Religion & Jewish Life | World

Man with a mission: Italian pianist revives music created in concentration camps

Dancers outside the 13th century Scolanova synagogues in Trani, during the Lech Lecha Jewish culture festival, September 2012. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

TRANI, Italy (JTA) — Francesco Lotoro resurrects the music of the dead.

Since 1991 the Italian pianist has traveled the globe to seek out and bring to light symphonies, songs, sonatas, operas, lullabies and even jazz riffs that were composed and often performed in Nazi-era concentration camps.

“This music is part of the cultural heritage of humanity,” Lotoro, 48, told JTA after a concert in Trani, a port town in southern Italy, that featured surprisingly lively cabaret songs composed in the camps at Westerbork in the Netherlands and Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague.

The concert formed part of Lech Lecha, a weeklong Jewish culture festival in early September that took place in Trani and nine other towns in the Apulia region, the heel of Italy’s boot.

“When I started seeking out this music, my interest was based on curiosity, on passion,” said Lotoro, who was the festival’s artistic director. “I felt that someone had to do it — and that someone was myself. Today it has become a mission.”

Lotoro has collected original scores, copies and even old recordings of some 4,000 pieces of what he calls “concentrationary music” — music written in the concentration camps, death camps, labor camps, POW camps and other internment centers set up between 1933, when Dachau was established, and the end of World War II.

In the 1990s he formed an orchestra to perform the pieces, and in 2001 began recording the compositions. A selection was released earlier this year in a 24-CD boxed set called “KZ Musik,” or “The Encyclopedia of Concentrationary Music.” (KZ is the German abbreviation for concentration camp.)

Some of the pieces have long been known, including music by several prominent composers who were interned in Terezin. The Nazis used Terezin, a ghetto concentration and transit camp, as a propaganda tool, allowing cultural life to develop.

Other musical pieces, however, had been long lost or totally forgotten until Lotoro deciphered, transcribed and arranged them.

Many compositions had been jotted down in notebooks or scribbled in letters or on scraps of paper. In the Pankrac prison in Prague, the Czech composer Rudolf Karel scrawled music on sheets of toilet paper.

“People continued to create despite being in those places,” Lotoro said. “These composers felt that the camp was probably the last place they would be alive, and so they made a will, a testament.

“They had nothing material to leave,” he said, “only their heart, only their mind, only the music. And so they left the music to future generations. It is a great testament of the heart.”

Jews who were killed in the Shoah wrote most of the music that Lotoro has collected. But his collection also includes pieces by Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), political prisoners, homosexuals and others held in camps and prisons as far afield as Asia. He also has music written by German officers and troops in POW camps run by Allied powers and even American GIs held captive by the Japanese.

“Everybody made music, wrote music,” Lotoro said. “Because, you know, music is a social phenomenon. You can be a musician as an amateur, because you have a good ear, you can improvise, you can play the harmonica. Of course there are the great composers and musicians. But music is all of this, from amateur to professional.”

Lotoro, who lives in the town of Barletta, near Trani, and teaches at a music conservatory, believes he is descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity centuries ago. He was drawn to Judaism as a teenager; he and his wife formally converted in 2004.

But Lotoro said this was not the reason he began his search for the lost concentration camp music.

“Of course as a Jew, I now feel that this is a mitzvah; it is something I have to do,” he said. “But I think that if I had not become Jewish I would anyway have done this.”

His first foray to seek out music came long before his conversion. It was a 1991 trip to Terezin, where imprisoned composers such as Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein — both killed at Auschwitz — had written works, such as Ullmann’s opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” that already had become part of the international musical repertoire.

“I started there because I thought it would be easier,” Lotoro recalled. “But from Terezin I went on to research other former camps in the region, and at the end of three weeks I had to buy another suitcase to bring home all the material I found.”

Since then he has scoured antiquarian bookshops, catalogs, archives, libraries, museums, private collections and other holdings in more than a dozen countries for traces of lost music. Along the way he has amassed a trove of 13,000 items: scores, notebooks, papers, diaries, microfilms, photocopies, photographs, recordings and other material that he continues to sift through, catalog and sometimes reconstruct. He hopes to load all the pieces he has found onto a digital database for posterity.

As part of his research, Lotoro has consulted with scholars who specialize in the music of the Holocaust, and also has interviewed some of the few surviving musicians as well as relatives of those who perished. But he has carried out most of the work on his own.

“It is yet another testament to Italian creativity — the ability to address such global issues from a relatively ‘remote’ place, and as a single-handed initiative,” Francesco Spagnolo, an Italian musicologist who is the curator at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.

Much of Lotoro’s work also has been self-financed. Although he has received some grants over the years, he told JTA that he had gone into debt and even taken out a second mortgage on his home to cover costs.

Still, Lotoro said, he must continue.

“I cannot stop because if I stop, all the research stops automatically,” he said.

“And how many works are still out there that I haven’t found? How many works am I missing? How many will I be able to save?”