Why we should listen to the music of the Holocaust – and that of Syrian refugees

Not so distant echoes. Patrick M, CC BY-NC-SA

Singing is perhaps not something that people associate with the Holocaust. But a wealth of music was played and songs sung while victims were interned in the ghettos and camps. Perhaps this marked a desire to maintain continuity with the past, or perhaps it represented a kind of “spiritual resistance” to the systematic dehumanisation. Whatever the reason, the victims left an enormous corpus of music and songs.

Victims sang about their worries, their captors, their lives before internment and their inner emotional worlds. When faced with what must have been a devastating and bewilderingly sudden change to their world, it seems as if they sang endlessly. We need only glance at the enormous body of songs in Yiddish compiled by collectors such as Shmerke Kaczerginski to get a sense of their richness and ingenuity.

One of the ways in which scholars have tried to make sense of the lived experience of the Holocaust is through an emphasis on first-person testimony. But as the numbers of those who survived the camps dwindle, we are facing a profound shift in our relationship with the Holocaust. This raises challenging questions about the limits of testimony and its connection to the lived experience of the Holocaust.

The songs of the camps and ghettos count as part of the expanded testimony. They can help us to access the emotional world of the victims. Songs also open us up to the emotional world of the Holocaust, in ways that are perhaps more reliable than first-person narratives. They constitute part of a collective experience, sung and re-sung by countless individuals.

Song is different both from the intimate particular tone of first-person testimony and from the dehumanising abstraction of quantitative data (victim counts, the homogenised statistics of the dead and so on). And this is why it’s important to listen to the Holocaust: it enables us to access the emotional life of communities in terrible jeopardy, and to connect to their extraordinary creativity in the face of such brutality.

Echoes in the present

Today, recognising this is more important than ever. The parallels between some of the British media’s indifference to the plight of Jews before and during World War II and its current hostility to Syrian refugees is striking: a Daily Mail headline in 1938 read “German-Jews pouring into this country”, for example. The self-same discursive energy has been addressed by great swathes of the British press to the “inundation” of refugees from Syria fleeing targeted bombing, incarceration, torture and almost certain death. Elements of the press are using precisely the same strategic dehumanisation strategy, reducing refugees to an undifferentiated mass. The abstraction works precisely because it effaces human suffering and removes us from any responsibility to act.

As a musicologist of the Holocaust, my work has taught me that songs do not deal in the reduction of communities to a uniform mass, but in the complex, messy and irreducibly local experiential world of those who write, adapt, distribute and sing them. Songs are portable, easy to remember, they connect readily to personal experience and can be passed around in multiple versions. They do not carry their authorship heavily and they belong, in a very real sense, to the community of victims.

Some of the ways Syrian refugees use song is suggestive of that same desire we see in victims of the Holocaust to refuse the discontinuities of displacement, and to maintain an ongoing intimate relation with the emotional world of “home” – der heym in Yiddish, albayt in Arabic.

Arriving at Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station in September 2015, refugees from Syria brought song with them. They were humming the mesmerising slow rap of Damascus-based hip hop duo Latlateh; swaying gently to Syrian rock group Khebez Dawle’s Ayesh (“Alive”); gently intoning the traditional tunes of protest songwriter Samih Choukir’s Ya hayf (“O shame”). The mix of Damascus-centred contemporary and popular musics, traditional tunes and the muwashshah (Arabic poetic song form) of Aleppo is crossing boundaries as never before.

If we listen to the songs of displaced Syrians, just as we listen to the songs of victims of the Holocaust, we are forced to connect to displaced communities’ creativity, ingenuity and imagination. In short, we connect to their humanity, and to our own. As the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches, we would do well to resist the urge to close our borders and cover our ears.