Music from Dachau: Uncovering songs of the Holocaust


Published: 6 December 2023

Leon Kaczmarek. Image courtesy of the Kulisiewicz Collection at the United States Holocaust Museum

Songs composed by a prisoner while he was detained in Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War have been performed to the public for the first time ever in a concert at the University of Southampton.

The music was written by Holocaust survivor Leon Kaczmarek, a Polish citizen who was held captive in the camp, near Munich in Germany, from 1940 until it was liberated in 1945.

He composed classical chamber music for 10 German poems. Six of the poems were written by 19th century German poets, whilst three were written by Kaczmarek’s fellow prisoners, Carl Molter (1887-1942) and Georg Wilhelm (1895-1945).

The 10th poem was written by Reich Propaganda Ministry official and SS member Wilfred Bade, and it is believed the music to accompany this was composed under duress.

The compositions have been uncovered by music PhD student Manuel Cini, and were brought to a concert in Southampton by Neil Gregor, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Southampton.

Professor Gregor said: “I first heard these songs in a private recital to academic colleagues earlier this year, and the story behind the collection is so interesting and important that I thought we have to bring this to the public’s attention. By enabling this music to breathe again, we are ensuring that the creative legacies of victims of the Nazis are not lost forever.

“There is, however, the moral question of whether we should be breathing new life into a poem written by a regime official. I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a question worth debating.”

Image of old music manuscript
Kaczmarek’s manuscript, courtesy of the Kulisiewicz Collection

Kaczmarek was arrested by the Gestapo in early 1940, following the Nazi invasion of Poland. He was sent to Dachau, where he was conductor of the men’s choir, and he composed numerous songs and instrumental pieces. He was also subjected to – and survived – two Nazi medical experiments. Post-war, he returned to Poland and became an artistic director of a men’s choir from 1965 until his death.

Manuel, who played the piano for the concert, unearthed Kaczmarek’s compositions as part of his PhD at the University of Surrey that is looking at music composed during the Holocaust. He found them in the Alexander Kulisiewicz Collection, an archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

Manuel said: “Bringing Kaczmarek’s artistic legacy back to light, which has remained unknown for so long, is both an honour and a moral obligation for me. Performing these compositions is truly moving because it means diving into his emotional state at the time of his imprisonment. I feel infinite respect for these pieces as they represent not only the voice of their composer but also those of all of the fellow prisoners who collaborated with him.”

The concert, Music from the Concentration Camp, was performed by Manuel Cini on piano and tenor James Beddoe at Turner Sims at the University of Southampton on Monday 4 December.

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