The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were brutal and violent places. By the end of the Holocaust, an estimated 1.1 million people died or were murdered there by their Nazi captors.
But as University of Michigan music theory professor Patricia Hall has learned, prisoners at the camps managed to hold on to some of the beauty of their lives before the war through music. Hall recently discovered the sheet music for a song, arranged by prisoners at Auschwitz, that gives us a glimpse into those lives.
Stateside talked to Hall about her discovery of the manuscript, what we know about the musicians who played it, and what it’s like to hear the music played for the first time in more than 75 years.
Students with the University of Michigan's Contemporary Directions Ensemble perform "Die Schönste Zeit des Lebens (The Most Beautiful Time of Life)."
The song she found was a merry foxtrot called “The Most Beautiful Time of Life,” a 1941 song written by a popular film composer. Hall says even after hearing it so many times, she still feels deeply moved when she hears it.
“It’s filled with so much joy, so much euphoria, and then you think about that setting, and that those prisoners were somehow able to be musicians and express that music,” Hall said.
Hall discovered the music after getting a tip from someone who worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, saying there might be original musical manuscripts in the organization’s archives. She was curious enough to make the trip to Poland and investigate further. When Hall got to the archives, she was handed a card catalog. As she flipped through, she saw titles like “Love Letters That Never Arrived,” ‘The Most Beautiful Time of Life.’
“And anybody working in an archive is certainly used to coming across very personal documents. It could be medical records. It could be illicit love letters. You name it, we’ve seen it. But I just had to stop what I was doing. I was just so emotionally affected by this,” Hall said.
Hall had the music transcribed for her students at the University of Michigan to play. In November, they performed the piece at a concert with a packed house.
Listen to the full interview with Patricia Hall above to hear about her plans to do more work with the music of Auschwitz prisoners.