Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw (1947)

See Schoenberg's manuscript here.

Entrance of German Tanks into Warsaw

With the rise of the Nazis, Schoenberg fled Europe to take up residence in America. He was removed from his position at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in 1933 and his work was labelled "degenerate" and "Bolshevist" and banned from performance throughout German-controlled lands. After a brief move to New York, where he found the weather not to his liking, Schoenberg moved across the country to 116 North Rockingham Avenue in Los Angeles, where he took a teaching position at UCLA; among his students was John Cage. In Hollywood, Schoenberg lived next door to Shirley Temple; often played ping pong and tennis, and more tennis with the likes of George Gershwin (who painted a portrait of Schoenberg) and the Marx Brothers; and began a warm friendship with Charlie Chaplin.

During their occupation of Poland, the Nazis rounded-up the nearly 500,000 Jewish residents and forcibly relocated them in the former . The area was sealed off and surrounded by ten-foot walls. Over time, many Jews died of stravation or disease and others were transported to the gas chambers at Treblinka. In January of 1943, the roughly 37,000 remaining residents had heard a rumor that the Germans intended to clear the ghetto, an event that would undoubtedly lead to their death. The inhabitants, including it is said, the women and children, decided to fight. For a few days the residents were able to fend off the Germans with molotov cocktails and small arms, but the Nazis returned with greater firepower, gassed the air-raid shelters that many hid in, and raised the water levels in the sewers to drown those hiding there. In a matter of weeks, the fighting was over, and most of the survivors were collected and taken away. It would take months to finally end the uprising.
After hearing the moving stories of some of the survivors from the Warsaw uprising, Schoenberg felt compelled to write this work, using text in English, some of which was drawn from the words of the survivors themselves, and Hebrew. The composition, set for Narrator, orchestra and chorus, tells of the German round-up of the residents of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto for transport to the gas chambers. Unhappy with the slowness of the process, the soldiers urge them to hurry before beating them. As the victims are led away they suddenly begin singing the hymn "Shema Yisroel" or "Hear, O Israel," a hymn to love God and for comfort and hope. Eyewitnesses have confirmed similar events in both the Treblinka and Auschwitz camps. Traditionally, the Shima Yisroel was chanted by Jewish martyrs and wise men as a final utterance, showing a trust in God's will in the face of devastation.
Like all of Schoenberg's later work A Survivor from Warsaw is based on a twelve-tone row, heard in its entirety as the choral melody at the end of the work. The narrator uses Schoenberg's technique of Sprechstimme.
Schoenberg wrote of the work:
"It [is] at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us... We should never forget this... The miracle of [the story] is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are."
Scholars have hypothesized that the work is partly autobiographical, pointing to the composer's increasing interest in his own Judaism. Schoenberg had recently had a heart attack and nearly died, only to be resurrected by an injection to the heart. He would die in 1951.

To learn more about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, click here. or here.
Recordings of Schoenberg's voice can be found here.

Text (German portions have been translated):

I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time. I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years - the forgotten creed! But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time.

The day began as usual: Reveille when it still was dark. Get out! Whether you slept or whether worries kept you awake the whole night. You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents; you don't know what happened to them - how could you sleep?

The trumpets again - Get out! The sergeant will be furious! They came out: some very slow: the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility. They fear the sergeant. They hurry as much as they can. In vain! Much too much noise, much too much commotion - and not fast enough! The Feldwebel shouts: "Stand at attention! Hurry up! Or do you want to feel the butt of my gun? Okay, you've asked for it!" The sergeant and his subordinates hit everybody: young or old, quiet or nervous, guilty or innocent. It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning. I heard it though I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down. We all on the ground who could not stand up were then beaten over the head.

I must have been unconscious. The next I knew was a soldier saying: "They are all dead," whereupon the sergeant ordered them to do away with us. There I lay aside - half-conscious. It had become very still - fear and pain. Then I heard the sergeant shouting: "Number off!" They started slowly and irregularly: one, two, three, four - "Stand at attention!" the sergeant shouted again, "Quicker! Start again! In one minute I want to know how many I'm going to deliver to the gas chamber. Number off!" They began again, first slowly: one, two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the Sh'ma Yisrael.

Sh'ma Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6, 4-7)
Male chorus:
Hear, O Israel:
The Lord is God, the Lord is one.
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thine heart,
And with all thy soul,
And with all thy might.
And these words, which I command
thee this day,
Shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt teach them diligently
unto thy children,
And shalt talk of them when thou sittest
in thine house,
And when thou walkest by the way,
And when thou liest down,
And when thou risest up.

Jewish underground fighters who had fallen into German hands,
during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.