Dr. Tamara Freeman, an nationally-regarded music educator, will present for the first time in Dallas a special music recital-lecture on April 19th, playing pieces from the Holocaust’s Jewish ghettos at the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s annual Yom Hashoah (Day of Remembrance) ceremony at 6:30 pm at Temple Shalom, 6930 Alpha Road, in Dallas.
Dr. Freeman, who recently presented her program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), will perform music on a rescued 1935 violin once owned by a Jewish musician in Nazi Germany that was secretly shipped to the U.S. The event is free and open to the public.
The musical scholarship of Dr. Freeman will bring to the fore long-forgotten compositions of Jewish culture of Eastern Europe—a Jewish population largely destroyed in the Holocaust.
An instrumental music teacher at Ridgewood public schools in northern New Jersey, Dr. Freeman will present a special gift of music to the Holocaust Survivors of the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the April 19th event entitled Yom Hashoah: One Day in the Holocaust.
Below is a brief interview with Dr. Freeman about her groundbreaking work.
Q. What prompted you to undertake this work, which you have described as a personal journey?
A. In 1994, Holocaust and genocide studies were mandated in the State of New Jersey, where I have been a professional music teacher since 1981. In all the years I’ve been teaching, I had no awareness of music that could have taken place in the Holocaust ghettos and concentration camps. In fact, it never occurred to me that music could even happen in those places. When the New Jersey governor signed the legislation mandating Holocaust education in public schools, I was required to teach Holocaust studies as a music teacher. I began searching and researching Holocaust music, and it was at about the same time I became exposed to the World Wide Web as a research tool. It wasn’t long before I located some Holocaust survivors in northern New Jersey, where I live. Soon, a few of them would share with me their musical memories, but most of them would not. Recalling the time was too painful. The more I began researching this aspect of the Holocaust, the more I discovered what a wealth of music there was in this emerging area of study for me.
The music I discovered was so beautiful and so expressive that it had to be shared. I went to Rutgers University to interview and to apply for the doctoral program in music education. During that interview process, I decided my dissertation needed to be about creating curricula to teach music of the Holocaust for students in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade.
As a music education practitioner, I saw a need for this music to be shared. The more I experienced the music, the more passionate I became about it. It became more than fulfilling a mandate required by the government. It was about creating a way that sensitizes children and adults of all ages to the power of music.
The music of the World War II ghettos and concentration camps are imbued deeply with spirituality. The lyricists and composers of this poignant music reflect the human condition at its core: Sorrow, hope, longing, courage, and resistance. The people in these ghettos and camp could count on few things, and the significance of their own voices one what that they could upon.
This also became a personal journey for me. I lost 41 family members during the Holocaust in Poland. I had in my own family of origin the curiosity of what my own family members may have experienced in music. I had that personal lens to help me focus my research.
Q. What surprises did you discover during your research?
A. One of the surprises was that survivors had the courage to sing while they were in hiding in the camps and ghettos. There is a song called In Kriuzke, in Yiddish “In the Hideout.” It was a song that was sung by two partisan fighters in a hole in a ground, a hole covered with leaves, dirt and twigs. To have the courage to sing that song even while in hiding was a surprise.
In the concentration camp of Dachau, Germany, there was a prisoner named Herbert Zipper. He arranged clandestine concerts in an abandoned latrine. He composed the music for these concerts. He wrote the music on little scraps of paper and would teach the music by rote. He created musical instruments using scraps of wood, and the prisoners of Dachau would take turns sneaking in to this abandoned latrine to hear these 15-minute concerts.
Another surprise is that so many shared with me stories of what they were doing during the Holocaust while they were singing these songs. One said, “I was on a death march.” Another said, “I was in a kitchen of a concentration camp peeling potatoes when I sang this song.”
The lengths that people went to in order keep music alive amazed me. It was a major form of resistance during the war—a form of spiritual resistance, of holding on to one’s humanity. The people were reduced to animal status in camps and ghettos. I discovered a number of courageous people who said, “No, we won’t be animals. We are people, and we’re going to maintain our highest sense of self, of culture, of aesthetic value, and we’ll do so through music.
Was the primary instrument used in the camps and ghettos the voice?
Yes. The most personal and most transportable instrument we have is the voice. When prisoners were interred in camps, they were very frequently shuttled back and forth between different work camps. While in transit and while in the bunks, they would share songs from their countries. And that is why there are about one dozen select emblematic songs that people throughout the Holocaust know so well—even though they came from difference backgrounds. They had spent time together in the camps, sharing their music. The survivors that I interviewed said that in the evening, when things were quieter, they would go outside and sing quietly together.
Q. What has the reaction to your music been from survivors?
A. I have had the honor of playing for about 15 survivor groups throughout New Jersey and New York. They are really thrilled to hear the music, even though it evokes such a painful time in their lives. It still is music that is very precious to them, and the songs that I play for them are songs that mean so much to them. It is not just the lyrical melodies or the melodies of the partisan songs of strength and purpose, but beat of the music. When they hear that my viola was rescued from the Holocaust, they immediately start singing.
As I am playing, I am listening very carefully to their tempo, their speed, their words, and their interpretation. I am not conducting them; they are conducting me. We are as one. Many cry. Many have wistful looks on their faces. Some will jump up and correct one of my notes. They are very outspoken, the survivors. I respect that deeply. It does not throw me off, it informs me. A good 99 percent sing along with proud, emotional voices. Their hearts are so filled with joy. They are so glad that someone my age respects what they’ve been through and respects the one thing they had during the Holocaust, which is their voice, which helped them survive the Holocaust.
It was because of these recitals, I received the names and phone numbers of survivors and they brought me into their personal homes where I interviewed them. They showed me all kinds of personal archives, including their personal music they relied on during the Holocaust, and I wove this music and the stories into my curriculum. When I teach these melodies to my students in the Ridgewood school district, they love the music because the melodies are so beautiful.
Q. How have students reacted to studying music from the Holocaust?
A. Public school students in Northern New Jersey have already experienced Holocaust studies through literature, so when I teach them the music, they understand the historical significance of the music.
Most of the music I teach children is music composed by children in the Holocaust. I’m very, very careful to adapt the song text and message to the appropriate age groups. When I first started this journey, a Holocaust survivor taught me to teach the Holocaust gently and these are the words that I have adopted as my own approach ever since. The music is beautiful, lyrical and so real. Children want to experience music that isn’t phony or contrived or silly. They want the real thing.