Lost Music of the Holocaust

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
June 18, 2013

Thank you for joining us this afternoon to both learn about and experience the Lost Music of the Holocaust. On behalf of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, welcome to today’s event. I’d particularly like to welcome the Holocaust survivors in the audience and the members of the Washington diplomatic community joining us this afternoon. And we are honored to have with us today Annette Lantos, Holocaust survivor and widow of the esteemed late Congressman Tom Lantos, a champion for human rights.

Today we honor the millions of victims of the Holocaust in particular and of anti-Semitism writ large. We’ll learn more about the musicians, composers, and performers who continued to create, even while incarcerated in Nazi death camps, and we’ll discuss what we can do now to prevent similar atrocities in the 21st century.

When many of us reflect on the Holocaust, the beauty of the arts is the farthest thing from our minds. It is difficult to imagine how one could create in the face of the adversity and trauma experienced in the concentration camps and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet even in the death camps of Auschwitz, Dachau and elsewhere, creativity in captivity flourished as imprisoned artists composed and performed in inhuman conditions.

Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” As a universal language, music has the power to cross chronological and geographical borders to share a story, a history, to awaken in us the emotions that once compelled the composer and which were originally shared with an entirely different audience. The creation of the music we will learn about and hear today, and its journey through time, represents the strength of the human spirit.

Indeed, this focus on the creativity and the art that came out of the Holocaust highlights our common humanity, as it was not only under Nazi cruelty that music played a role in rescuing individuals from darkness, despair, and death. Music also manifested itself in surprising ways during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the second half of the 20th century, and music has since been utilized as one of many tools in the promotion of human rights.

What sparked today’s event was a story in the press my team saw in January about an Italian pianist and musicologist, Professor Francesco Lotoro, who has devoted the past two decades to identifying, preserving, and sharing music composed during the Holocaust by its victims. We are disappointed that Professor Lotoro cannot be with us today as a panelist because of the death of his mother. We are sorry for his loss. The mission of Professor Lotoro and his colleagues, including fellow panelist Robert Foah, is to truly bring unity and harmony out of the discord of the past carefully and deliberately created by the Nazi State.

In this spirit of remembrance of the past and action in the future, I am very pleased that Bret Werb, Music Curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is today’s keynote speaker. Mr. Werb will introduce us to the fascinating lives and enduring legacies of musicians who continued to create throughout their ordeal. One of the great tragedies of the Holocaust is that the message ‘Never Again!’ was unfortunately not heeded in many parts of the world in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of this century. Through the work of Bret Werb and his colleagues at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, the Museum is marking its 20th anniversary this year with the theme of ‘Never Again – What You Do Matters’. This anniversary theme “asks America to renew its pledge to honor Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans and challenges today’s generations to act on the lessons of the Holocaust and fulfill the promise of “Never Again.”

President Obama has taken up that challenge. Soon after entering office, he signed Presidential Study Directive 10. It makes the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration’s foreign policy, both a core national security interest and a central moral responsibility of the United States. It also established the interagency Atrocities Prevention Board. Our other panelist, Julia Fromholz from the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, is especially qualified to address current efforts to ensure that mass murder such as occurred during the Holocaust is never repeated. In her life in the NGO world prior to joining the State Department, Julia developed the key training module we and other agencies use in this field. She now serves as the coordinator within the State Department of our efforts to use the Atrocity Prevention Board to make a difference.

Our moderator today will be my esteemed colleague, U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ambassador Douglas Davidson. The State Department Office that he leads seeks to bring a measure of justice and assistance to Holocaust victims and their families and to create an infrastructure to assure that the Holocaust is remembered properly and accurately. This is an important issue in our bilateral relations with European countries and with the State of Israel. Much of the Office's work relates to bringing closure to issues left outstanding during the Cold War.

After Mr. Werb’s presentation, we will watch a brief film montage highlighting the lives and music of victims of Nazi aggression. The film will conclude with a special message of support from Dr. Judea Pearl, father of slain American journalist, humanist, and musician Daniel Pearl. As his parents Ruth and Judea Pearl have said, “Danny was a classically-trained musician whose home was Planet Earth. He traveled widely, armed with three instruments, a laptop, a violin, and an infinite love for his fellow human beings.” Every October – the month of Daniel Pearl’s birthday – Daniel Pearl World Music Days are held all over the world to honor his legacy. We are honored that the Pearl family and The Daniel Pearl Foundation have been so supportive of this program.

After the film, we will have an opportunity to hear the panelists about their work and engage in an open discussion with members of the audience.

Remembering the Holocaust and pledging to prevent future genocide is not an issue unique to any one country or society. It is a matter of global importance. Many countries have difficulty coming to terms with their roles in history. For those who cannot bring themselves to recognize where they fell short in combating or actively collaborating with the Nazi genocide over a half century ago, how can we expect them to deal honestly with contemporary atrocities in the making? The object here is not to condemn our ancestors who fell short or to feel guilty about them, but to ensure that we recognize what they did and perhaps how they were brought to do it. This will help us as we try to inoculate ourselves and others from falling victim to the same demons that turned what were often otherwise good people into facilitators of genocide.

In this spirit of international remembrance and future action, I am pleased that present today are diplomats from the embassies of Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia and Poland, including Ambassador Andris Razans.

They are joined by representatives from non-governmental organizations, academia, think tanks, and the media, as well as State Department colleagues. Together, we are all witnesses to the past. And together, we are all future activists.

Our program this afternoon will conclude with the first known performance in the United States of a set of piano variations on a Polish patriotic theme. This music was composed in the Dachau concentration camp by Polish POW Leon Kaczmarek. The pianist will be 17-year-old Nicholas Biniaz-Harris, winner of the National Symphony Orchestra’s 2013 Young Soloists’ Competition and the grandson and great-grandson of Schindler’s List Holocaust survivors.

As Secretary Kerry said in May at the Centennial Summit of the Anti-Defamation League, “I've never met a child, two-and-a-half years old, or two years old, or three years old, who hates anybody. Hate is taught. And all of you understand that before we can rid others' hearts of hate, the conviction to do so has to start in our own imaginations.”

As my recent trip to Auschwitz with a group of international Imams succeeded in closing gaps in understanding and increased my commitment to seeking peace, so too can the music created during the Holocaust inspire us to see a world that can move past hate.

And now, please join me in welcoming all of our distinguished guests, panelists, moderator, and pianist. Thank you.