Using Music in Memorial Events

This list of musical works is offered as suggestions only, to be included at moments in your commemoration where you feel music would be an appropriate addition. There is no obligation for the inclusion of specific religious or national songs or music. Where possible, we have put in links to the music or to more information. Please note that there are many other options for appropriate music you could play at your event - this resource is a starting point.

Music for participation

Music has played a part in Holocaust commemoration from even before the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945. Jewish Historical Commissions in Germany and Poland gathered songs written during the Holocaust, preserving them in written or recorded format. The following songs represent some of the more familiar tunes associated with the Holocaust, and would be suitable as songs for participants to join in singing:

  • The Moorsoldatenlied (the Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers) was written in 1933 by Rudi Goguel, a political prisoner in Börgermoor, one of the first established Nazi concentration camps. It is available in German, French and English.
  • Makh tsu di eygelekh (Close your eyes) was written in the Łódź Ghetto, by I Shpigl and D Beygelman. Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Łódź Ghetto, banned the song because of the tragic, hopeless message contained in the lyrics.
  • Written and composed by A Sutskever and A Brudno, Unter dayne vayse shtern (Under your white stars) began as a piece of poetry from the Vilnius Ghetto, with music composed afterwards. It directly addresses God’s absence in the Holocaust.
  • Der Partizanerlid, also known as Zog nit Keynmol, was written in 1943 in the Vilnius Ghetto, and is the unofficial anthem of Holocaust survivors around the world.

Music as contemplation

Music acts as a conventional point of contemplation in many memorial services, both religious and secular. The following list contains works written during and after the Holocaust. We advise that you listen to any work in full before including it in your commemoration.

Music written before and during the Holocaust

  • Suite for oboe and piano (1939) was written by Pavel Haas during the occupation of Czech lands by the Nazis. Haas’ Suite contains strong Czech nationalist and Jewish themes. You can listen to the work here.
  • Piano Sonata (1943) was written by one of the most promising young composers in the Terezín Ghetto, Gideon Klein. One of Klein’s last works was the Trio for violin, viola and cello (1944), of which the second movement is particularly beautiful and contemplative. You can listen to the movement here.
  • The head of the Free-time Association in Terezín was Viktor Ullmann, an immense personality in the ghetto. He wrote 41 works there, as well as writing critiques of performances, accompanying on piano and organising concerts. Of his ghetto compositions, Immer inmitten (1943), Piano Sonata No 6 (1943) and Piano Sonata No 7 (1944) are notable.
  • In 1944, Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Piano Trio No 2, in memory of his close friend and mentor Ivan Sollertinsky. The third movement’s solemn structure is contrasted by Jewish themes in the fourth movement. News of the death camps had been reaching Moscow by this point, and the composer was also completing the score of Rothschild’s Violin, a work written by his pupil Veniamin Fleyshman, who had been killed in the siege of Leningrad in 1941.
  • Performing the Jewish Archive is a project based at the University of Leeds that seeks to inject new life into recently discovered musical and theatrical works by Jewish artists, created between 1890 and 1950, which were thought to have been lost. Contact them if you are interested in discovering obscure musical pieces by Jewish composers from the period and exploring how these might be performed for HMD.

Music written in response to the Holocaust

  • Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) – one of the first musical responses to the Holocaust. This is an inaccurate account of the Warsaw Ghetto, instead Schoenberg values his composition for its imaginative and memorial potentialities.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No 13, Babi Yar (1962) – this composition is based on a poem by the Russian poet Evgeny Evtushenko who visited Babi Yar, where an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered in September 1941.
  • Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988) – this piece reflects Reich’s own memories of being a Jewish child in the 1940s and fuses these with the memories of child survivors of the Holocaust.
  • Carl Davis, Last Train to Tomorrow – the award-winning composer has written a piece of music based on the story of the Kindertransport. It is a dramatic narrative for a children’s choir, actors and an orchestra. Clips are available on YouTube.
  • Howard Goodall has composed pieces of music specifically for HMD events: I Believe in the Sun (2001) was commissioned by the BBC and premiered at the inaugural national Holocaust Memorial Day event in 2001, A Song of Hope was commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and premiered at the 2010 Holocaust Memorial Day Event (you can buy the sheet music and a recording by Voces8 is on iTunes) and In Memoriam Anne Frank (1994) was commissioned by The Voices Foundation and performed at a national HMD Event.

Other examples of music written in response to the Holocaust

Music at Holocaust Memorial events

In addition to playing music created during and as a response to the Holocaust at your Holocaust memorial event, music can be used in a variety of other ways to engage your audience.

Interfaith or intergenerational

Why not arrange for local choirs to all rehearse the same song or piece of music and then bring them together to perform? You could do this with choirs of different faiths or ages. Scotland’s national HMD 2014 event included a performance by Music of Strangers, including Roma and non-Roma participants. The Roma group appeared alongside survivors of the Holocaust and the Genocide in Cambodia to emphasise the links amongst the different communities affected by such atrocities.

Music and film

The Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Group, and the Launston Jesuit Centre screened the BBC film Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz at their HMD event in 2014. The film was entirely shot in Auschwitz and includes a variety of music connected to the Holocaust, interspersed with survivor accounts. You can find clips of the film on Youtube.

Alan Bern and his Semer Ensemble are often invited to perform internationally at Holocaust Memorial events. They have produced an album, Rescued Treasures, Piranha, 2015. The German and Austrian embassies in Ottawa, Canada have commissioned a short film entitled Beyond All Memories – The Semer Ensemble and the Rescued Treasure of Jewish Musical Life in Nazi Berlin and a full length documentary about Jewish Musical Life in Nazi Berlin is in the making.

Klezmer music

In York, for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014, Lesley Shatzberger played traditional Jewish Klezmer music in a candlelit ceremony at Clifford’s Tower. Lesley is a local clarinettist. Two of Lesley’s grandparents had been murdered in the Holocaust and she told those who came to the ceremony about her family history.

Compose your own music to Keep the memory alive

You could encourage your audience to compose their own piece of music as a response to the Holocaust, or as a response to a survivor’s story.

This resource has been prepared with the help of Dr Joseph Toltz, Research Fellow, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney.