, about Lotoro’s quest. One clip featured the composer of “Stiler stiler” (“Quiet, quiet”), now known as the well-known Israeli pianist Alexander Tamir, but then an 11-year-old composer named Alek Volkoviski. Lemper and the band presented it in a suitably hushed and somber mode: “All the roads lead to Ponar now. / There are no roads back / And our father too has vanished.” But unexpectedly, the arrangement gathered energy and concluded in a clap-along accelerando.

Lotoro contributed a beautifully sensitive piano part to “A Yiddish Kind,” by survivor Hanah Haytin, about children whose parents tried to get them out of the ghettoes and into hiding.

Poet and songwriter Ilse Herlinger Weber, by contrast, died with her children in 1944 in the gas chamber (that “detail” of Le Pen’s). The story goes that another prisoner advised Weber to go in singing with the children, so they’d inhale more gas and die more quickly. In Lemper’s interpretation, Weber’s song “Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt,” written at Theresienstadt awaiting transfer to Auschwitz, was a gentle, gorgeous lullaby.

“Der Tango fun Oschwietschim” (“The Auschwitz Tango”), a Polish tango often sung in the concentration camps, has words written by anonymous prisoners. “Sing, oh girl, another little song / About days and nights in the camp behind the wires. / Our slave tango…” Lemper and the band performed it with force and passion.

And it wasn’t the only dance music on the program. “Mein Zawoe” (“My Will”), with music by Johanna Spector, another survivor, progressed as a sad folk ballad but concluded as a blistering polka led fiercely by Hoffman’s fiddle.

Influences went beyond Europe, too, in the bluesy, stately, and absolutely charming “Auf der Heide,” written by the popular cabaret entertainer Willy Rosen, who wrote a great deal while interned at the Nazi transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands before perishing at Auschwitz.

The program ended with the wistful, anonymously written “On A Heym.” “When will this walking stop…When will this war end / Because I cannot walk any further. / They chase us, they hurt us, they torture us / Life passes without any hope.” Still, the very existence of such a song, not to mention the all-out commitment with which Lemper sang it, bespeaks the survival of hope.

“A difficult journey, but a necessary journey.” Donations to Last Musik are accepted online through the Center for Jewish History, which is also reachable by phone at 212-294-8301.

*BC, April 8, 2016