The son of the Viennese operetta composer Oskar Strauss, Leo Strauss was also a talented librettist and musician. However, his untimely death in Auschwitz ensured that his musical accomplishments were restricted to Nazi camps, to be all but forgotten after the war. He was born in 1897, and little is known of his life before his arrest and eventual imprisonment in Theresienstadt. Certainly he had received extensive musical training, most likely from his father, and had worked as a cabaret writer and librettist.
Arrested along with his wife Myra, Strauss was first sent to the ‘show camp’ of Theresienstadt, where the Nazis interned a number of well-known Jewish artists and musicians. In Theresienstadt Strauss became involved in the programmes of the Freizeitgestaltung (the free-time organisation), particularly in cabaret productions, both as a librettist and performer. He became well-known for songs that simultaneously reflected the harshness of camp life and attempted to ease it. Like most cabaret writers, he relied on humour, cynicism and irony to critique his surroundings. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to Theresienstadt’s cultural scene was the chanson ‘Als-ob’ (As if), with melody composed by Willy Schwartz. The song’s lyrics condemned those who lived in a world of illusions and self-deception:
'I know a little city
a city really nice
I don’t call it by name
I call the city "as if"
There is a coffee house there
Just like the European Café
and with music playing
you feel there as if ...
there the people bear a heavy fate
as if it were not so heavy
and speak of a better future
as if it were tomorrow.'
Despite these critical lyrics, the song became a hit, particularly as performed by the jazz band the Ghetto Swingers.
In October 1944, Strauss and his wife were deported to Auschwitz, where they were both killed.
Myra corresponded with relatives while interned in Theresienstadt. She wrote:
'Next week I have my 2,000th “block event” – that’s quite something! My husband continually writes new Repertoire for me. You’d be amazed at what I learn by heart. You wouldn’t recognise him – he gives performances for hours on end without the slightest prompt – he never gets stage fright. When he’s really in the mood, he’ll sing in front of an audience of a thousand. He’s an actor, producer, literary manager.'