More than 200 musical scores were found at the Nazi death camp after spending decades in its archives.
In 2015, Leo Geyer traveled to Auschwitz as part of a research project. The British composer had been tasked with creating a composition to honor the late Martin Gilbert, a historian and Holocaust expert, and he decided to visit Auschwitz to get a “sense of the gravity.” While there, he also stumbled across hundreds of forgotten compositions made by concentration camp prisoners — which Geyer is now bringing back to life.
“I had a conversation with one of the archivists, and he said in a somewhat offhand way that there were some [musical] manuscripts in the archive,” Geyer explained to the Washington Post. “I nearly fell over at the time when he mentioned it because I couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist and that it had been overlooked all this time.”
As Geyer soon discovered, the Auschwitz archive contained some 210 musical scores which had been arranged and played at the notorious concentration camp. Some were incomplete, some were partially destroyed, and some were burned along their edges. But Geyer saw an opportunity to stitch the pieces into something new to honor their composers.
Such work, however, wasn’t easy.
“It’s the equivalent of several hundred jigsaw puzzles, except many of the pieces are missing,” Geyer explained to the Washington Post. “It requires a certain amount of musical detective work to put the pieces together, to recompose missing parts, to discover the music.”
Geyer’s task was especially complicated because of the wide range of musical scores. Some of the compositions were played publicly by the camp’s several orchestras whereas others were private compositions penned in secret by prisoners. What’s more, the camp orchestras were often composed from a hodgepodge of instruments entirely dependent on what prisoners could play.
“Our task consisted of playing every morning and every evening at the gate of the camp so that the outgoing and incoming work commandos would march neatly in step to the marches we played,” Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, an Auschwitz survivor who played the cello at the camp, told CNN.
She continued: “We also had to be available at all times to play to individual SS staff who would come into our block and wanted to hear some music after sending thousands of people to their death.”
As such, many of the compositions Geyer examined were “eerily lively German marching tunes,” according to the Washington Post. But even these included subtle acts of resistance, like the inclusion of the Polish national anthem or music by American composer John Philip Sousa.
Meanwhile, some appear to be compositions made by prisoners. One that caught Geyer’s eye was entitled “Futile Regrets.” Geyer doesn’t believe that this anonymous composition was ever performed at the camp because of its heartbreaking and sorrowful melody.
Geyer was struck by how similar the handwriting in the composition was to his own, and he became determined to complete the piece.
“After seeing that, I just felt it was my duty to finish it,” he told the Washington Post. “I’m not Jewish, Romani, Polish, Russian or disabled, or descended from any person from Auschwitz, but I do stand by those who are persecuted for no reason other than who they are. And I hope to live in a world where no evil could rise again.”
Though Geyer’s project is incomplete, he’s started sharing portions of it with the world. In December 2023, Geyer and a chamber orchestra performed excerpts from The Orchestras of Auschwitz, an opera-ballet. They played “Futile Regrets” and three other pieces found at Auschwitz.
Music, Geyer told the Washington Post, is powerful, and these lost compositions offer a new way to engage with the memory of the Holocaust. For prisoners at Auschwitz, music would have provided a slice of comfort and normality amidst the horror of the camp.
“Many people were extremely grateful for the music that they heard, it gave them some sense of normality in an otherwise unimaginable place,” Geyer remarked, “a chink of daylight in the darkness.”
After reading about the musical compositions rediscovered at Auschwitz, look through these photos from the liberation of Auschwitz. Or, see how Stanislawa Leszczyńska delivered 3,000 babies at Auschwitz.