Music in the Holo­caust: Con­fronting Life in the Nazi Ghet­tos and Camps

Shirli Gilbert
  • Review
By – October 17, 2011
His­to­ri­an and musi­col­o­gist Shirli Gilbert has writ­ten a major new treat­ment of a small but reveal­ing cor­ner of Holo­caust his­to­ry: the role and mean­ing of music. Writ­ing against the pre­vail­ing idea that music always and every­where pre­sent­ed Jew­ish Holo­caust vic­tims with a means of spir­i­tu­al resis­tance, Gilbert argues instead that the folk songs, the­ater per­for­mances, cham­ber music con­certs and oth­er kinds of music var­ied con­sid­er­ably in their cul­tur­al func­tion and sym­bol­ic mean­ing for Jews. To prove this argu­ment, she offers four high­ly detailed, elo­quent­ly writ­ten case stud­ies of Jew­ish musi­cal life in the War­saw and Vil­na ghet­tos and the Sach­sen­hausen and Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camps. The book serves as an excel­lent start­ing point for any­one inter­est­ed in the sub­ject of Jew­ish cul­ture and social con­di­tions in the Holo­caust as well as the larg­er philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion of the rela­tion­ship between art and cat­a­stro­phe in the mod­ern Jew­ish experience.
James B. Loef­fler is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. He received a BA from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA and Ph.D. in Jew­ish his­to­ry from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was a Wexn­er Foun­da­tion Grad­u­ate Fel­low. As a U.S. Ful­bright Fel­low, he lived and trav­eled in Rus­sia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, con­duct­ing research for his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, “ The Most Musi­cal Nation’: Jews, Cul­ture and Nation­al­ism in the Late Russ­ian Empire.” His pub­li­ca­tions include sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic essays, the lin­er notes to the Gram­my-nom­i­nat­ed album, The Zmiros Project (Tra­di­ton­al Cross­roads, 2002), and arti­cles in The New Repub­lic, The Jerusalem Report, and Next­book. He has taught Jew­ish his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and music in a vari­ety of aca­d­e­m­ic and com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions includ­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, the 92nd Street Y, and the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Seminary.

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