It was seventy years ago, on January 27, 1945, that the Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 2005, the BBC, CBC (Canada), TVP (Poland), ZDF (Germany), and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum collaborated to produce “Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz” to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation. The film intersperses musical works by various composers with reminiscences from Holocaust survivors. The musical numbers for the movie were all performed and filmed on location at Auschwitz; and while all of them were masterfully performed by world-class musicians, the one that I found the most bone-chillingly, heartbreakingly moving was this one from the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Polish composer Henryk Górecki.
Each of the symphony’s three movements is based on a different story of love and loss: the first on a 15th century lament of Mary at the death of Jesus; the second on a few lines scrawled on the wall of a prison cell by a teenage girl; the third on a song about a mother mourning for her son who was killed in one of the Silesian uprisings. Although the composer said that the symphony was not about specific historical events, but about the ties between mother and child, and the pain of separation and loss, it was inevitable that the work’s second movement would be associated with the Holocaust. The words are those of a Polish girl, Helena Błażusiakówna, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944 when she was eighteen years old. Helena wrote on the wall of her prison cell, “O Mamo nie płacz nie—Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mine” (Oh Mama, do not cry—Immaculate Queen of Heaven, protect me always).
The soloist in this performance is Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Sinfonietta Cracovia is conducted by John Axelrod.
If you’d like to see and hear all the musical numbers from “Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz,” you can find them here.
If you’d like to hear the complete Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Górecki, you can find it here. It’s close to an hour long, but well worth listening to.