A talented singer, songwriter and performer who composed 54 songs during more than five years of imprisonment at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Aleksander Kulisiewicz is also noteworthy for having created and preserved the single largest collection of music composed in the Nazi camps. Because this extraordinary collection touches on a variety of issues relevant not only to music scholarship but also contemporary European history, it is valuable to musicologists and Holocaust historians alike.
Born in 1918 in Krakow, Poland, Aleksander Kulisiewicz moved with his father to the town of Cieszyn, near the Czech border, and spent most of his adolescence there after his mother's premature death in 1922. His interest in music developed at an early age; he began classical violin studies at age seven, but it was his encounter with Roma music a year later that determined his lifelong taste for popular and folk musical entertainments. Kulisiewicz's enthusiasm for this style of music led to performances with a local Roma ensemble. A freak accident in 1928, however, damaged his left hand, preventing further violin playing for some time. It also left him with a stutter that was eventually 'cured' by a hypnotist, who, Kulisiewicz later claimed, also helped train his prodigious powers of recall. Kulisiewicz refashioned himself into an 'artistic whistler' and appeared on stages across Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria.
After completing gymnasium in 1936, Kulisiewicz travelled with a group of friends and classmates across the Balkans before returning to Poland to begin law studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 1937. He continued to seek out opportunities for performance wherever he could, turning with ever more confidence to singing. He developed a talent for imitating an impressive range of vocal styles; this vocal prowess landed him engagements at the Bagatela revue theatre in Krakow and eventually a singing role in the Belgian documentary film Les Noires Désirent. As his theatrical appearances grew more frequent, he adopted the stage name Alex Alikuli. During the summer before the outbreak of WWII, Kulisiewicz joined a travelling circus and worked as a clown's assistant in order to be near a circus performer with whom he had fallen in love.
Soon after Germany’s conquest of Poland in 1939, Kulisiewicz was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo for anti-fascist writings published that year in the local Cieszyn press. At the age of 22, after several prison transfers and episodes of torture at the hands of the Gestapo, he was deported to Sachsenhausen during the spring of 1940.
At Sachsenhausen, Kulisiewicz became something of a 'camp troubadour'— a poet, player, and songwriter. He favoured broadsides — songs of attack whose aggressive language and macabre imagery mirrored his grotesque circumstances. But his repertoire also included ballads that often evoked his native Poland with nostalgia and patriotic zeal. He cast himself as a fortune-teller and a mystic, distracting the camp guards with ad-libbed prophecies of romance and war. His audacity earned him the Polish nickname Kiciu bimbuś, 'the devil-may-care-tomcat', which alluded to both his fearlessness and his idiosyncratic yowling-style of singing. His songs, performed at secret gatherings, helped inmates cope with their hunger and despair, raised morale, and sustained hope of survival. Beyond this spiritual and psychological importance, Kulisiewicz also considered the camp song to be a form of documentation. 'In the camp,' he wrote, 'I tried under all circumstances to create verses that would serve as direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs.'
Perhaps his transformative experience in the camp had been his encounter with the Polish-born Jewish choir director Rosebery d’Arguto. Profoundly impressed after hearing a clandestine performance of d’Arguto’s 'Jüdischer Todessang' (a parody of an old Yiddish counting song), Kulisiewicz pledged that he would remember the work and sing it should he himself survive.
Aleksander Kulisiewicz was liberated on 2 May 1945 during a death march from Sachsenhausen. After liberation, he remembered his songs as well as ones he had learned from fellow prisoners, and dictated hundreds of pages of them to his nurse in a Polish infirmary. Soon after his health returned he married, had children and took a job as Prague correspondent for a Warsaw newspaper.
Haunted by the sounds and images of Sachsenhausen, however, Kulisiewicz began to communicate with other survivors, collecting original materials and compiling a library of literature related to artistic expression in concentration camps. In the early 1960s, he joined with ethnographer Józef Ligęza and folklorist Jan Tacina in a project to collect written and recorded interviews with former prisoners on the subject of music in the camps. During this period he also inaugurated a series of public recitals, radio broadcasts and recordings, featuring his repertoire of prisoners' songs, now greatly expanded to encompass material from at least a dozen Nazi camps. He toured throughout Europe performing at anti-fascist rallies, and to countries as remote as the Soviet Union and the US. He released albums in Poland, Germany, Italy, France and the United States. Kulisiewicz also contributed articles on the subject of music in the camps to scholarly journals, most notably the Polish medical review Przegląd Lekarski.
Kulisiewicz worked tirelessly to publish a monumental study of the cultural life of the camps, one that would address the vital role music played as a means of survival for many prisoners. He did not, however, complete this massive project by the time of his death in 1982. Kulisiewicz's near-finished 3,000-page typescript of song texts, musical notation and extensive annotations — the product of twenty years of painstaking research — is now a part of the Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The supporting materials for this typescript make the Kulisiewicz Collection encyclopaedic in scope. The Collection's archival material comprises annotated song texts, music notation for vocal and instrumental works, poetry, artworks, photographs, scripts for puppet plays, musical diaries and correspondence with survivors; the Collection's significant audio portion includes cassette and reel-to-reel tape recordings of interviews with former prisoners concerning music in the camps, as well as songs performed by survivors who either composed these musical creations or sang them during imprisonment. Some 500 songs that represent the musical activity of 36 different camps can be found in the collection. This uniquely valuable resource documenting music and other cultural activities among prisoners remains little known to the scholarly community even today.
By Barbara Milewski and Bret Werb