Song of SurvivalPosted by admin on 7/22/11 • Categorized as Summer 2011
Women’s choral groups and singing societies have been sources of pride and empowerment, even in the darkest days.
By Katherine Leveling’09
Barbed wire fences. Striped, tattered uniforms. Starvation and disease. Smoke rising from gas chambers. Singing.
That last word probably seems out of place. Most people, when they think about the concentration camps of World War II, envision suffering and death. That vision is accurate, and one we go to great lengths to remember. But the women who enrolled in a Beloit College class called “Vox Feminae” learned that singing indeed existed in Nazi and other World War II-era internment camps, and it empowered those in captivity even as they faced the most dire situations imaginable.
Latin for “female voices,” Vox Feminae is Assistant Professor of Music Susan Rice’s part-choir, part-research class, offered each spring. Drawing on women’s and gender studies, musicology, and primary sources, the course explores female singing societies. “Vox,” as students call it, reaches beyond historical survey and strives to help students forge connections with a specific place and time. They read memoirs, stories, and poetry by women in the period and sing the period’s music. This spring, the course delved into the musical groups of World War II internment camps—whose sheer existence surprised many of the students who enrolled.
“Before taking Vox, I had never thought about what people did in the Nazi camps and ghettos,” says Sally Jaffray’12. “I just knew it was horrible. I never realized there was a whole life there. For some people, it was a really creative time.”
Students learned that artistic life flourished in concentration camps, especially in Terezín, the Czech ghetto-camp. This quarter of the city was where many Jewish academics and artists were held captive by the Nazis before they were transported to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Prisoners sometimes attended lectures and performed in full-scale operas and plays, composing original works and collaborating with other artists. These privileges had a catch, as Grace Smith’14 discovered during her independent research project.
“My title was ‘The Two Faces of Terezí́n,’” she says, explaining that Nazis encouraged creative activity to present a humane façade during an International Red Cross visit. “The propaganda was problematic, and people realized that. I compared artistic freedoms and propaganda to decide which triumphed. I want to say it was art: Art was an expression of hope, and it helped people survive.”
Singing for hope and survival
Smith’s conclusion reflects an idea that surfaced in the course again and again. Singing was not an idle pastime. Instead, it fueled prisoners’ survival. As Miriam Harel, a Lødz ghetto composer who inspired the class, wrote, “Singing is a manifestation of hope. The song is a cry, and afterward you feel free.”
This theme stretched beyond European camps to a lesser-known history: Japanese internment camps in Sumatra, Indonesia. Students learned about them through Song of Survival, a woman’s first-hand account of imprisonment. While the Sumatran prisons weren’t intended as death camps, scores died from malnutrition, the harsh tropical climate, and no medical care. Still, students learned, the conditions gave rise to stunning creativity. Interned women formed what they called a vocal orchestra. They transcribed familiar orchestral melodies, such as Dvorak’s Largo, using their voices in the place of instruments. Performances were simple, but the audience and singers reported them as almost supernaturally inspiring. “I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful before,” the memoir’s author wrote.
Hearing about these experiences made the vocal orchestra repertoire—which the students sang—take on richer significance. “I’ve had a connection to choir music before, but nothing as strong as this,” says Jaffray, who has been a member of the college’s Chamber Singers for three years. “The more you know about music, the more you can connect to it. The structure of Vox really lent itself to that. We knew the circumstances of the song and the context of the whole time period.”
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