As It Happens

Sheet music written by Auschwitz prisoners collected dust for decades. This British composer restored it

After eight years spent recovering the documents, Leo Geyer finally brought one of the pieces to an audience. He hopes the music helps people better understand Holocaust history.

Leo Geyer is bringing music written by prisoners in secret to audiences for the first time

a man with brown hair and light eyes smiles at the camera. He's wearing a black velvet shirt, his arms crossed in front of him. In his right hand, he holds a conductor's baton.
Leo Geyer is a British composer and conductor. For the last eight years, he's been restoring original compositions written by members of a prisoner orchestra in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. (Submitted by Leo Geyer)

When British composer and conductor Leo Geyer was commissioned to write a piece of music in memory of a Holocaust historian, he decided to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum on a research mission.

But he never imagined that while visiting the site of the extermination camp once operated in Nazi-occupied Poland, he'd get his hands on the manuscripts of original compositions written by members of a prisoner orchestra nearly a century ago.

"I had a conversation with one of the archivists about [the orchestras]. And he then said in this very offhand way, 'Oh, yeah, well, there's manuscripts in the archives,'" Geyer told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"I nearly fell over when he told me, because I couldn't believe that such a thing could exist, and it had been overlooked all of this time."

Most of the 210 musical documents the archivist showed Geyer were printed songs and arrangements given to the orchestras to play publicly, including as entertainment for guards. But a handful of manuscripts were original, unsigned manuscripts, likely written by a prison orchestra member in secret.

After eight years of careful restoration by Geyer, on Monday he conducted the performance of one of the songs, called Futile Regrets, for the first time in front of an audience at London's Sadler's Wells Theater. 

The composer said the haunting strings and melancholy woodwinds speak to the listener's soul. "This is music of the heart. And it's clearly [written by] someone who is in great pain and trying their best to articulate in music what that really is emotionally," Geyer said.

A white piece of sheet music, with black music notes filling the bars of the page. There's a hole in the middle of the page and the bottom edge is scorched.
Some of the recovered sheet music held in the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. Some of the edges are ripped and scorched, and none of the sheets form complete orchestra scores, making it difficult to understand. (Submitted by Leo Geyer)

Despite not being Jewish or Polish himself, Geyer wanted to recover the piece to commemorate the loss of life during the Holocaust, and help people better understand this period in history.

"What I hope this project [does] is make everyone feel that they can engage with that history and … really make sure that we don't find ourselves repeating history in any way, shape or form," he said.

'Like 200 jigsaw puzzles all jumbled together'

Much of the sheet music was in poor condition when Geyer first saw it. Some were ripped and scorched in many places. Even the undamaged documents were missing parts, like a conductor's score marking individual parts for each instrument to play, making the music hard to understand.

According to Geyer, only fragments of the manuscripts survived after SS soldiers tried to destroy evidence of their crimes at death camps at the end of the Second World War. Many musical instruments were destroyed, as well.

"It is a bit like 200 jigsaw puzzles all jumbled together. And many of the pieces are in fact missing or broken [or] scorched. So to actually try and piece them together takes a lot of work."

But he says he committed to restoring the works when he noticed the handwriting of whoever wrote some of the sheet music was nearly identical to his own.

"[It] sent goosebumps down my spine," said Geyer. "When I saw it, I felt that it was my duty to finish it. And so that's what I set out to do."

A man wearing a black jacket, a black toque and a brown backpack stands with his back to the camera. He looks out across a snow covered field, scattered with low, simple fences and a few trees.
Geyer at the site of the Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp, which is now a museum and historical site, in Poland. Geyer visited the site and studied the original manuscripts six times on research trips over the last eight years. (Submitted by Leo Geyer)

Some pieces, like Futile Regrets, were easier to restore, Geyer said, because the mood the composer sought to convey came through immediately.

He's still working to restore other works, and some of them require more research — including cross-referencing the music with testimonies from the time about what purpose music served and who was playing it.

"It's been a study much, much beyond just the manuscripts themselves, so that I could really try and recreate the music of Auschwitz as closely as possible," said Geyer.

'They played music to remain human'

Being an orchestra member was a job assigned to prisoners in extermination camps, much like working in factories or tattooing other prisoner's numbers

According to Anna Shternshis, director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, the average life expectancy in Auschwitz was only three or four months, with prisoners usually dying from the gruelling labour conditions.

For those who could play an instrument, being in an orchestra was "a path for people to survive," said Shternshis, as it offered an alternative to harsh manual labour.

The orchestras were commissioned by German authorities and played music for a number of functions — often as entertainment for guards or at gatherings. There's some historical evidence that indicates music was also played during some mass shooting events, to drown out the sounds of the killings said Shternshis. Many of the songs mocked Jewish people and were used to humiliate prisoners.

Small bands also sprung up in secret. Prisoners would make music — like the kind Geyer restored — that reflected their own realities, intended to comfort one another in a time of great suffering. 

"They played music to remain human," said Shternshis. "Music allowed for emotions to be articulated, and I think that was a key for survival and for sanity for so many people."

Shternshis said Geyer's restoration project gives new life to the stories of those who suffered and died in death camps like Auschwitz.

"I think composers and performers of [this] music wanted this to be heard. [The restoration] gives us a chance to listen to the voices of people who didn't live long enough to tell that story," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abby Hughes

Journalist

Abby Hughes does a little bit of everything at CBC News in Toronto. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at abby.hughes@cbc.ca.

Interview with Leo Geyer produced by Rachel Degasperis

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