Nick Strimple and Singing in the Lion’s Mouth: Music and the Holocaust, 1933-2016 is to be held at the China Exchange next month.
As means of expressing extreme sorrow and emotions, music, poetry, and the arts at large played an important role in the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps of World War II. Singing in the Lion’s Mouth focuses on the idea and history of music as an agent of hope in the concentration camps and eastern European ghettos during World War II. Nick Strimple will discuss the music and lead a group of musicians in a moving piece about the hopes and fears of those who endured the horrors of the Shoah.
The Nazis appointed Jewish councils known as Judenräte to serve as self-enforcing intermediaries between the Nazi government and the Jewish communities of the ghettos, and music performances in the ghettos were then sometimes censored and controlled, making music playing a symbol of freedom.
In the concentration camps, where instruments were not accessible, poignant musical pieces were still composed in secret, and choral ensembles were set up, a moving testimony to the power of creativity and human optimism. In a morbid display of cruelty, the Nazis had captive Jewish musicians set up orchestras in the camps to play as the other inmates were sent to work, or when new convoys of prisoners arrived to the camp and were sorted between those fit for labour and those who were to be sent to the gas chambers. Music was thus both a mean of controlling prisoners and a way of deceiving new arrivals into thinking the situation was not as dire as it seemed and therefore avoiding potential panic and uprising. Auschwitz-Birkenau alone had six different orchestras, one of which composed of no less than a hundred musicians.
An astonishing corpus of musical pieces, poems, drawings and paintings were produced by Jewish prisoners during and after the war, one of the most famous piece being Max Helfman’s Die Naye Hagode (Yiddish for ‘The New Haggadah’, i.e. the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt), a cantata about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. However, most of the music and songs that were sung or composed in the camps were not religious, but rather dealing with homesickness – prisoners from all around Europe were sent to the camps – patriotism, and even partisan ideologies. Some of the inmates sent to the gas chambers, moments before realising the fate that awaited them, sang the Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel), the Jewish declaration of faith and the last prayer a Jew is supposed to utter before dying, or Ani Ma’amin (I Believe), the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith.
Dr. Strimple is internationally recognised for his work with music related to the Holocaust and has lectured extensively at a number of prestigious universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, and at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. The author of two critically acclaimed books on choral music, Strimple also served as a consultant to several museums and has conducted some of the world’s leading ensembles, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Pure Land Series at China Exchange invites inspirational speakers and like-minded people to share their visions of a world grounded in compassion, empowerment, spirituality and creativity. The series is hosted by the Pure Land Foundation, supporting charitable endeavours to promote social, spiritual and emotional wellness. It also aims to enrich lives through art and music.