Surviving the Holocaust through Music

March 30, 2017

Premieres Monday, April 3 at 10:30pm on THIRTEEN.

Through intimate interviews and live performances, They Played for Their Lives artfully portrays how music saved the lives of young musicians. Playing music in the ghettos and concentration camps not only fostered spiritual strength within themselves and others, but often proved a bargaining tool that spared their lives. The documentary follows the personal narratives of eight survivors.

Chaim recounts how he saved his father from beatings, by teaching an SS officer to play the harmonica. Anita, who played cello in the Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz, was spared inhumane forced labor. And little Hellmuth whistled with the band in exchange for extra food and clothing. Each of these unique stories illustrate the power of music to sustain the human soul.

At the end of World War II their lives unfold in surprising ways, yet music remains at the core of their memory and legacy. Charcoal illustrations by Ari Binus, a live piano performance by 106-year-old Alice, and a moving reunion of two boys who searched for each other for 66 years, make this compelling viewing.

Learn More

Dr. Nurit Jugend, director of They Played for Their Lives, created this They Played for Their Lives Discussion Guide for educators to use for post-screening discussions. Appropriate for all viewers, the guide features a director’s note and addresses what music meant at concentration camps —- both to the Nazis and to prisoners. More information about the documentary is found on the official film site, They Played for Their Lives.

The Language of Music

Essay by Nurit Jugend, Filmmaker, Composer and Music Educator

During WWII, under the ruling of Nazi Germany, European Jews were being persecuted and forced to live in inhumane conditions. In the ghettos and concentration camps, they lived with constant hunger, sickness and fear of death. However, even under these horrific circumstances, there were those who managed to play music or compose a new song.

Music is a universal language that has the power to express what cannot be told or explained in words. The music that was either composed or performed during the Holocaust, provided people with a semblance of emotional comfort and distraction from their horrific reality: “music gave us so much, to escape even for a few moments to a ‘normal’ world” explains Greta, a survivor from ghetto Terezin. Though they could not escape from their physical reality “music allowed us a complete disconnect and emotional escape from the daily life”.

Above all, music had the power to save people’s lives. The Nazis highly valued music and often gave special treatment to those who had the skill to play an instrument. This appreciation to music allowed some musicians to get better jobs, better living conditions, more food and clothing. In numerous ghettos and camps, people who played an instrument were selected to join the local band or orchestra. Some musicians were forced to entertain the Nazis during holidays and parties. The travesty of musicians who were forced to play in the concentration camps would haunt them forever. In many cases, they played as they watched their family and friends march into the gas chambers. The ‘useful’ skill of those musicians was undoubtedly a horrific and traumatic experience, but one that often saved their lives: “the cello really saved my life because to be in this orchestra was a way of survival, because as long as they wanted music they would be foolish to put us in the gas chambers” explains Anita, a survivor from Auschwitz.

Therefore, for these survivors, their children and grandchildren, music has further meaning. In these families, the legacy of playing an instrument or composing music takes on another dimension. It is the legacy of ‘music and song from the Holocaust’ that carries the proof of victory; the power of human survival to continue living and overcome trauma and genocide, and the power of music to exist beyond any act of evil: “They tore off our belongings, food and clothing but music is the one thing that they could not take away from us, music that evil could not destroy” states Alice, a survivor from Terezin.

Music is a universal language that speaks to all mankind regardless of ones faith or religion. I feel it is my moral obligation to preserve the legacy of ‘music from the Holocaust’ and pass it on to the following generations so that the victims will not be forgotten. The film’s mission is to educate future generations about the Holocaust and strive for more tolerance and acceptance among people worldwide.