This riveting Holocaust book tells the story of two Polish music lovers in Sachsenhausen. One was Moshe Rosenberg, an assimilated Jew who went by Rosebery D’Arguto. A committed socialist, and an expert in laryngological aspects of singing, D’Arguto led a successful choir in Berlin composed entirely of working-class people. According to author Makana Eyre, “Newspapers praised the unique sound the choir created, describing it as sharper, throatier, and coarser than the idea other German choirs sought … ” In 1927, D’Arguto introduced an idea he called Absolute Symphonic Chants, in which the choir members divided themselves into eight voices and sang vocables only, a kind of symphonic vocalese.
In Sachsenhausen, D’Arguto formed a Jewish choir — at tremendous risk to everyone involved. Aleks Kulisiewicz, the main character in this true story, attended the first performance of the choir and became an immediate admirer of D’Arguto. Kulisiewicz was a non-Jew who loved to sing and perform. To cure his childhood stuttering, a hypnotist taught him to picture writing his words and reading them before speaking. He grew up with an astonishing audial memory, remembering hundreds of songs and poems after just one hearing. Eyre tells Kulisiewicz’s life story in detail, from his childhood as a middle-class Pole to his years as a survivor who was desperate to make sure that the songs of the concentration camps were heard all over the world. In recounting Kulisiewicz’s experiences in Sachsenhausen, Eyre shows that Polish prisoners suffered the same horrors as Jews in death camps — starvation, cold, brutal work, and sadistic German guards.
D’Arguto wrote a parody of a famous Yiddish folk song called “Tsen Brider” (“Ten Brothers”). Its melody was the theme song for the 1936 movie Yidl Mitn Fidl. D’Arguto then turned it into a song about ten Jews who were killed one by one by Nazis. Kulisiewicz promised to keep the song alive after D’Arguto died — a promise that served as the basis for his commitment to preserve every song and poem that was composed by concentration camp inmates. After the war, Kulisiewicz continued to collect survivors’ musical and literary artifacts, compiling a monumental archive of material that is now housed in the United States Holocaust Historical Museum.
This is a masterfully written biography of a man who performed music from concentration camps for audiences of all ages, backgrounds, and eras. Kulisiewicz was able to record Songs from the Depths of Hell, an album produced by Peter Wortsman and Moe Asch that appears in the Smithsonian Folkways catalog, and he toured in Chicago and Milwaukee after Peter Wortsman wrote about him in Sing Out! Magazine. But because most postwar audiences were unwilling to listen to his bleak and searing material, he became irascible and difficult. His tragic story reflects the sacrifices of a man who, as a Polish national with German blood, could have chosen to keep quiet and avoid his fate in Sachsenhausen — but didn’t.
Beth Dwoskin is a retired librarian with expertise in Yiddish literature and Jewish folk music.