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PREVIEW | The Shoah Songbook: The Search For Jewish Composers Lost In The Holocaust

By Paula Citron on April 3, 2021

Likht Ensemble
Likht Ensemble (Photo: Ilan Waldman)

The Shoah Songbook Part One: Terezin. A concert by the Likht Ensemble featuring music from the Holocaust, streaming Apr. 4, 8:00 pm on the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company website.

Shoah. Terezin. These are powerful words steeped in anguish. Shoah is Hebrew for “catastrophe” or “utter destruction”, and has come to mean the Holocaust, and the systematic genocide of the Jews by the Nazis during World War 2. Terezin was a ghetto-cum-concentration camp 30 miles north of Prague, and a waystation on route to Auschwitz and Treblinka’s extermination camps.

Terezin was built within the famed 18th-century fortress of Theresienstadt. It was also a “show” camp because of the plethora of Jewish scholars, philosophers, scientists, visual artists and musicians of all genres who were deliberately sent there. Thus, when the International Red Cross came on an inspection visit, the Nazis could point to Terezin’s rich cultural life as an important part of Jewish “resettlement”. Sadly, that noble organization believed the Nazi charade and made a satisfactory report about the conditions.

The one truth about Terezin, however, is that culture did flourish in the appalling conditions, because the various artists found the means to keep practising their art. Shoah Songbook Part One: Terezin, features music written between 1940 and 1945 by composers who were later sent to their deaths, whose lives and artistry were tragically cut short before their time.

The Likht Ensemble

The enterprising group behind the concert are young people driven by a passion to unearth the lost music of Holocaust composers. The co-curators are soprano Jaclyn Grossman, 28, and pianist Nate Ben-Horin, 31. Both graduated from McGill in 2020, Grossman with a Masters degree in opera and voice, and Ben-Horin with a Masters in collaborative piano. The two first collaborated when Prof. Michael McMahon put them together in song interpretation class, and their musical partnership has continued to this day. Grossman is a Toronto native, while Ben-Horin, who is from San Francisco, came to McGill for graduate work to get out of Trump’s America.

The other three Likht members, all in their late 20s/early 30s, are Ilan Waldman, Madison Matthews and Jonathan Colalillo. Waldman and Matthews are the group’s creative directors, and are responsible for filming, editing and design, while Colalillo is the sound engineer. Grossman went to Westmount High School in Thornhill with Waldman, who jumped on board when he found out about the project. He brought in Matthews and Colalillo who are equally enthusiastic. Matthews is Waldman’s production partner, and Colalillo is a frequent collaborator.

Likht means “light” in Yiddish, and it is with some irony that the word is pronounced the same in both Yiddish and German.

Why Holocaust Music?

During our Zoom meeting, Grossman and Ben-Horin state the obvious. Although the Holocaust, is a well-trod subject, nonetheless, the aging survivors are dying, and with them, their first-hand accounts of the horrors. The duo also points out a sobering statistic. In a recent poll commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) in Montreal, and conducted by Leger Marketing, only 43% of those surveyed knew that six million Jews had died in the Holocaust. “We’re losing the legacy,” laments Grossman.

There is also the thorny problem of anti-Semitism within the classical music tradition, which, according to Ben-Horin, is not challenged in modern performance practice. When was the last time that anti-Semitism was mentioned in reference to Wagner in a program note?

In light of all this, the Holocaust has been much on their minds, particularly in what to program for recitals. In specific, Grossman had to prepare a concert of Jewish composers for Temple Sinai, which had honoured the soprano in 2020 with the Ben Steinberg Musical Legacy Award for a Canadian Jewish artist of promise.

All these disparate elements have led Grossman and Ben-Horin to the Jewish composers lost in the Holocaust. Says Grossman: “We didn’t want to do a concert with the usual suspects like Mahler, or Korngold, or Weill. We really wanted to showcase lesser-known composers, and because we were both familiar with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s 2007 album Terezin – Theresienstadt which featured music written in the concentration camp, we thought, let’s really honour the Holocaust by researching truly lost composers.”

There was only one problem, however, namely the pandemic. Both Grossman and Ben-Horin were gung-ho to do research in Europe, especially with Italian pianist, composer, musicologist and Holocaust expert, Francesco Lotoro, and with musicologist Brett Werb at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. , but they couldn’t travel. The duo, therefore, had to use material that was easily accessible online which meant creating a concert around Holocaust composers who had been “found”, so to speak.

“There was one way, however, that we could make the concert our own,” explains Ben-Horin. “We could do our own original musical arrangements. In fact, there exists not one arrangement of these Holocaust songs by someone who is Jewish. All the arrangers of Holocaust composers have been European non-Jews.”

Thus, while this first Shoah Songbook contains music that has been recorded or concertized before, the driving motive of the Likht Ensemble is still to drill deep into research to unearth the truly forgotten and lost composers. The ensemble also plans to have a very active and accessible website featuring their research.

How The Shoah Program Came To Be

When Grossman shared the idea of featuring Holocaust composers with Temple Sinai’s Cantor Charles Osborne, he told her to take their initiative to the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. To the ensemble’s delight and amazement, co-directors David Eisner and Avery Saltzman gave this virtually untried group a green light. “They took a real chance on us,” says Ben-Horin. Not only that, HGJTC has scheduled not just one concert, but five Songbooks over the coming year.

Says Eisner: “Part of the responsibility of our theatre company is to give voice to strong, vibrant and rising talents. When Jaclyn shared  the concept of the Shoah Songbook, combined with her passion and drive, we were committed to help her bring it to life.”

Covid played its part, of course. Ben-Horin travelled from Montreal, and became part of Grossman’s quarantine bubble at her parents’ home. They also both got tested. The filming was done under strict Covid rules in the Fanny Green Hall at Temple Sinai.

The Program (With Subtitles)

Ilse Weber (1903-1944)

According to Grossman and Ben-Horin, their journey started with this Czech composer because they fell in love with the simplicity and beauty of her music. They refer to her style as lyrical folksong. Weber was a poet, songwriter, children’s author and radio producer. She is represented on the program by three songs and two spoken poems. Self-taught on the guitar, she used a smuggled instrument to compose songs in secret for her young patients when she was a night nurse on the children’s ward of the ghetto infirmary. Weber and her husband managed to send one son, Hanus, on a kindertransport to London, but were deported to Terezin with their other son Tommy. In 1944, when the children of Terezin were finally sent to Auschwitz en masse, she volunteered to go with them, and died in the gas chamber with Tommy. Her husband Willi managed to bury her poetry, letters, and music in the Terezin gardens before being sent to the death camp. He survived, and was able to dig up these precious artifacts after the war.

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

Before the war, the prolific Austrian composer was very well-known for his operas, orchestral works, instrumental chamber music and art songs. In Vienna, he had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg and a conducting assistant to Alexander Zemlinsky. Not surprisingly, his works are marked by both atonality and dissonant harmony, and show a marked mastery of formal structure as well as a profound depth of expression. Because of his fame, when Ullmann was deported to Terezin in 1942, he was told by the Nazi powers to concern himself with music, and so he served as a concert organizer, lecturer, critic, and assistant conductor. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where he died in the gas chamber. When he was leaving Terezin, Ullmann gave his works to Czech-German philosopher Emil Utitz for safekeeping, who mercifully, managed to stay alive until Terezin was liberated in 1945. The most accomplished of the four composers on the program, Ullmann is represented by two works, one of which, Marienlied, was written before the war.

Karel Svenk (1907-1945)

Czech-born Svenk was an actor, director, writer and composer who was known for his popular productions of cabarets and variety shows, which, when given permission, he continued to mount in Terezin, collaborating with pianist/conductor Rafael Schachterto. The popularity of these shows made him a leading cultural figure in Terezin. One of his Nazi sanctioned showcases featured the all-male cabaret, The Lost Rations Ticket, and that production’s beloved final march, Vsechno jde! (Anything Goes!), became the unofficial anthem for the prisoners. It was also known as the Terezin March, and that very defiant song concludes the program. Svenk was sent to Auschwitz, and then to the slave labour camp at Meuselwitz. From there prisoners were marched back to Bohemia. He died during the death march from the Czech town of Kraslice to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in 1945.

Gideon Klein (1919-1945)

Czech-born Klein was a pianist, composer, writer and educator. His natural curiosity led him to explore a wide variety of music styles, from settings of Hebrew folk melodies, to avant-garde modernisms. He was a driving force in the musical life of Terezin. As well as playing numerous recitals of solo and chamber music, he spent much of his time teaching music to the camp’s orphans. Klein was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, but probably because of his youth, was sent on to Füstengrube, a coal-mining labour camp. He died under murky circumstances during the camp’s liquidation in 1945. Klein’s jazz-tinged lullaby, Ukolebavka, based on a Hebrew nigun, or religious melody, begins the program. His legacy of works was preserved by fellow musicians, including his sister, Eliska Kleinova.

Final Thoughts From the Curators

In terms of the concert, Weber’s works form the story arc or the cornerstone of the first Shoah Songbook, with Klein and Svenk as the bookends. Ullmann represents the foray into classical art song. Perhaps what impresses Grossman and Ben-Horin the most is that many of the songs radiate hope, where you’d think that darkness, despair and sadness would be the overwhelming driver. Says Grossman: “The music of these Holocaust composers covers the whole range of the human experience.” And Ben-Horin adds: “These Jews in Terezin valued life more than they did tragedy. The very name of our ensemble, Licht/Light, reflects this pervading quality of the music.

In fact, the logo of the Licht Ensemble’s concert poster is also emblematic of hope over adversity. It is a stylized tree that stands for Ilse Weber’s artifacts buried under a tree. Trees represent a place where things can grow and the mystical Jewish tree of life as portrayed in the Kabbalah.

From our Zoom conversation, it was very clear that both Grossman and Ben-Horin see their search for Jewish composers lost in the Holocaust to be as much about remembrance as it is about presentation. Says Grossman: “We lost a generation of composers. Their music needs to be heard in a significant way.”

And let us give the last word to composer Viktor Ullmann. “The urge to play and create in Terezin was the urge to live.”


According to Eisner, the concert will remain on the Harold Green website for a few weeks after its premiere on Apr. 4. Here is the information to access the livestream.


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Paula Citron
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