ITALICS ‘Like a mitzvah’: Italian conductor brings to life music composed in the camps

italicsBy Jessica Steinberg*

When the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra performs a selection of reconstructed music composed by Holocaust victims next week in Jerusalem, it will feel like the fulfillment of a mitzvah, said Italian conductor Francesco Lotoro, using the Hebrew word for a meritorious act.

“To play this music feels like a reparation for me,” said Lotoro. “Each Jew is said to have a book in them. These victims didn’t get the chance to write their books, but this is their book; it’s a testament to what they would have done.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since Lotoro began a laborious process of researching works of music composed in the concentration camps, delving into the lives and thoughts of the victims who found ways to write lyrics and compose scores.

Lotoro has since discovered 8,000 pieces of music composed by Jews in the concentration and work camps, and has reconstructed some 400 of them. He has published a set of 24 discs called the “Encyclopedia of Music Composed in Concentration Camps.”

On Sunday, Lotoro arrived in Ashdod’s Yad Labanim auditorium for a morning of rehearsals for “Notes of Hope,” the upcoming April 15 concert featuring the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra.

The project is spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund in the United Kingdom, with the goal of celebrating Israel’s 70th and raising awareness of increasing levels of global anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

The British non-profit also funds two music schools in Israel’s south, and some of those young musicians will be performing alongside the more senior members of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra.

During Sunday’s morning rehearsal, Lotoro was busy working with the musicians, introducing pieces to the orchestra with a brief bio of the composer. He sprang into action with each composition, waving his hands and muttering the tune or words, if there were any, sotto voce.

The pieces vary widely in sound and genre. There are classical works heavy on violins and cello, joyous, big-band scores full of horns and the sounds of ragtime, and a piercing, emotional work of Greek music.

For the sparse audience at the rehearsal, there was a sense of wonder in imagining what it must have been like for the camp inmates who composed these works while undergoing Nazi torture. Yet for the musicians, it was the usual cacophony of perfecting sounds and handling logistics.

A pair of preteen violinists approached Lotoro about where they were sitting, while an accordion player wanted to be sure he was getting the right sound on one section.

Lotoro is the right person to ask. He reconstructed these compositions based on materials he found, scouring secondhand stores, attic drawers and dusty archives.

“When I would find sheets of music in a museum, okay, it’s there,” he said. “But sometimes survivors or their family would find a song, but no score. One woman had recordings, and I made a master of that and then had to figure out the score.”

Sometimes survivors could remember a piano piece, which Lotoro would then recreate from their humming the tune or singing the lyrics. Sometimes there written pieces that had disintegrated, eaten by insects, or had been written in pencil that had become nearly invisible.

A composer might have written notes quickly and roughly, leaving markings and notes that Lotoro painstakingly transcribed into something akin to a musical score.

In a German labor camp, Ervin Schulhoff, a Jewish Czech communist who loved jazz and ragtime, included three cryptic sets of horizontal markings in a piece of 10 verses he composed. After conferring with another musicologist, Lotoro figured out that the markings stood for Lenin, Stalin and Marx, the three Communist leaders.

“Each one of them had their histories, and their lyrics and scores referenced all of that,” he said. “They couldn’t use their mother tongues in the camps — that was prohibited — and that also altered what they wrote.”

Lotoro’s involvement in this piece of Holocaust history began when, in his work as a pianist and conductor, he happened upon several pieces of music composed by concentration camp victims, exposing him to an area of research that hadn’t been examined closely at that time.

“There was no internet, no iPhones,” he said. “I was curious, and that meant traveling to the cities where these composers had lived, to Prague, to Paris, to Holland.”

His research focused on a period beginning in 1933, when Jews in Germany began experiencing Nazi persecution, and continuing through 1944, when the Germans began to lose World War II.
It wasn’t an obvious area of research for Lotoro, 53, who was raised as an Italian Catholic in Barletta on the Adriatic coast, a place of maybe “300 Jews,” he said, holding up three fingers.

Yet from the age of 15, Lotoro felt he had a Jewish soul. He had, on his own, begun a process of Jewish study, eventually converting to Judaism in 2004. He later discovered that his great-grandfather was Jewish.

The Holocaust research happened alongside his drawn-out conversion process. Over the last 30 years, Lotoro has spent months on the project, recruiting friends and family as well, traveling to many countries, searching homes and attics, archives and libraries.

“I didn’t do this because I was becoming a Jew,” he said. “As a musicologist, I was interested in the music. But as a Jew, this feels like a mitzvah.”

*This article was published in The Times of Israel on April 12, 2018.