On October 18, Boston College Music Department professor Mark Ludwig introduced his new book, Our Will to Live. A result of years of meticulous research, firsthand experience, and an appreciation for Holocaust music, Our Will to Live focuses on the unexpected cultural and artistic breakthroughs of imprisoned artists in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In his book, Ludwig recreates the creative spirit that flourished within the Terezín concentration camp through the musical critiques written by prisoner Viktor Ullman alongside pieces of visual art and artifacts from the camp that managed to survive the war.
Ludwig talked at length about the work of composer Pavel Haas, whose songs Ullman described as full of “light and relevance.” Using slideshows of black and white photographs, Ludwig painted a picture of Haas’ life; separated from his family after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the artist was thrown into Terezín where he continued to write music. Ludwig played a recording of one of Haas’ songs titled, “A Sleepless Night,” which was part of a set of four songs that Haas composed in 1944 to the lyrics of Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry. The composition stands out not only because of its unconventional lyrical accompaniment but also because Haas wrote it knowing that his death—along with nearly all the other artists in Terezín—was looming on the horizon. Using Chinese poetry, “A Sleepless Night” was a message to a daughter Haas knew he would never see again.
Ludwig went on to bring special attention to Ullman, who, in addition to being the unofficial critic of the art scene at Terezín, was a composer himself. Surprisingly, Ullman’s compilation of critiques contained only one entry of his music: a piano sonnet dedicated to his own children. Ludwig played a video of a chorus singing the piece, which was made all the more moving as it was accompanied by photos of Ullman’s children. Separated during the war, the children were never again reunited.
In addition to music, Ludwig also highlighted the many pieces of visual art that emerged out of Terezín despite the censorship from the Nazis. Aware of the artistic talent that many of the prisoners possessed, the inmates were assigned prosaic tasks such as creating construction plans, decorative paintings for SS officers, and even Terezín currency that would go on to have little value. This forced labor allowed the imprisoned artists access to art supplies, which they then took to create their own art, offering priceless insight into their interior worlds and the harsh reality of the concentration camp. While many works were destroyed, many more were hidden in walls and under floors, waiting to be unearthed after the war.
What stands out both in Our Will to Live and Ludwig’s lecture is the Professor’s personal experience with former Terezín prisoners. Ludwig worked with a camp survivor to transcribe pieces of music from a deceased Terezín composer, putting onto paper a melody that had existed only in the man’s memory for decades. Ludwig also recounted how he helped to put the Terezín survivor, previously a musician, on the same stage with famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The art itself, whether visual or auditory, is astounding, but what elevates it to something more are the circumstances under which it was produced. The prisoners suffered from starvation, sickness, overcrowding, and physical and verbal abuse. In many cases, when their “unsanctioned” art was discovered, they were interrogated and tortured, sometimes even beaten to death. Throughout it all, they knew the fate that awaited them at the end. Not long after Ullman wrote his final critique, most of the Terezín artists were sent to Auschwitz and from there, death—“a generation of accomplished composers silenced too soon.” But it is precisely this inherent contrast between fortitude and hope in a place of death and destruction that gives Terezín art its poignancy and sublimity.
Towards the end of his lecture, one of the audience members asked Ludwig how he had come across such an uncommon topic to dedicate so much of his life. Rather than answering in some profound way, Ludwig simply replied that one of the greatest thrills he got was knowing that when he played the music, his students were all listening to it for the first time.