Wiesenthal Education Weekly
For Educators, Parents & Students
August 21, 2020
A History of Protest Music
Protest music has been used as a way of connecting individuals, groups, and communities together through periods of injustice. While in some songs messages of protest are hidden or coded, others feature lyrics that are clear and overt which call upon listeners to learn about or join a collective movement. While many may have heard of popular protest songs written by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Green Day, Coldplay, and more, music artists wrote and composed songs in response to the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s. Although the Third Reich banned the performance of all Jewish music, music still flourished in ghettos, concentration camps, and among partisan groups during the Holocaust. Music and songs became a way for people to express their feelings, document their experiences, and respond to the news. Compositions link Jewish cultural life before, during, and after the war.
Topical songs in particular can serve as a mode of historical preservation by providing insight into events and emotions that creators experienced. After learning about Kristallnacht, English composer Michael Tippett (1905-1997) composed the oratorio “A Child of Our Time.” Through his work, Tippett wished to convey messages of tolerance. “Our Town is Burning” was written by Mordecai Gebirtig, a carpenter and folk poet and songwriter from Krakow. During the war, he continued to write and perform his songs, expressing his experiences under German occupation. At the age of 65, he was murdered by German soldiers after refusing to comply with a deportation order. Gebirtig’s song remains a popular piece that continues to be performed at commemoration ceremonies around the world. “Stand Fast” was written by Erich Frost, a devout Jehovah’s Witness that openly resisted Hitler’s authority. While imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Frost wrote the piece which openly blames the Nazi regime for being unjust.
Today, musicians have worked with individuals, community members, and institutions to resurrect the music of the dead. In their efforts, thousands of songs, symphonies, and operas that were written by victims before and during the war have been recovered for further preservation. Although it was such a dark period of human history, the creation and performance of musical pieces from the Holocaust reveal that artistic inspiration could not be suppressed during the tragedy.
Music from the Holocaust in your Classroom
The Edelweiss Pirates
Written by Jennifer Elvgren & Illustrated by Daniela Stamatiadi
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2018
Recommended for Grades 5 - 8
This fictionalized story based on the real resistance group, the Edelweiss Pirates, in Berlin during the reign of the Nazi regime features two brothers Fritz and Albert. Both boys love their jazz music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, “Everyone Hitler hates,” according to older brother Albert. Albert is an Edelweiss Pirate – he loves to play jazz music, grow his hair long and sabotage Nazi efforts in Berlin. Fritz wants to be just like his older brother but he doesn’t know how. He does know how to play jazz music and he does know that he doesn’t like the mean way his Jewish friend is treated in school. One day, Fritz figures out how to combine his love of music and his dislike of the unfair anti-Jewish measures in his school to make a positive difference . . . and become a fellow Edelweiss Pirate!
- Research the Edelweiss Pirates – explain their name.
- Listen to a real Edelweiss Pirate, Walter Meyer, share his memories.
- What does resistance mean? Explain resistance in the context of war?
- Do you think music is a form of resistance?
- What role did music play in the resistance of the Edelweiss Pirates?
- Look up Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Who were they? Where were they from? Listen to some of their catalogues of music. Why would Hitler hate their music?
Written by Tony Johnston & Illustrated by Ron Mazellan
Published by Charlesbridge, 2004
Recommended for Grades 7-8
The memories of a loving family, a home filled with song and the special gift of a harmonica shape the memory of a young boy – all that he has left after surviving the Holocaust. In fact, it is the gift of the harmonica that saves his life in the camp. While he struggles with his love of music as he’s faced the evil that has taken his family, the boy discovers the importance of hope to survive.
- This story is based on Holocaust survivor Henry Marin. Listen to Henry speak about his first time playing his harmonica for the commandant.
- Describe Henry’s testimony. Was he emotional? Did his voice change as he spoke about his experience? Did he look at the camera or did he look away? Were his eyes open or closed? How do you think talking about this memory made Henry feel? Explain what Henry did that led you to make these observations.
- Look at the text on the pages of the book – did the author have a strategy for composing the lines as they appear on the pages?
Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust
Recommended Grades 9 - 12
This documentary features the work of Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein and his efforts to restore the legacy of violins that were either played by victims of the Holocaust or were part of the klezmer music scene, also destroyed by Nazi Germany.
- What is klezmer music? What are traditional instruments used in this musical style?
- How does the restoration of these violins represent victory?
- Describe the emotion expressed by those hearing the violins played for the first time.
- Explain the violin restoration process.
- What is the significance of Amnon Weinstein’s restoration of the violins?
- Was there a “violin story” that resonated with you? Retell the story and explain why this story impacted you.
A Closer Look at…Jazz during the Nazi Era
The history of jazz music in Nazi Germany is more complex than people realize. Growing out of the African-American tradition of blues, ragtime, folk, African rhythm, and even elements of plantation-era beats and melodies, jazz took over the American music scene in the early 1920s. From its inception as a genre as well as from its roots, jazz was largely represented as “freedom music” performed by Black Americans. The emotional quality and freestyle elements of this music helped increase its popularity across the nation, and soon gained traction even across the Atlantic. In 1920s post-war Germany, nightclubs featuring jazz music became popular with the economically hard-hit populace. The freedom and distraction of dance halls gave some much needed release for a citizenry devastated by the losses of the Great War and the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.
As the Nazi Party grew in power and influence, the perceived “foreign elements” that jazz represented was considered increasingly dangerous. The discriminatory pseudo-science of racial hierarchy was already well entrenched in German society; Hitler and the Nazi Party attempted to use this ideology to suppress jazz music from the German airwaves. The fact that jazz music was not only American, but largely produced by African-Americans, was reprehensible to a racist party such as the Nazis; despite the music’s wild popularity, the Nazis began a culture war on this so-called “degenerate music.” Armed with propaganda posters and legal restrictions, the Nazi Party waged a war on jazz, proclaiming that the “barbarian” and “alien elements” of jazz was threatening the classical styling of Western “Aryan” music. These policies targeted anything considered “foreign”, which resulted in decrees prohibiting Jewish musicians as well as jazz artists. While jazz was never outlawed outright, restrictions on radios and in dance halls, as well as on upbeat dancing in general, attempted to cut down on the genre’s popular status.
Prohibitions and decrees are only so effective, and in Germany, the successes of these political tactics were extremely limited and ultimately failed. Attempts to “Aryanize” jazz were absurd, with rules such as prohibitions on “plucking strings”, “vocal improvisations/ scatting”, "excess in tempo”, and “drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat.” The iconic jazz sax was also prohibited in large quantities, as well as any “Jewishly gloomy lyrics.” The resulting facsimile did not gain nearly the same level of popularity as true jazz, with underground bars continuing to play the classics produced by American jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong.
As news of German military successes rolled in, bans on jazz and jazz-inspired music lifted, with Hitler even recruiting German musicians to perform government-approved forms of jazz. These men collaborated with the German government, even being deemed “essential workers” and avoiding conscription all together. The economic and cultural boom associated with this popular music was considered more important in this moment that keeping the “purity” of German music.
However, as the losses of 1943 began to be reported in Berlin, the “anti-German” jazz music scene was once again suppressed and demonized, with an attempt by the government to shore up civilian support for the military by playing increasingly pro-war, pro-German, pro-victory, and anti-American music.
After the fall of the Third Reich and the end of the war, there was a general re-opening towards foreign music in Western Germany; East Germany would be heavily influenced by the Soviet Union for the next four and a half decades. However, there was a small seed of pro-nationalist Germans in the post-war era that continued to resist the influence of American and foreign style music and attempted to preserve the so-called “purity” of their local genres.
Swing Kids: Movie Review
The first time I was introduced to the movie Swing Kids was during a practicum placement in teacher’s college. The grade 10 history class I was supervising was in the middle of their Second World War unit, slowly approaching the Holocaust, so their classroom teacher put on the movie to help introduce the topic.
Closely tied to Jazz music, which was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, American swing music became a vital tool of counter-culture, rebellion and resistance in Germany. Though not an official organized group, so-called “swing kids” evolved into a non-violent refusal of the civil order of National Socialism. Boys typically added British flair to their clothes by growing their hair long and attaching a Union Jack pin to their jacket. Girls wore short skirts and kept their hair long and down instead of applying braids or German-style rolls. The fondness of the "swing girls" to wear their hair down was seen as an act of resistance as the Nazis preferred a “natural look” with no make-up and braided hair, which was felt to be more “Germanic”.
Swing Kids often met in underground clubs which emerged across the Third Reich. The participants were mainly from the upper middle class, as swing culture required the participants to have access to the music, which was not played on German radio. Similarly, to understand the lyrics of the predominantly American songs, it was necessary to have at least a rudimentary understanding of English, which was not taught in working-class high schools. By 1941, the Gestapo were actively arresting "swing kids" across Germany. The measures against them ranged from cutting their hair and sending them back to school under close monitoring, to the deportation of the leaders to concentration camps. The boys went to the Moringen concentration camp while the girls were sent to Ravensbruck.
The Swing Kids movie (released in 1993) begins in late-1930’s Germany, with three teenagers who have a fondness for swing music. We first meet Arvid, Peter and Thomas at a Hamburg swing club, where they appear to be having the time of their lives. The first cracks are visible shortly after when Peter returns home to find his mother being harassed by a Nazi officer. Angry at the blatant corruption, Peter decides to steal a radio that the officer previously took from a ransacked Jewish home. He is caught, and forced to join the Hitler Youth. Thomas also signs up to join in solidarity with Peter, and the two hope to go under the radar and remain "swing boys" at heart, despite the Nazi uniforms.
Everything begins to change when Thomas, blinded by the power, prestige, and material gifts he is given, begins to also subscribe to the racist propaganda they are exposed to on a daily basis. Arvid, by contrast, refuses to compromise his values, even after being savagely beaten by members of the Hitler Youth. Peter also quickly becomes disenchanted by the Hitler Youth, and goes to a swing club which is scheduled to be raided. One of the last scenes of the movie shows Peter being driven away by police, presumably to be arrested or deported to a concentration camp.
While critics of the movie argue that the historical content focuses only on the minutia of a large-scale situation, the themes are relevant and easily understood by students. The film does a good job of depicting the limitations placed on young people in Germany trying to find their own identities under an oppressive regime.
The Sociology of Hate: Antisemitic Violence as a Force of Social Cohesion during the Holocaust
As FSWC educators, we have unique insight into the ways that young students are introduced to the topic of Nazism and and their questions can be very revealing in terms of the current popular narratives around the Holocaust. By speaking with thousands of students across the province, we are able to notice trends that can’t be easily captured in research data.
One of the most persistent questions from students is, “why would people support or even participate in the Nazi party when they were openly hateful to Jews?” By the age of 10, the majority of children have heard of Adolf Hitler and understand that his hatred led to many innocent peoples’ deaths. Hitler and the Nazi regime take on an almost mythological quality in pop culture, and there is a common public perception that the villainous Nazis were all-powerful because of the fear they inspired.
Within this framework, a large percentage of civilians in Germany and German-occupied territory were uncomfortable with anti-Jewish violence but felt powerless and fearful in the face of Nazi authority and consequently became bystanders. Unfortunately, this widespread belief-that fear alone can explain the rise of Nazism is a misrepresentation of the complex sociopolitical dynamics at play in the National Socialist Era. Fear was a factor, but arguably not the most significant one. Nazism gave many people a sense of pride and a way to channel their anger and bitterness over the horrors experienced during the First World War and Weimar Era. Persecution of Jews was framed as a noble cause and violent pogroms in Poland, the Soviet Union and Ukraine were often initiated locally and facilitated by the enthusiastic participation of ordinary citizens. Recent historical scholarship has begun to examine the sociology behind these actions and how they connect with the broader constellation of cruelty and barbarity that pervades human history-specifically through examining the way that hate-fuelled violence fosters community bonding and social cohesion.
One of the most important examples of this research in the field of Holocaust Studies has been performed by Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest and academic who toured Eastern Europe in search of mass killing sites of Jews in former Soviet Union and Ukraine-sites never properly excavated until that point. The evidence he was able to gather on the extrajudicial murders of over one million Jewish men women and children was first published in his 2009 work, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.
In the fall of 2017, FSWC was honoured to host Father Desbois for a special presentation on his research. The entire program was extremely informative but one of the most striking elements were some of the conversations with townspeople Desbois recounted having while tracing some of the major mass killing sites. Many of the people he interviewed, villagers, were children during the Holocaust and thus offered a truly unique perspective on the nature of the genocide against Jewish people outside of camps like Auschwitz. The scenes they recounted were both surreal and disturbing; massacres of Jews often took on a celebratory character with women and children sometimes acting as spectators at killing sites. There were picnics and guitars and alcohol was plentiful. In at least one village, children were allowed to take a ‘holiday’ from school so that they could watch the violence unfold.
Hatred of the “other” actually contributes to social cohesion along with feelings of solidarity and belonging among members of the group. Fear of a common enemy is one of the most useful tools in the propagandist’s bag. In excluding Jewish people and solidifying their exclusion through legal and violent means, perpetrators were in part defining their own religious, racial and national identities. It may sound odd, but antisemitism has been an incredibly powerful tool in solidifying community bonds throughout much of European history. Fear plays a role, but so do feelings of pride, the need to assert identity, ownership, and resentment.
As we move further away from the Holocaust and look to a future where we must strive to preserve historical accuacy and help the public grapple with the nuances and the broader lessons the Holocaust has to offer, students need to understand that hatred can take many forms and play on powerful human emotions. Providing people with a common enemy, a ‘social boogeyman’, is of the most powerful ways of unifying people and manipulating their way of viewing the world and one another. If we help students identify and understand this, we can prevent them from falling prey to these same ideas as they learn about the world around them.
4 Questions With..
Emily Bonnell | History major, Human Rights activist
Hello! My name is Emily Bonnell and I am a history major and human rights activist (in the making) from Toronto, Ontario. In 2019, I completed my first Masters degree in History, and in October of 2020, I will be taking on my second Master of Arts in Understanding and Securing Human Rights with the Human Rights Consortium, Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Ever since I can remember, I have had a passion for all things historical. My love for military and social history began when I was in high school, when I discovered that various members of my family had served in the First and Second World Wars. My favourite past-times growing up included travelling and visiting museums in various places. After pursuing my Masters in History, I discovered my passion for human rights and activism. By studying the Holocaust and other major genocides throughout history, I came to the realization that these tragedies are still ongoing. It is my hope to utilize my education and apply it to a hands-on program that will eventually allow me to advocate on behalf of people who are still suffering today. In the near future, I hope to take on a career within a human rights organization such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, or perhaps even the human rights sector of the United Nations.
1. Do you remember the first time you learned about the Holocaust? Can you speak to this experience?
The first time I remember learning about the Holocaust, I was in elementary school. In my grade five class, I had two teachers that were of Jewish background. During one of our social studies classes, the Holocaust and Second World War was one of the topics we covered for a few weeks. An eye-opening learning experience was when we were taken to the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto. Here, we visited and examined their permanent exhibits, learning about what the Holocaust was, why it occurred, and who its victims were. I will never forget how emotional I felt when I saw the images of the Jews that fell victim to the Nazis, and I specifically remember being shocked at the victims who had numbers tattooed on their arms. At ten years of age, I found this really hard to understand and accept. During another field trip, our class watched the play “Hana’s Suitcase,” at a small theatre in Toronto. I remember being totally captivated by the story, and my interest in other stories from the Holocaust grew significantly.
In the second portion of our Holocaust unit, we were assigned the task of reading a non-fictional monograph about the Holocaust, and we were asked to write a book report on the chosen work. After consulting with the librarian and asking the opinion of my teachers, I chose the book “Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend,” which recounts the story of Hannah Goslar, a close friend of Anne during her time in Amsterdam, and one of the last people to see her alive. At the time, I had already been quite interested in Anne Frank’s life and story, so I wanted to gain another perspective about her through someone who she was quite close to. When I was in grade five, I never really loved to read. But I was so captivated by this story, I couldn’t put it down. From then on, most books I read were related to Holocaust or Second World War history, and it continued all the way into my academic career in my undergrad and later in my Masters.
2. What made you want to pursue Holocaust studies in your post-secondary career? How did you narrow down your research?
As previously mentioned, I was always interested in Holocaust history. In my second year of university at Laurier, I switched out of the Archaeology program and declared History as my major. Following this, I enrolled in several Holocaust and Second World War related courses. Part of my decision to do so was the fact that my first Holocaust professor, Dr. Eva Plach, was so engaging, and had her own personal ties to the Holocaust as well. It made her lectures and teaching style that much more interesting and appealing. After taking a variety of courses on the subject, I realized that there are so many different elements and facets to the Holocaust, and I knew that in my Masters, my research would undoubtedly be related to Holocaust history.
When I began my Masters with Dr. Plach as my supervisor, I initially had no idea what avenue of research I wanted to pursue. By the time I began the program, I had developed a keen interest in the laws of war and conflict, and I wanted to know how various countries and organizations actually responded to the Holocaust as it was unfolding. When I shared this with my supervisor, she suggested that I take a look at the history of Theresienstadt, a hybrid ghetto-concentration camp located on the outskirts of Prague, as it was one of the only facilities that the Red Cross Committee visited and inspected during the entire course of the war. It was during a research trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC that I discovered the checkered past between the Red Cross and the Nazis during the war. During my research, a large part of the Red Cross related material referenced important laws set out at the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Upon analyzing the laws that were written prior to the Holocaust, it was apparent how the Nazis were able to defy the rules by deeming Jews as non-citizens. By revoking their civilian status, Jews were ultimately no longer protected under these written laws. Moreover, my interest in the legal elements related to the Holocaust really became amplified after this project. It inspired me to take on the human rights program as there are undoubtedly still several instances around the world where citizens and people are being taken advantage of by their governments and are not being protected. The suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust was a massive turning point in changing some of the laws that were in place, many of which are still in effect today.
3. What advice would you give to people who are looking to learn more about the Holocaust, but are unsure of where to start?
For individuals who are interested in learning more about the Holocaust, I would recommend first consulting the international Holocaust museum websites such as USHMM and Yad Vashem. While these websites do largely include academic resources and databases, there are numerous accessible links for general readers based on a variety of topics. They range, for example, between general topics, such as the definition of the Holocaust, and more specific subjects, such as the details behind the embellishment of a concentration camp to use as a propaganda tool. In addition to this, there are hundreds of monographs that cover the basics of the Holocaust which are available both online, in libraries, and at book stores. People who are interested in learning more about the Holocaust can also access a variety of testimonies and memoirs online. Documentaries on YouTube are also available for those who would prefer to listen and observe. While there are certainly a plethora of materials at the disposal of general readers and academics, there is also the option of asking family or friends who either experienced or witnessed the Holocaust for their insight. While it can be a very difficult subject, I believe it is extremely important to talk about.
4. Why do you believe it is important to continue to teach and learn about the Holocaust even though it happened over 75 years ago?
The Holocaust was a profound representation of the darkest and most barbaric treatment of human beings by other humans. It was a tragic display of what intense hatred, ignorance, and desperation can do to an individual and group of people. While the Holocaust has certainly been unmatched in terms of numbers of victims, countless other genocides have occurred throughout history and continue to occur today. By learning some of the lessons from the Holocaust, people might be more informed and recognize the signs of genocide and poor treatment based solely on religion, colour, or creed. It is my hope that by continuing to teach and learn about the Holocaust, it will never happen again. In addition, while the Holocaust took place over 75 years ago, there is still new research and resources that have come to light in more recent years. These sources may alter some of our knowledge of Holocaust history, and thus, must be incorporated into the historiography. In a sense, each generation of academics contributes to a new understanding of the Holocaust.
Human Rights @ Home
FSWC educators will facilitate one-hour programs via Zoom. Public workshops take place from 3:00pm - 4:00pm EST Monday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to register today. Zoom invitations will be sent out prior to each workshop.
What Our Education Team is Reading & Watching
FSWC's Education Team is constantly working to broaden their collective knowledge. Here's what we've recently been reading and watching: