During the Holocaust, an entire generation of talented musicians, composers and virtuosos died, but their musical legacy lives on thanks largely to the extraordinary efforts of Francesco Lotoro. An Italian composer and pianist who converted to Judaism, Lotoro is on a mission or “mitzvah” – a Jewish duty – to recover, catalog and perform music written in captivity, including music written secretly by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Lotoro’s story, and those of some of the musicians whose works he has recovered, will be featured in a Jon Wertheim report on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, December 15 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Lotoro, who was raised Catholic in the small town of Barletta in Southern Italy, says he felt the pull towards Judaism in his teens. He says he has a “Jewish soul.” “There was a rabbi who explained to me that when a person converts… he goes back to being Jewish,” Lotoro says. “Doing this research is possibly the most Jewish thing that I know. 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.”
With the help of his wife, Grazia, who works at the local post office to support the family, Lotoro has collected more than 8,000 pieces of music, including symphonies, operas, folk songs and Gypsy tunes – all written by prisoners in camps. There is no question that music saved some lives during the Holocaust. Being a member of a prisoner orchestra, for example, increased your chances of survival.
Music that was composed secretly was sometimes smuggled out of the camp, or it was liberated with the prisoners who wrote it. Lotoro’s rescue missions involve tracking this music down all over the world, searching attics and basements for musical gems, as well as knocking on doors and meeting with survivors and their relatives.
Prisoners used anything they could find to compose music and materials often had to be improvised. Compositions were scribbled on everything from potato sacks to food wrappings to telegrams. In one case, a prisoner wrote an entire symphony using a piece of charcoal, given to him as dysentery medicine, and toilet paper. “When you lost freedom toilet paper and coal can be freedom,” Lotoro says.
Lotoro believes if this music isn’t performed, it’s as if it’s still imprisoned in the camps – it hasn’t been freed. He isn’t just collecting this music, he’s arranging it and sometimes finishing these works, breathing new life into this music for a worldwide audience. “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,” Lotoro says.
Wertheim and Lotoro visit Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Southern Poland, and Wertheim speaks to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of the last surviving members of the women’s orchestra at the infamous death camp. He also interviews the children of Holocaust prisoners whose music Lotoro has helped bring out of the shadows. This poignant story comes just a month before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in January 2020.
*The article was published in CBSnews on Decemer 11, 2019.