Sherr headshot
Laurence Sherr
Research: Music and the Holocaust

Primary research areas are music at the Auschwitz and Theresienstadt camps, and Sherr's interviews with survivors about their experiences with music during the Holocaust. Broader interests include music in the ghettos, camps, and among the partisans; the suppression of musicians and musical genres under Nazi rule; and Holocaust remembrance compositions. Securing source material for his compositional and educational work provided the initial motivation for his research pursuits.

Theresienstadt music pavilion, 1944  site of Theresienstadt music pavilion site, 2014
Left/top: Theresienstadt music pavilion near the southeast corner of the town square, 1944.
Right/bottom: Sherr photo of the same site 60 years later (2014).

The first photo shows a June 1944 event staged to deceive visiting members of the International Red Cross; the pavilion appears again in a contemporaneous Nazi propaganda film also intended to create broad international deception.

The January 1944 prisoner drawing below, whose near corner of the town square is the same site sans pavilion, shows that the square was usually off-limits to the enslaved prisoners.

graphic: town square with fence

During research visits to these camps, Sherr has created photo and video documentation of sites where music was rehearsed and performed, consulted with resident experts about musical activities in the camps, and examined archival and collection documents.

Among the motivations for his photo and video documentation of camp music sites:

  • to provide a better understanding of how music functioned in the camps by relating function to performance location
  • visuals enhance historical testimonies about, and descriptions of, performance sites–students and audiences gain a more immediate and compelling experience
  • further corroboration of historical photos and accounts of camp musical performances and sites.

Sample Auschwitz photos

Auschwitz orchestra 1941  Auschwitz orchestra site
Left/top: SS photo of the Auschwitz I prisoner orchestra, 1941.
Right/bottom: Sherr photo of the same location, 2011.
Note: The camp kitchen behind the musicians was expanded in 1943, as shown in the second photo.

The main function of the prisoner orchestras in the various Auschwitz-Birkenau camps was to provide upbeat march music for the daily departure and return of prisoner slave-labor squads working in nearby factories and sites. A secondary function was to provide concerts for the camp administration and staff, most often on Sundays; sometimes prisoners could also hear such a concert. The left SS photo shows the Auschwitz I (main camp) prisoner orchestra, possibly at one of the Sunday concerts. There was a natural acoustic reinforcement of the music at this Auschwitz I performance location near the main gate, the same site where the musicians played the daily marches: the sound resonated from the kitchen wall behind the musicians and from the facing brick wall of Block 24 directly across the road.

Additional Theresienstadt photos

pavilion with crowds  pavilion location 2014
Left/top: Another view of the town square and music pavilion during staged propaganda events, 1944.
Right/bottom: Sherr photo, 2014.

Auschwitz and Theresienstadt Lectures

"Music at Auschwitz: Aid to Survival or Dehumanizing Degradation?"
The impact of the four most active prisoner orchestras at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is considered through an examination of their functions, personnel, and repertory. In which circumstances did the music of these prisoner performers contribute to prisoner survival, and in which to torturous dehumanization? Answers to these questions are provided by eyewitness video clips, prisoner-created graphics, archival documents, and Dr. Sherr’s on-site photo and video documentation. The lecture can conclude on a brief personal note–the story of his mother’s family members who fled Germany but were later deported to Auschwitz.

"Heroes of the Holocaust: Music as Defiance in the Theresienstadt Camp”
Defiance and resistance were often hidden in the artistic work of Jewish musicians imprisoned in Terezín, the Nazi ghetto/camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The presentation includes eyewitness video clips from Dr. Sherr’s survivor interviews and his on-site photo documentation. Archival documents, recorded musical examples, and compelling stories further illustrate this form of defiance.

"Music at Theresienstadt"
The activities and significance of Jewish musicians in the Theresienstadt ghetto/camp in occupied Czechoslovakia, with musical examples of compositions created there. Presentation materials include archival documents, video testimony of eyewitnesses, and Sherr’s on-site photo documentation.

 

 

Holocaust survivors in the US, Israel, and the Czech Republic have shared their stories with Sherr. Their testimonies, both general and musical, add relevant information and human perspective to historical and political events.

Video Excerpts: Three Testimonies

As an adolescent in the Vilna ghetto, Alex Tamir composed the melody for a song that would become one of the best known songs of the Shoah: "Shtiler, Shtiler." During the Jerusalem interview, Tamir spoke about the song's genesis and clarified the provenance of the lyrics. Tamir was a noted professor at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and an international touring and recording artist with the Eden-Tamir piano duo.



Ann Klug provided testimony about life in Vilna ghetto during the war, where she frequently attended music and theater performances. During the interview, she sang Yiddish songs she remembered singing in the ghetto, most notably the well-known partisan song “Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg” (Never Say You Are Walking the Last Road), created in the ghetto by poet Hirsh Glik. This song was of particular interest to Sherr, and became featured in his subsequent Sonata for Cello and Piano: Mir zaynen do! and his Music of Resistance and Survival Project. Ann Klug survived the ghetto and various Estonian camps and was eventually liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.



In Prague, Czech Republic, Dagmar Lieblová shared memories of her journey through several camps following deportation from Theresienstadt, including the Theresienstadt family camp in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Neugraben, and Bergen-Belsen. In these excerpts from one of her interviews, she speaks about singing in the children's opera Brundibár in Theresienstadt. Her memoir is Someone Made a Mistake, So I am Here Now: The Dagmar Lieblová Story.



Additional Survivor Interviews

Eva Herrmannová
Eva Herrmannová recounted her musical activities in Theresienstadt, such as her audition for conductor Rafael Schächter.
Alexander Fried
Alexander Fried voiced songs that helped him to preserve pre-camp memories, including Slovak songs he secretly led in Sachsenhausen.
Ellis Lehman
Dutch survivor Ellis Lehman took her accordion into hiding, and sang Dutch songs to reisist the Nazi occupation.

Solveig Levin
Robert Levin was the leading Jewish classical musician in Norway before the war. His wife Solveig recounted their escape to Sweden, and Levin's work to rebuild Norwegian music culture after the war.
Helga Weiss
Artist Helga Weiss described Theresienstadt beautification prior to the 1944 Red Cross visit. Her accounts include her drawings and book–Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp.

Vera Egermayer

Vera Egermayer-Prague  Vera Egermayer-Terezín
Left/top: with Vera Egermayer in Prague.
Right/bottom: with Vera Egermayer on the Terezín town square.

In mid-March 1945, as a four-year-old child, Vera Egermayer was deported from Prague to Theresienstadt. Her testimony illustrates the Nazi obsession with imprisoning Jews, even those like Vera with only one Jewish parent, and even as Germany was suffering from an overwhelming military defeat that ended in surrender less than two months later. Ms. Egermayer has engaged in her own research and has appeared in a video production speaking about the staging of Brundibár in Theresienstadt. The documents being examined in the first photo are from the archive of the Terezín Memorial. On top is a map of the ghetto with discussion of locations used for the performance of Brundibár (in contrast to the usual performances in a small attic, a larger gymnasium in an alternate building was used in 1944 both for the Red Cross visit and for a Nazi propaganda film). Underneath the map are scores pages from the piano reduction and two orchestral versions of Brundibár: Czech composer Hans Krása's 1938 original orchestration, and the 1943 re-orchestration that Krása made as a Theresienstadt prisoner for performers available in the camp.

 

 

Examination of holdings,* consultations with archivists and historians,* viewing and reading testimonies related to music, and/or the study of exhibits has been pursued at these locations. Online research continues to complement these investigations.

• Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oswięcim, Poland*
• Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, Atlanta, US*
• exil.arte: Center for Banned Music, Vienna, Austria
• Florida Holocaust Museum, St. Petersburg, US
• Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, Poland
• Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Western Galilee, Israel*
• Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, Wellington, NZ
• Holocaust Museum LA, Los Angeles, US
• Jewish Heritage Museum, New York, US*
• Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, Poland*
• Jewish Museum of Bologna, Italy
• Jewish Museum Frankfurt, Germany
• Jewish Museum of Prague, Czech Republic*
• Jewish Museum of Turkey, Istanbul, Turkey
• Jewish Museum, Vienna, Austria
• Jødisk Museum, Oslo, Norway*
• Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, Israel*
• Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris, France*
• Museum of History and Holocaust Education, Kennesaw, US
• Museum of Kraków: Old Synagogue, Kraków, Poland*
• Osthofen Concentration Camp Memorial, Osthofen, Germany
• POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw, Poland
• Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, US
• Schneidertempel Art Gallery, Istanbul, Turkey
• Terezín Memorial, Terezín, Czech Republic*
• Warsaw Uprising Museum, Warsaw, Poland
• White Stork Synagogue Exhibition, Wrocław, Poland*
• United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, US*
• Virginia Holocaust Museum, Richmond, US
• Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel*
• YIVO, New York, US*

Louis Bannet
Taped video testimony of trumpeter Louis Bannet, a member of the Auschwitz II men's orchestra, was found in the holdings of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and digital excerpts were later acquired from the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University.

saxophone players in Theresienstat camp
A frame cut from one of the propaganda films made in the Theresienstadt camp shows saxophone players in the pavilion. Such cuts were made surreptitiously. Jewish Museum of Prague.

Henry Meyer
Yad Vashem collections include video testimony from violinist Henry Meyer, another member of Auschwitz II men's orchestra. Like Louis Bannet, he provided eyewitness accounts of musical activities in the camp.
 

 

Compositions, Concerts, and Lectures

Sherr's remembrance compositions draw on source material encountered in his research. The enhanced concert events he has developed feature his compositions, or works related to the Holocaust, integrated with multimedia presentations of his research. Stand-alone lectures also utilize such presentations. Pages at this website that provide further information include:

University Course: Music and the Holocaust

Dr. Sherr's research findings are blended into the interdisciplinary course he developed for undergraduate students. The course, open to students in all degree programs, is a broad survey of classical and folk music that covers musical suppression; the Kulturbund; music in the ghettos, camps, and among the partisans; diaspora; and Holocaust remembrance music. From the course syllabus: "An examination of the music and musicians of oppressed groups during the Holocaust provides an example of musical marginalization and oppression in the past to foster global understanding and tolerance in the present." The course is cross-listed in the music and peace studies areas.

Pedagogy and Consultation: Music and the Holocaust

Sherr has been invited to disseminate the pedagogy he developed for the Music and the Holocaust course, especially course initiatives, engagement activities, and teaching strategies that have led to successful student learning outcomes. Dissemination has occurred through:

Additionally, Sherr consults with professional organizations planning cultural events, university professors designing courses covering music during the Holocaust, and university and high school students seeking information about Holocaust music topics.