Performance of the Kovno ghetto orchestra. (Photo/Courtesy US.. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Performance of the Kovno ghetto orchestra. (Photo/Courtesy US.. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

‘Songs of Truth’ brings music of composers slain in Holocaust to Bay Area

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They wrote jazz pieces, lullabies, operas and concertos just like other 20th-century European composers. But these artists were Jews who wrote masterpieces from behind the barbed wire of concentration camps and who perished in the Holocaust.

Their music did not die with them.

Thanks to a group of dedicated musicologists and historians, Bay Area audiences can hear the works of these Holocaust-era composers next month.

“Songs of Truth,” a full-length concert with orchestra, chorus and multimedia accompaniment, will debut at the Benicia Clock Tower hall in Solano County on June 2 and at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre on June 4.

Urs Leonhardt Steiner (Photo/Kate Stilley Steiner)
Urs Leonhardt Steiner (Photo/Kate Stilley Steiner)

Urs Leonhardt Steiner will conduct the 120-piece Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

The performance will also include the projection of archival footage and a live narration from S.F.-based not-for-profit production company Citizen Film to add historical context and tell the stories of the composers.

“Sometimes you’re overwhelmed by the emotion of the whole thing,” said Steiner, who has been working on “Songs of Truth” for several years. The concerts will be the “culmination of this process.”

Some of the composers are well known. Hans Krása, for example, was a Czech Jew who wrote the 1943 children’s opera “Brundibar,” which premiered at the Theresienstadt concentration camp where Krása was imprisoned. Sections of the opera will appear in “Songs of Truth.” The program will also feature “Eli, Eli” by famed Jewish poet and underground fighter Hannah Senesh.

Other composers are relatively unknown, such as Viktor Ullmann, an accomplished Austrian musician who completed 20 major works in Theresienstadt. A section of his piano concerto is on the program.

And then there is Ilse Weber, a Czech-born children’s author, poet and songwriter. She, too, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and later murdered with one of her children at Auschwitz. Before deportation to the death camp, she hid a cache of her works under a shed at Theresienstadt. After the war, her husband returned to the site and retrieved the buried musical treasures.

The orchestra and chorus will perform Weber’s lullaby, “Wiegala,” written in Theresienstadt. The German lyrics include the lines, “Wiegala, wiegala/How silent is the world/No sound disturbs the lovely peace/Sleep, my little child, sleep.”

 

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The projected film during the concert will tell Weber’s story. “We knew early on that the most powerful way to present this material was to present the stories of [the composers] and have audience members feel they met real people,” said Kate Stilley Steiner, Citizen Film’s co-founder and Steiner’s spouse.

The curation for “Songs of Truth” was a collaboration initially between Steiner and Elad Kabilio, a musical adviser at Holocaust Music Lost & Found, the New York-based nonprofit that recovers and presents the works of Jewish composers who died in the Holocaust.

“I have immersed myself in learning about this music,” said Janie Press, who started Holocaust Music Lost & Found two years ago. “The music featured was written in the camps. Many of the composers did not survive. Some could have gone on to have illustrious careers as prominent musicians.”

Later on in the curation process, Bret Werb, a musicologist and recorded sound curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., weighed in with his specialized knowledge. Werb has helped build an archive and reference service used by researchers worldwide. He also curated an online exhibition called “Music of the Holocaust.”

Steiner, who founded the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in 1994, serves as its conductor and music director. Originally from Switzerland, he studied at the University of Tubingen and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Though not Jewish, he remembers growing up hearing stories from his father, who served as a guard on the Swiss border and was well aware of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution crossing into Switzerland.

“When we were kids, he brought the stories of the Holocaust to us,” Steiner recalled. “I ended up connecting with a lot of musicians who were Jewish. When I came here, I thought ‘This is America. Things are better here.’ But then in the last 10 years, the noise of antisemitism became more and more pronounced.”

After the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Steiner felt compelled to act.  (The man accused of killing 11 Jews at the synagogue is currently on trial.)

“I figured we needed to do something about this as an organization,” he said. “Of course, then Covid started, so we put it on hold. In the meantime, we connected with Holocaust Music Lost & Found, and we started a partnership quickly.”

Orchestra and chorus members have already given small-scale performances of “Songs of Truth” at Bay Area schools, libraries and synagogues. With the program ready for its full debut, Stilley Steiner said she believes “Songs of Truth” offers more than simply a showcase for some nearly forgotten music. It also sends a timely message for the modern world.

“I feel anxious about America today,” she said, “so this feels like a way to come together to fight intolerance.”

“Songs of Truth” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 2, at the Benicia Clock Tower hall and at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 4, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Benicia tickets cost $28. Herbst tickets range from $20 to $45.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.