Sing, Mem­o­ry: The Remark­able Sto­ry of the Man Who Saved the Music of the Nazi Camps

  • Review
By – May 22, 2023

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.

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