Holocaust Music Lost & Found in Fair Lawn

Holocaust Music Lost & Found in Fair Lawn

Survivors describe and performers play hidden and discovered Holocaust music

In 2017 survivors’ son Cantor Sam Weiss sings at the JCC of Paramus as local leaders carry Torah scrolls rescued from the Holocaust. (JFNNJ)
In 2017 survivors’ son Cantor Sam Weiss sings at the JCC of Paramus as local leaders carry Torah scrolls rescued from the Holocaust. (JFNNJ)

Music composed and performed amid unimaginable atrocities experienced by Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust is, remarkably, being rescued and recovered. Composers, historians, musicians, musicologists, and laypeople have insisted that this music be remembered and performed to recall the hope it gave to Jewish people and the world.

Some of that music will be presented on May 5, at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom HaShoah program. (See box.) During the commemoration, a trio of musicians from a group called Holocaust Music Lost & Found will perform some of that music.

A “60 Minutes” episode titled “The Lost Music,” which aired on CBS in December 2019, inspired Janie Press of Manhattan to create Holocaust Music Lost & Found. The organization, made up of spiritual leaders, scholars, researchers, and writers, is committed to raising awareness of the power of music that might have been lost forever. With the support of educators, attorneys, policy makers, and lecturers who also are passionate and dedicated to the study of music written during the Holocaust, the organization’s mission is being realized.

As a start-up, Holocaust Music Lost & Found initially reached out to friends and family for support. Now, it is applying for grants to raise funds to expand its efforts.

“Though the sign above the steel gates of Auschwitz read ‘arbeit macht frei’ — work sets you free — one surprising source of temporary escape inside the gates was music,” Ms. Press said. “Composers and singers and musicians, both world-class and recreational, were among the imprisoned. And what’s not widely known is that under the bleakest conditions imaginable, they performed and wrote music.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. But some of their music did not, thanks in part to the extraordinary work of Francesco Lotoro, an Italian composer and pianist, who has spent 30 years recovering, performing, and, in some cases, finishing pieces composed in captivity.

“Nearly 75 years after the camps were liberated, Francesco Lotoro is on a remarkable rescue mission, reviving the music that could have been lost forever,” Ms. Press said.

Ms. Press, who is in her late 70s, grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her grandparents came to the United States from Eastern Europe. “I didn’t know a lot about the Holocaust as a young girl, but I had a Hebrew school teacher in the early 1950s, Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, whose concentration camp tattoo was revealed to us when he rolled up his sleeves. That’s how I learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Years later, in 1981, I read Rabbi Goldstein’s book, ‘For Decades I Was Silent.’”

At Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn in 2012, survivor Marcel Kozuch lights a candle. (JFNNJ)

A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, Ms. Press began her career establishing a children’s wear company, then moved on to successful sales and manufacturing positions in the fashion industry. But she’d always been passionate about music. “Growing up, I went to classical music concerts designed especially for kids,” she said. “When I knew I’d be staying in New York after college, I took classical music courses at Fordham and at the 92nd Street Y.” For the past 20-plus years, Ms. Press has been singing cabaret at Don’t Tell Mama in Manhattan.

“The ‘60 Minutes’ program aired in December 2019, then again in June of 2020,” she said. “I was eager to do something, so I spoke with people I knew in the nonprofit sector.” Shocked that this beautiful music was written under the worst circumstances imaginable by people who somehow had the will to continue to be creative, Ms. Press wanted to “find a way to first find the music, then to bring the music to the public in a meaningful and educational way.”

She soon used her connections and the networks she’d built to find volunteers to further these efforts. Although many of the musicians had been murdered, others “survived to tell their stories,” Ms. Press said. “Our goal is to unearth the compositions, perform them, and educate the world on the beauty that can come within chaos and destruction. By bringing the music to light, we remind the world that the preservation of the human spirit can uplift us.”

In June 2021, Holocaust Music Lost & Found was officially established.

“There were many experiences in the networking phase that felt more than coincidental, more like bashert,” she said. “I was eager to make connections with people who were like-minded and knowledgeable, who would bring me closer to the organization’s mission.”

Through those connections, she met Bret Werb, a musicologist who curated the collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Dr. Werb had researched the way concentration camp prisoners wrote and sang music about their horrific experiences.

“This is how they’d express what was happening, and to try to assure that some of these occurrences could be remembered even if they didn’t survive the war,” Dr. Werb said.

Ms. Press also met Elad Kabilio, an Israeli cellist and storyteller who became Holocaust Lost & Found’s music adviser. She said that the first time she heard the music and stories that Mr. Kabilio presents, she was overwhelmed with emotion.

Elad Kabilio, left, Janie Press, and Yochai Greenfield

Holocaust Lost & Found performed its first Yom HaShoah concert last year, at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. “Elad puts the programs together,” Ms. Press said. “After researching the composers, he gives each song context by writing the narration and the script. He plays the cello, and he’s accompanied by a pianist and a singer. “Typically,” Ms. Press said, “Yochai Greenfield sings in this trio of performers.”

The next month, the group went to San Francisco for a Holocaust awareness concert, collaborating with the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus for two performances.

Ms. Press noted that the music director/conductor for the Golden Gate Symphony, Urs Leonhardt Steiner, is not Jewish. He’s Swiss.

“Maestro Steiner was incensed at the level of antisemitism that had been raging in the Bay area,” Ms. Press said. “He went back to the orchestra and chorus to tell them he wanted to plan a Holocaust awareness program. And in another coincidence, one of our Holocaust Music Lost & Found board member’s sister-in-law sings in the Golden Gate Symphony. That was how the connection between the Golden Gate Symphony and the Holocaust Music Lost & Found was made.

“Some of our shorter, pre-concert programs, one of which took place at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, are geared toward high school students from African American and Latino backgrounds who were unfamiliar with both the Holocaust and the rich archive of Jewish music. We hope to develop our programming and expand our audience beyond the Jewish community with a focus on diversity and anti-hate education,” Ms. Press said.

“Holocaust Music Lost & Found performs a wide range of genres in addition to classical music,” she continued “Our audiences will discover many types of music, from cabaret to klezmer to Yiddish to jazz to Roma music to lullabies, folk, and work songs written and sung in the concentration camps.”

In October, Ms. Press met Allyn Michaelson, a volunteer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey during a concert that was part of an Israeli arts and culture festival at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. “While we were all reeling from the brutal Hamas attack of October 7 on innocent Israelis, the arts festival encouraged people to support the event and ‘meet the Israeli artist next door,’” Ms. Press said.

“I was interested in having Holocaust Music Lost & Found perform on May 5 at our 2024 Yom HaShoah memorial remembrance at Congregation B’nai Sholom/Fair Lawn Jewish Center,” Ms. Michaelson said.

From left, Elad Kabilio, Janie Press, and Bret Werb are at the United States Holocasut Memorial Museum in Washington. (Holocaust Music Lost & Found)

She and her commemoration co-chair, Rosalind Melzer, have been working on the Yom HaShoah Remembrance Observance for more than two decades; a committee of dedicated volunteers has been involved even longer. The program first was presented in the late 1940s.

“Years ago, Roz and I sat down with a group of Holocaust survivors at Cafe Europa, a social program sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, to discuss our annual Yom HaShoah program,” Ms. Michaelson said. “We asked them: ‘What do you like?’ ‘What should we change?’

“Their answer: ‘Please don’t change a thing.’”

The stories of two survivors of the Holocaust are always at the center of the annual program. “On May 5, in conjunction with Holocaust Music Lost & Found, we will tell the story of Egon Berg, who escaped with his family to Kenya, and Devora Kochman, who was born in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Ms. Michaelson said. “Each story will be narrated by a young man and a young woman. We are thrilled that Devora’s granddaughter, a student at Fair Lawn High School, will narrate Devora’s story.”

Both Mr. Berg and Ms. Kochman will be at the commemoration.

Ms. Press looks forward to working with JFNNJ. “One of the pieces we’re performing is a work by Tzvi Avni, a survivor born in 1927, who is still alive and lives in Israel,” she said. “As part of the Yom HaShoah concert, his music will be played by Elad Kabilio.”

The program on May 5 will include Rabbi David Bockman of Congregation B’nai Sholom/FLJC; the federation’s president, Dan Shlufman; and the program’s sponsor, Fair Lawn Mayor Gail Rottenstrich, who is a member of the congregation. It also will include a procession of the Torah scrolls rescued from Czechoslovakia that are housed at local shuls, including Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, Shomrei Torah in Wayne, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, and Congregation B’nai Sholom.

“The narrated stories of survival and the concert by Holocaust Music Lost & Found will be followed by the Yiddish reading and English translation of the Next Generation Pledge, the Hymn of the Partisans, El Maleh Rachamim, and Kaddish,” Ms. Michaelson said. The two survivors will light candles at the end of their stories.

Ms. Michaelson looks forward to the survivors’ remembrances and to the music, both of which withstood horror and have stories to tell.

Who: The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

What: Presents a program for Yom HaShoah that focuses on survivors’ stories and on the music composed by victims and survivors of the Holocaust

When: On Sunday, May 5, at 3 p.m.

Where: At Congregation B’nai Sholom/Fair Lawn Jewish Center

How much: It’s free and open to the public

For more information: Email Laura Freeman at lauraf@jfnnj.org or call her at (201) 820-3923

To register: Go to jfnnj.org/yomhashoah

To learn more about Holocaust Music Lost & Found: Go to www.hmlf.org

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