Research, Education, Links and Opinion

Saturday, August 06, 2016


Breaking Silence: Juliek & Mozart

“To be indifferent — for whatever reason — is to deny not only the validity of existence, but also its beauty. Betray, and you are a man; torture your neighbor, you're still a man.  Evil is human, weakness is human; indifference is not”—Eliezer Wiesel (1926-2016).

In late 1944, more than 10,000 men were confined in Buna/Monowitz:

“As the Red Army approached Auschwitz in January 1945,” according to the Wollheim Memorial web page, “the SS ‘evacuated’ the Auschwitz camp complex, including the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, on January 18 and forced the prisoners to take part in a death march.  About 850 sick prisoners were abandoned in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp; many died in the following days, and the survivors were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.”

Elie Wiesel wrote about the death march in his remarkable memoir, “Night.”

On the evening of January 18, 1945, at six o’clock, those leaving Buna/Monowitz were ordered to fall in for the death march.  The survivors had received double rations of bread and margarine for the road, and Elie reported he had two pieces of bread when they left.  Two pieces of bread.

Traveling by night to avoid detection by the Red Army, the starving prisoners arrived the second night at Gleiwitz.  It was there that Juliek died, a violinist.

According to Music and the Holocaust, musical ensembles were formed of imprisoned professional and amateur musicians.

“Their duties were varied,” the website said, “but often they provided background music for incoming and outgoing work commandos at the camp gates, and to perform music to accompany executions that were staged, as a deterrent, before the entire camp population.

"During camp inspections, proud commanders showed off the ensembles as 'special attractions' and as proof of 'their' camp’s exemplary performance. They also played for the guards’ private entertainment."

But why did Juliek played Beethoven before he died? Wiesel didn’t say in “Night,” and most of what is available online is not helpful.  Even Oprah (if such a thing were believable), failed to ask during her interview in 2012.

The passage in the book is simple: "Who was this madman who played the violin here, at the edge of his own grave? Or was it a hallucination?

“It had to be Juliek.

“He was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto.  Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound.  In such silence … it was as if Juliek's soul had become his bow."

Juliek, amongst the dead and dying, in the crush of humanity seeking shelter in a Nazi barracks after a forced death march, played Beethoven.

It has been speculated, of course, it was an act of rebellion. Jews could not play Beethoven amongst themselves.  And a YouTube Video explores this.  Why was he not killed for this transgression, for example?



Nikon Chaocharoenpon, in his World Literature multi-genre project (seen above) decided his music would come from “Schindler's List.”  It is not Beethoven we hear.

But Juliek chose Beethoven for a reason.  Was it because Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61" (widely believed to hold the fragment Wiesel heard), was ignored, like the Jewish people?

The premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Vienna, December 23, 1806, was unsuccessful, according to History Today, and Beethoven never wrote another one,  And yet, it later became one of the most beloved of all the violin concertos.

In his book, “Elie Wiesel and the Art of Storytelling,” Wiesel shares a simple truth with writers: “One must write out of one's own experience, out of one's own identity. One must cater to no one; one must remain truthful. If one is read, it's good; if one is not read, it's too bad. But that should not influence the writer.”

Wiesel made an observation rooted in terror: When people are uprooted, they go about making do with what they have. They turn their new place into a home.  The holocaust was so unbelievable, in Jewish ghettos across Nazi Germany, no one could believe such a thing would happen (could happen). They made do, as all of us would in a similar situation, until survival was the only thing left, and community.

In his essay “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the Work of Elie Wiesel,” Gary Henry reported that survivors of the camps gathered (according to Wiesel) not to eat when first freed, but to give thanks.

“'But what, in fact,” Henry wrote, “did the Jewish survivors of the death camps do as soon as they were liberated?

“Believe it or not; they held services.  To give thanks to God?  No, to defy him!  To tell him, ‘ listen, as mere mortals, as members of the human society, we know we should seize weapons and use them in every place and in every way and never stop — because it is our right.  But we are Jews and as such we renounce that right; we choose — yes, choose to remain human. And generous.’”

It is unlikely, in the crowded, suffocating barracks where Juliek died, many would know he was playing Beethoven.  A reporter, who enjoys classical music, and is not a big fan of Beethoven’s violin concerto, would not have recognized it.

However, there are several passages in his concerto of such high beauty and transcendence, the sound could have easily transformed those within.  They would have known they had made it. They would have known it was over.

And what would it have meant to the Jewish people, Juliek’s playing?  A close reading of Henry’s essay made it clear: breaking the silence in defiance of God.

Wiesel said, according to Henry, that while armchair atheist can afford to allow suffering to continue — Wiesel cannot (we cannot).  He believed suffering must be diminished, and that every act of protest, against God or man, in which suffering is even minutely alleviated is a redemptive act.

But is music a redemptive act?  The scientists are trying to figure it out.  But in general, music has been reported to evoke the full range of human emotion,  The Sync Project, for example, explains emotions range from sad, nostalgic (and tense), to happy, relaxed, calm and joyous.

“Correspondingly,” the project reported, “neuroimaging studies have shown that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions: the deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system like the amygdala and the hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music-listening).

“The relationship between music-listening and the dopaminergic pathway is also behind the 'chills' that many people report experiencing during music-listening.  Chills are physiological sensations, like the hairs getting raised on you arm, and the experience of 'shivers down your spine' that accompany intense, peak emotional experiences.”

Beethoven understood this instinctively, of course (he was a rocker at heart, after all).  And Mozart too — and many others....

But transformational?  Mozart lived in his music, it is true. In his “Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola K.364” (the gem shared below), the Los Angeles Philharmonic writes that “the duality of the violin-viola sound contributes to...the piece's stunning beauty” (and grief).  He wrote it shortly after his mother died.

And listeners feel this pain.  And Juliek’s — and the men who died that day — and all who died in the holocaust — and all who are trapped by terrorists.  All.  Will the music stop, or change any of this?  No.  But breaking the silence in defiance certainly helps.  Elie Wiesel was a very wise man.

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