Songs of the Holocaust: the music of Aleksander Kulisiewicz

Aleksander Kulisiewicz survived five years in a Nazi concentration camp, where he committed the music and lyrics of his fellow inmates to memory. As Mark Burman recounts, it was an act of defiance that allows us to glimpse a manmade hell

Aleksander Kulisiewicz, wearing a concentration camp uniform, performs at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Italy, 1965. (Image: Kulisiewicz family)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Accompanies the BBC World Service documentary Songs from the Depths of Hell, produced by Mark Burman

Aleksander Kulisiewicz lay in a Polish infirmary seemingly babbling. The doctor assumed he was raving. Kulisiewicz thought he was dying. He had survived five years of incarceration in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the subsequent death march ordered by the SS as the Soviets closed in, in April 1945. But the nurse attending Kulisiewicz realised he was urging her to transcribe what he was feverishly reciting. She began copying down what would become hundreds of pages of lyrics. Songs of the damned and the dead. Songs of utter darkness or wicked portraits of camp life. Songs of longing for home or loved ones. Among them 54 of his own compositions.

Recovered, Kulisiewicz would spend the rest of his life performing and collecting songs and stories of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camp system, which had imprisoned and murdered millions. It’s a body of work that represents the largest single source of music composed in the concentration camps. He died in 1982 before completing a 3,000-page musical survey that had increasingly absorbed his life to the detriment of his family and marriage.

Read more from the February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine here, including:

The February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine

There was precious little interest in all of this in his native Poland, which had been largely stripped of its Jewish population and was in thrall to manipulative communist narratives about the Holocaust. Kulisiewicz’s vast collection of tapes and papers began gathering dust – effectively in storage at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, until in 1993 it was brought to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Even now its contents are still being catalogued. A CD that emerged, Ballads and Broadsides, joins a collection of Kulisiewicz recordings that remain profoundly compelling musical documents.

The songs he left us have titles such as ‘The Burnt Mother’, ‘The Corpse Carrier’s Tango’ and, detailing SS repressions against homosexuals imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, ‘Dicke Luft’ (‘Thick Air’). The lyrics are in German, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian and Yiddish. What you hear are trancelike performances featuring a strummed guitar, and a voice bitingly direct and unsettling. Conveying bitterness and sorrow, wreathed in darkness, Kulisiewicz was a living tape recorder of his days in Sachsenhausen.

Playwright and translator Peter Wortsmann cut an album with Kulisiewicz in the late 1970s: Songs from the Depths of Hell. Even now, the recording experience marks him. “My mind went blank; I was horrified and heartened at the same time,” Wortsmann recalls. “A song like ‘Lullaby for Little Son in the Crematorium’ – do you have a right to listen to it, or shut your ears? He was Orpheus in hell, singing songs to try to raise the dead.”

Without hope of release

Aleksander Tytus Kulisiewicz was 22 when Sachsenhausen’s gates, bearing the mocking legend Arbeit Macht Frei (‘work sets you free’) closed behind him on 30 May 1940. In prewar Poland, he had been a wanderer, a misfit and a hellraiser, to the frustration of his father. He had performed ‘artistic whistling’ on stage in Czechoslovakia and Austria, sang in Krakow’s febrile cabaret scene, pursued a lover (a 17-year-old circus horseback rider) and worked under canvas as a clown’s assistant. “I would lie down on the sawdust, like a corpse, while the boss would beat me on the head with an inflated rubber club. I’d then get up whistling, out of the blue,” he recalled.

He was arrested over an anti-fascist essay, ‘Homegrown Hitlerisms’, which proclaimed: “Enough Hitler, Heil Butter.” Beaten and jailed, first in his hometown of Cieszyn, Polish Silesia, he was then sent up the system to Berlin before joining thousands of Polish prisoners entering the ever-expanding world of the conquered at Sachsenhausen, just 20 miles from Hitler’s capital. Alongside him were the professors and lecturers of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University – their arrests part of Nazi plans to destroy Poland’s intelligentsia.

Behind the wire, Kulisiewicz’s experience was a grotesque parody of his time in the circus. “The camp was some sort of dark, perverted circus of sadists and miscreants,” he later said. “But here they didn’t hit you with inflated rubber clubs. Fellow prisoners looked like striped clowns, on whom an entire menagerie was unleashed. There was no sawdust, only cold dirt. No one had to pretend to be dead.”

Aleksander Kulisiewicz performed his songs with the same guitar he had used at Sachsenhausen. (Image: Kulisiewicz family)
Aleksander Kulisiewicz performed his songs with the same guitar he had used at Sachsenhausen. (Image: Kulisiewicz family)

Kulisiewicz was imprisoned, like so many, under Schutzhaft (‘protective custody’). This meant arrest without judicial review. Entering Sachsenhausen early in the war, though, was fortunate in a way. Kulisiewicz formed bonds with prisoners at the top of the camp hierarchy, such as the German ‘politicals’, entrusted by the SS with making lists of inmates for transportation. Valued for his memory skills, Kulisiewicz was likely shielded by them and was never transferred. He was able to speak several languages, including fluent German – essential for responding to commands. But Sachsenhausen was still a brutal, murderous place: up to 50,000 would die there before the war’s end. His survival was remarkable.

Outside the wire and guard towers of this ‘model camp’ stood the administrative headquarters of Himmler’s SS. This was a place to breed a new cadre of camp administrators, such as Rudolf Höss, who would soon preside over Auschwitz. Inside was an increasing babble of languages. Silence reigned only during the humiliating roll call.

Music had a dual life there. The SS would command the more musical prisoners to perform Volkslieder (folk songs) for them, or compel performances to accompany floggings and other punishments.

Occasionally, concerts of operettas and light works took place for favoured prisoner communities. But when the SS retired from the camp grounds at nightfall, different melodies emerged. German political prisoners sang their communal songs of solidarity. Czech students conducted rehearsals among the stacked corpses and echoing tiles of the mortuary. The Poles, part of a nation marked for starvation and annihilation by the Nazis, sang songs frequently full of bitterness and torment.

Kulisiewicz, with his facility for languages, could move among these different groups, who welcomed not only his musical talents but also his extraordinary memory. A freak electrocution during childhood had given him speech problems until he was taught mnemonic techniques to recover language. Nothing was forgotten.

But it was Kulisiewicz’s encounter with the socialist choir leader Rosebery d’Arguto and his clandestine chorus of Jewish prisoners that forever defined his calling. By late 1942, d’Arguto and his choir knew they were bound for destruction and, in utmost secrecy, were intensely rehearsing the bitter, tragic comic Jüdischer Todessang (‘Jewish Death Song’), based on the Yiddish folk melody Tsen Brider (‘Ten Brothers’), but with lyrics changed to reflect the fate of the Jews heading for the gas chambers. In a narrative that he endlessly repeated, d’Arguto implored Kulisiewicz to remember the song.

Conveying bitterness and sorrow, wreathed in darkness, Kulisiewicz was a living tape recorder of his days in Sachsenhausen

“Aleks, you are young. You speak German, you seem to have good relations with people here,” d’Arguto said. “We are sure you will survive and will leave this camp. We will be killed, Jews will not survive. Go into the world and sing our songs. Tell people about this horror and murder and this will be your mission. If you do it, God will protect you here and after the war.”

Chosen and damned

D’Arguto and his choir were executed, but Kulisiewicz had his mission, which he never relinquished: “Other prisoners came to me – Czechs, Poles, Germans. ‘Aleks, have you got some room in your archive?’ I would close my eyes and say, ‘Recite…’” Kulisiewicz became what he called a “poetic octopus” of hate, justice and longing. He could poke fun at the Nazis, depict the bleakest of conditions and be a repository for the crammed humanity of Sachsenhausen.

For 20 years after liberation, Kulisiewicz had no audience beyond other camp-survivor organisations across Poland, which he would encounter in his work as a travelling salesman. But in 1965 he stepped onto the stage at Bologna’s Music of the Resistance festival and found a new outlet for his musical testimony. A young generation was beginning to tear away at the stifling silence of postwar Europe and its fascist past. West German youth, in particular, were questioning the convenient narratives of their parents and here was Kulisiewicz, a living witness to the world of camps such as Sachsenhausen that had immediately abutted ordinary, ‘good’ German homes. He would perform continuously for the next 16 years while obsessively working on his archive.

There were albums, television and radio appearances and concerts. He clothed his diminutive form in the stripes of his KZ (concentration camp) uniform. He would strum the guitar he took from Sachsenhausen and always he would perform the ‘Jewish Death Song’ of d’Arguto’s choir, keeping his promise to honour their memory and play the music of death and life. He knew he was chosen and damned.

Mark Burman is a BBC radio documentaries producer

Songs from the Depths of Hell, a documentary about Aleksander Kulisiewicz’s music presented by Alan Dein and produced by Mark Burman, will air on BBC World Service in late January

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To listen to excerpts of Kulisiewicz’s music, search on ushmm.org