Simon Wynberg on on the Rediscovery of Polish Composer Szymon Laks

Szymon Laks (1901-1983), the brilliant Jewish composer from Warsaw, survived the Nazi concentration camps in part thanks to his musical talents. Writing in Mosaic, Simon Wynberg, artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, considers how Laks’s candid memoir contributes to our understanding of the tragic role of music in the Nazi camps.

Beyond its obvious utility to the Nazis, did [the music] in any way ameliorate the suffering of the prisoners, recalling to their tortured spirits the persistence in the world of beauty, nobility, and grace? Could it even have instilled or rekindled the will to live?

Laks himself grants none of this. In his view, music was merely one more part of the madness, irrelevant to the quality or the mental stability of prisoners’ lives and powerless to reach them. He writes dispassionately about the marches played as labor detachments left in the morning and returned at night (always, it seemed, at a slower tempo); about the tunes from popular operettas played as macabre commentary at assemblies; and about the bespoke performances that indulged the cultural pretensions of SS officers. Whatever distraction music may have provided for the orchestra members themselves, he regards as delusory the notion that it served to heal or raise prisoners’ spirits. To the contrary, the privileges enjoyed by orchestra members—increased rations, reduced physical labor—were often bitterly resented and led to inevitable suspicions of collaboration.

Read the rest of the fascinating essay in Mosaic, where Wynberg further explains why Laks deserves recognition for his refusal to give in to the mid-century musical zeitgeist.