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Musicologist Barbara Milewski on Songs from WWII Concentration Camps

Barbara Milewski

Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski recently appeared on BBC’s The Documentary podcast for a long-form examination of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Polish musician who spent more than five years in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and devoted the rest of his life to recording and performing songs created by former inmates of the Nazi regime.

“This was his mission and how he processed his own survival,” says Milewski, who collaborated with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum musicologist Bret Werb in compiling Kulisiewicz’s own musical creations into the CD Ballads and Broadsides: Songs from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1940–1945.

“It is not an overstatement," she says, "to say that he was the first man who did genuine musical witnessing.”

Blessed with musical talent and a photographic memory he credited to an accident in his youth, Kulisiewicz (1918-1982) turned to music-making for psychological uplift and served others as a chronicler of their experiences in the camp. Music played contradictory roles at Sachsenhausen and throughout the Nazi camp system: It offered prisoners a mean to express solidarity and defiance, but could also be weaponized by the camp command for brutal and repressive ends. One account tells of prisoners who were made to parade around as captured escapees were hanged in front of them, all while the camp orchestra played.

“Music is not good or evil—it is seized for good or evil,” says Milewski. “Kulisiewicz captures that really provocatively in his postwar work by precisely not focusing on one aspect of music-making in the camps.”

Kulisiewicz was liberated during a death march in 1945 and would go on to perform across Europe and the U.S. through the ’60s and ’70s. In 1978, he recorded Songs from the Depths of Hell on Folkways Records to preserve the memory of those who did not survive the concentration camps. The agonized but hauntingly beautiful tone of Kulisiewicz’s voice forces the listener to confront the horrors of the camps and to remember the human lives that were taken there.

“He wants to make sure that he is a ‘living memory’ of what happened to people,” says Milewski, “and wants his own being to stand for peace.”

Listen to the full segment:


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