I have been commissioned to write a composition in memory of Sir Martin Gilbert, who was Churchill’s biographer and a world expert on the Holocaust. This article, titled ‘A Journey’ in homage to Gilbert’s book Holocaust Journey, describes my journey to create a new composition incorporating music written and played in Auschwitz, that has been lost to us until now.

Martin Gilbert
Sir Martin Gilbert, 1936 – 2015 (Photo © Sir Martin Gilbert)


My first thought was: who am I to accept such a commission? I am 24 years old, and the Second World War ended nearly 50 years before I was born. I do not know anyone who was killed in or survived the Holocaust, and I am neither Jewish nor Polish as were 95% of those who perished in Auschwitz. But I am human, and the Holocaust was humanity’s greatest tragedy with millions of people murdered, and vast number of those perished in the living hell that was Auschwitz. I therefore readily accepted this commission, not only to celebrate Sir Martin and his work, but also to contribute my remembrance, and play my small part in ensuring that these histories are not forgotten. Particularly now that the UK has chosen to leave the EU, the importance of remembering the war and a divided Europe has become ever more critical.

Journey I

As part of the research and development process, I and two of my collaborators from Constella OperaBallet (Anna Whyatt, Dramturge and Tim Rathbone, Leader of the Orchestra) went on a trip to Poland in February. As well as visiting the Schindler Factory and the Pharmacy Under the Eagle in Kraków, we went to Auschwitz. Anna had been before, on a trip with Sir Martin, and we were able to meet with the Deputy of Archive Szymon Kowalski. I was somewhat aware of the orchestras in Auschwitz, in which musician prisoners were forced to play marching music whilst a sea of prisoners marched out in time to undertake backbreaking labour. With the aid of the music the prisoners moved faster and it also made it easier for them to be counted. The orchestra would also play on the prisoners’ return, except this time the procession would include those who had perished during the day, carried back to the camp by their near-dead companions. It’s difficult to imagine a more macabre setting for music-making.


Day of a Prisoner
Drawing from “Day of a Prisoner” cycle by Polish Auschwitz survivor Mieczyclaw Koscienlniak.

We spoke with Szymon at length about the orchestras, and looked at the registration forms of musicians my age who had been there. It is worth noting that the archivists and researchers are based within Auschwitz itself, and every day they must walk under the dreaded gate that reads ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free). How they have the courage to do that on a daily basis is unbelievable. Szymon himself is a very welcoming and warm man which made being there easier to cope. It transpired that the very room that we were in was in fact the music room, where the orchestra rehearsed and kept their music and instruments. This revelation immediately sent shivers down our spines.

What was most surprising to discover was that some of the original manuscripts that the orchestras used are still in the archives there, and have barely been looked at, or more importantly performed since. As you might imagine, the ensembles were not the size of a standard symphony orchestra, but consisted of those who were there and could play. As a result a great deal of music was arranged and composed especially for the orchestras. It was through the music that the musicians expressed their despair, anger and hope. As well as the marching music, the orchestras gave performances for various other functions, most notably concerts on Sunday afternoons for both prisoners and guards. In many memoirs these concerts were described as a chink of daylight through the darkness. I was immediately taken by this and I knew that my new composition for Sir Martin would in some way interact with the music in the archives and provide a new way to remember Auschwitz.

We were of course eager to look at this music but our time was limited and we had to obtain permission to see the manuscripts. We therefore spent the rest of the day exploring Auschwitz, and the vast camp complex that is Birkenau. Unsurprisingly this was a harrowing experience, and the three of us walked around saying little, just reading the sorrow in each other’s eyes. Birkenau is so vast that the barbed wire fences and wooden huts stretch as far as the eye can see. For February in Poland, it was a warm day and the sun shone but there was chill in the air and I was grateful for my coat, thinking that all the prisoners would have had was a rough, thin cloth to ward off the bitterness of winter. As we walked, I remember noticing that it was completely silent, even the birds weren’t singing; then the sound of a Israeli Jewish service reached our ears from the remains of the gas chambers, and the melancholic melody of the prayer, which I learned later to be ‘El Male Rachamim’ [‘God full of compassion’, a Hebrew memorial prayer], forced me to fight back tears.


Birkenau as it stands today with the barbed wire fences and chimney stacks from the remains of the camp buildings.

We returned to Kraków (the nearest city to Auschwitz) where we were staying and I was grateful that Anna had booked a hotel in the Jewish Quarter, which is now very much alive and thriving. We enjoyed a meal at a restaurant with a live Klezmer group before parting ways the following morning. I flew back to London alone and spent the time reading the memoir Szymon recommend to me called One of the Girls in the Band by Helena Dunicz Niwińska who played violin in the women’s orchestra in Birkenau. It was a difficult read and Niwińska did not spare any of the horrendous details. I was determined to get through it and I finished it on the Tube on my way to see my partner Rachel Maby. I am not ashamed to say that as soon as I held her, with my backpack still on, I unexpectedly broke down in tears. It was a hard trip, and it had been a huge emotional challenge, and I had only just started the project.

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