Composer takes music from the Holocaust to the classroom

Nurit Jugend’s family never discussed the Holocaust. The topic was forbidden from conversation. Her grandmother burned every letter she received from relatives who stayed in Germany after World War II.

Jugend’s connection to the Holocaust is nonexistent. Even worse, she doesn’t know why.

“I can only speculate,” said Jugend, who lives in Palo Alto. “Perhaps [my grandparents] wanted to protect future generations from the horrors. Perhaps it was too painful to talk about. Perhaps the information in those letters was not something they wanted to pass on.”

In her quest to learn more about the Holocaust, Jugend, an Israeli-born composer, used the music written and performed by Jews in Nazi ghettos and concentrations camps to guide her.

Her curiosity led her to rare musical recordings, documentaries and interviews with survivors, all of which she incorporates into her ongoing lecture series, “Musical Diaries From the Ghetto.”

The next class begins 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5 at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, followed by lectures May 12 and 19. The series is open to the public.

Nurit Jugend

On May 5, piano soloist Edna Koren will play a sampling of the classical music created in concentration camps and ghettos, including works by composers Pavel Haas and Viktor Ulmann. A discussion will follow the concert.

Koren and Jugend will come together in June for a multimedia event at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. In addition to a lecture and live music, original artwork and sculptures created by Holocaust survivors will be on display.

The “Musical Diaries From the Ghetto” series focuses on various forms of music, such as partisan, Yiddish, cabaret and lullabies, as well as music composed after the war and in reaction to the Holocaust.

Art and poetry also play a role in Jugend’s lectures, as she explores alternative outlets that Holocaust survivors used for creative expression.

“It’s just amazing that people actually composed and created under such stressful and horrific times,” said Jugend, who holds a doctor of musical arts in composition from Stanford University. “You would never guess [the music] was written during the Holocaust.

“I wanted to understand what led people to compose music. Through my passion for music, I tried connect to my unknown family history. It’s a way for me to raise questions and connect with this topic.”

While researching, Jugend discovered that most of the music was encouraged and flourished at Thereisenstadt, a concentration camp in the northern region of the Czech Republic. She said the Nazis portrayed Thereisenstadt as the “propaganda camp” or “liberal ghetto” to show the world that “Jews didn’t have it that bad” and to “distract people from thinking about freedom.”

She added that the interned put on concerts, operas and other performances — even the children put on an opera and wrote street music, in which they borrowed a well-known melody and applied their your own lyrics to the tune.

“The lyrics were fascinating,” Jugend said. “Real descriptions of what their eyes saw.”

Orchestras did exist in other camps, though their formation depended on the willingness of the Nazis to allow it, in addition to availability of instruments. At some camps, prisoners were allowed to bring in their instruments; at others, instruments were smuggled in.

Jugend heard the story of a man who, before entering the ghetto, took apart his cello, stuffed the pieces into his suitcase and assembled it with glue once inside. Others found a deserted piano, repaired it, added legs and played it in hidden attics or basements.

It’s the anecdotes, music samples and musings from survivors who take her classes that inspire Jugend to continue teaching the power of music.

“People were able to write beauty in such an ugly time,” she said. “I want to share the music composed, the hope it gave people and the lives it saved.”

“Musical Diaries From the Ghetto” begins 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5 at the Oshman Family JCC, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Cost is $18 for a single lecture. Class descriptions and registration: or (650) 493-9400.