The CBS Television news magazine 60 Minutes recently profiled the extraordinary 30-year mission and journey of Italian composer and pianist Francesco Lotoro to recover, perform and finish works composed in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The camps were liberated approximately 75 years ago.
The works were largely unknown and in the possession of the descendants of Holocaust survivors, many of whom did not appreciate or recognize the rich musical legacy bequeathed to them by those who perished or survived the evil of the camps.
Lotoro, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Judaism, has rescued many works, including approximately 400 pieces that have already been revived and some of which have been performed globally. He describes some of the works as masterful.
The large body of work, ranging from operas to love songs, composed throughout the death camps amidst unimaginable horror, represents the harrowing struggle for survival and any hint of light by those facing imminent death and untold suffering.
One of the composers was Jozef Kropinski. Kropinski was 26 when caught as a member of the Polish resistance. The young Roman Catholic was sentenced to Auschwitz.
At the infamous camp, he joined the men’s orchestra and became first violinist. He began to secretly compose music for himself and eventually for others in the camp. One of his 1942 pieces is titled “Resignation”.
He wrote hundreds of compositions during four years of wrenching suffering and the ever-present stench of death and near daily gassing of thousands. The works include an opera in two parts, tangos and waltzes. His output was prolific.
He composed mostly at night by candlelight. He composed on stolen paper in a pathology lab filled with dead bodies. His works included Christmas and holiday songs intended to raise the spirit of and give encouragement to fellow prisoners.
He wanted others to hear and to see and to experience more than the throes of death and the darkness permeating the holocaust – hope and humanity and light.
With the Allies approaching Buchenwald in 1945, the camp survivors were placed on a death march. Kropinski smuggled out his violin and hundreds of his compositions.
Only 117 compositions survived. On the death march, Kropinski sacrificed the other works to build a fire to give others warmth in order to save their lives. During his four years in the camp and on the march, Kropinski created music as a source of light and solidarity in the midst of despair.
He offered his fellow prisoners spiritual, psychological and emotional spaces within themselves that could not be stolen by those who had already robbed them of so many other human and material possessions.
The late author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was also imprisoned with his father at Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944 to1945, near the end of World War II. His father was beaten to death in one of the camps when Wiesel was 16.
In his 1960 work “Night”, Wiesel recalls in approximately 100 pages the despair and loss of hope and life which engulfed him and others. He writes of his loss of faith in and utter disgust with humanity.
Wiesel wrote in “Night”: “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”
One website noted: “Night is the first in a trilogy – ‘Night’, ‘Dawn’, ‘Day’ – marking Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall.”
Light does not come easily and the path to light should not be trivialized and spoken of nostalgically. But light abounds. For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of a new light piercing and transforming a “world in sin and error pining”.
Light touches and penetrates all of the senses. After time spent in hospital, sometimes for weeks, the rush of sunlight can be correspondingly overwhelming and reinvigorating.
The light touches the eyes and warms the skin. The light offers a new perspective other than a hospital room or ward and the daily injections, physical pain, anxiety, fear and tedium of hospitalization.
Light also comes through sound: a song that brings memories of a departed loved one, the first cries of a newborn, the welcome voice from overseas of a friend with whom one lost touch years ago, the greeting from a relative away from home and hearth at Hanukah or Christmas.
Light comes through the smell of the perfume once worn by a deceased grandmother or favorite aunt, through the sensory feast of a holiday meal brimming with fellowship, through a bouquet of flowers that serves as a gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, through the communion of wine that nourishes body and spirit.
The ability to see, touch and sense light often requires conversion and openness to light in the midst of the blindness that enfeebles our spirits and shutters our hearts and eyes wide shut.
Once asked why someone could not see something so plainly in sight, the late Monsignor Preston Moss responded, “When someone is blind, they simply cannot see.”
Some close their eyes because they are desperately afraid of what they might see or feel, especially about themselves, preferring to live in hopeless delusion and untruths and the inability to be touched by the salvific power of grace.
Good relationships and friendships help us to see, enlightening us about our strengths and weaknesses, our foibles and goodness, our deadly sins and virtues and the petty jealousies and envy which poison our minds and make us endlessly irritable and incapable of helping to lift up others.
Author Bill Bryson recently noted that because of how the human body is designed, we are unable to see the back of our heads and other parts of our bodies that others can see.
Fortunately, we need others to see ourselves. We can all be defensive and insecure when others point out our mistakes or errors. But we should be grateful when those who love us seek to help us to grow and to see truer selves, helping us to eschew the pride and arrogance which serve as blinders.
Sadly, there are those too desperately afraid to acknowledge or to see the truth about themselves, endlessly avoiding such light through all manner of defensiveness, peripatetic distractions and compulsions, incapable of the solitude and reflection required for an indwelling of transforming light.
We all need others to penetrate the self-absorption and fears which beguile and threaten our better selves.
Some live as isolated islands, surrounded by walls and barriers, cut off from the necessary and constructive criticism from others, which may be a source of life and light. This is a sad darkness often masqueraded as pretend happiness.
Dawn requires the never-ending struggle to endure and to transcend the night and indeed many dark nights of the soul. And just as a seed or plant requires light to grow and to flourish, we need light to nurture our capacity for growth, a photosynthesis of the soul.
The light at Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere begins its evocative journey with the change of seasons and the resulting new interplay of day and night, days and nights growing longer or shorter depending on one’s geographical and emotional longitude or latitude.
With the year ending, the memories of light and shadows from the past year come into greater relief, with questions we might ask ourselves, including from the better self we want to become.
“How am I ending this year?”
“What have been my sources of light and my shadows?”
“How could I have been more generous or grateful?”
“How, in this season of light, can I be a greater source of light for others?”
“What continues to prevent me from a greater openness of heart and eyes about myself and others?”
Light is all around us, including light we cannot yet perceive and to which we are blinded. The true Christmas spirit is not in the commercialism of the season. The true spirit is to discover and to nurture new light within ourselves and to offer others the incandescent promise of transforming and healing light.
A prayer of supplication we might offer is to become a greater source of light and hope and joy for others, including those struggling with ill health, physically and mentally, as well as generosity to the poor and for those whose Christmas may be more blessed by our love and presence.
Every Christian has the capacity to be a part of the light of Christ, which is the very essence of the Christmas spirit. When we say that we don’t feel the Christmas spirit, this often means that we have forgotten or have neglected the love and light that animate the “thrill of hope” that is the light of the world. Blessed Christmas!