January 27th - Songs from the Depths of Hell

Songs from the Depths of Hell - Aleksander Kulisiewicz, 1979

Content warning: everything on this album is deeply upsetting. Murder, genocide and starvation are mentioned in every song.

I wasn't planning on writing about this album today. I had seen it in the archives a few weeks ago, noted how much I felt I needed to listen to it but also how extremely rough of a listen it was going to be, and moved on; today I was going to listen to an album of birdsongs. But it's Holocaust Remembrance Day - the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp - and knowing that I felt like this was the best time to listen to and talk about this album.

The songs contained within - sung by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany - are brutal and painful ones, some written by Kulisiewicz, some collected from other prisoners. Kulisiewicz sings in a voice that is at varying moments tender, ironic, mocking and hideous, a voice that camp doctors tried to take from him by injecting him with diphtheria three separate times. There are moments when the songs are very beautiful, but they're never easy to listen to.

There are tragic love songs on this album (Shimon Ohm) and beautiful "concentration camp hymns" (Hymne, Dziesiec Miliónow), a song that satirizes the lack of social differentiation in the camps (Konzentrak), and a grisly tango that was played for Jews marked for death at Lemberg (Das Todestango). There is a song composed for an illicit four-voice choir with 25 members, upon the occasion of learning that they were all to be transferred from Sachsenhausen to Auschwitz-Birkenau for execution (Juedischer Todessang). Most horrifying, there is a lullaby, written by a father and sung to the body of his murdered three-year-old son (Kolysanka Dla Synka W Krematorium), an experience that "turned [him] grey overnight." My daughter is four months old. I cannot begin to comprehend the horror.

There is a degree to which I think we sanitize the Holocaust, just to be able to deal with it: we make it a grey cloud of death that settled over Europe. We forget the sheer long terrible process of it - human beings rounded up, moved from ghetto to ghetto to camp to camp, some being murdered here, some being murdered there, some worked to death, some starved to death, some surviving until the camps were liberated. We forget that people lived in the death camps - wrote letters that were smuggled out, tried to protect their families, loved and cared for one another, had parties and sang songs, fought back as best they could. If we don't have a personal connection, we turn the victims of the Holocaust into numbers - grey cardboard cutouts that never lived, so we don't have to feel the immense, overwhelming tragedy of their deaths.

I am not Jewish, or Roma, or gay, or a person with a disability. To be very frank, there is nothing - no experience at all - that I have had or could ever have, given my privileges as a white straight cis man from an Anglo-Saxon Christian background, that could give me any special insight into the Holocaust. Every time I engage with the subject my mind reels. And it is precisely this distance that I and people like me have from this experience of oppression that is why we should think about it. 

During the Third Reich, the United States had immigration quotas that prevented Jews from seeking safety on our shores. Anne Frank's father had actually applied for a visa for his family, and was denied; she could be a 77 year old woman today. For the United States to refuse refugees today - many of whom are fleeing violence that can be directly traced to our own brutal military adventurism - is disgusting. Today, many people will remember the Holocaust and say never again, while doing nothing to keep it from happening, again, over and over.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways