'AUSCHWITZ - BIRKENAU'
'Auschwitz-Birkenau' is my second 'soundtrack' project. I have always had strong feelings about the Holocaust and I started re-reading all my books on the subject. This in turn led me to try and find out what the concentration camps looked like today, even, in some cases, if they still existed. I ended up buying a book called 'Deathly Still' by Reinhartz & Krockow, which had some beautiful black & white photos of the camps that did still exist plus the ruins and memorials of others. In all, 34 camps were photographed in the book. This set in motion an idea for me to record a piece of music about each individual camp. I also started thinking about trying to visit most, if not all of the monuments to see them for myself. All this was happening at the tail end of 2004. Alas in January 2005 I became aware of the 60th Anniversary celebrations taking place around the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 27th of January, which is world 'Holocaust' day. Around the same time, the BBC screened a six part, six hour documentary based on the history of the camp. The programme also included brilliant computer graphics of how the camp looked during the period of the war, and, most importantly, graphics of the crematoria, which the Nazi's had blown up during their retreat. This programme made such a big impression on me, and along with all the news coverage about the celebrations, convinced me that I wanted to go to Poland to see the camp for myself. It was then, in January 2005 that I booked my visit for the coming July. My friend Fay Solley agreed to accompany me.
What one has to remember at this point in time is that prior to the early nineties and with the camp being in Poland and therefore behind the Iron Curtain, most westerners had little knowledge of it. Sure the name was known, but most people, if asked to name a concentration camp, would have said either Dachau or Bergen - Belsen. Those two camps were actually liberated by the British & U.S. Armies, so their history was more known about by the general public here in the UK and Western Europe plus the States. 'Auschwitz-Birkenau' was different because the Russians eventually liberated it. However, when the curtain came down and the U.S.S.R. split, the archives were open, border sanctions lifted and all of a sudden the whole world started to realize and understand just what 'Auschwitz-Birkenau' actually stood for. This place was hell on earth. It was the biggest of all the concentration camps and a death factory. The 'Birkenau' camp was there to systematically murder whoever was sent there. The Germans, efficient people at the best of times, actually worked out in fine detail the best method of killing people and how to dispose of the bodies. Four new Crematoria were built to exact plans in 'Birkenau' and together with the one already in place in 'Auschwitz' this made five crematoria available. People then started to make a pilgrimage in their thousands to visit the camp, and this figure started to rise steadily throughout the nineties until by the time Fay and myself made our visit, the number of visitors was well over three million a year!
Nothing can prepare one for visiting the museum. No amount of books, television programmes or documentary's can even remotely prepare you for what one is confronted with. To see two tons of human hair behind a glass wall in a barrack 80 foot long and twenty foot deep (and there is another five tons out the back, away from public view) will chill even the hardest person to the bone. Add to that the barracks that are full of artificial limbs, clothes, suitcases, shoes, hair brushes and toothbrushes, shaving sticks, all manner of things that these poor souls were told to bring with them to help them be 'Resettled In The East' as the Nazi's put it, and you start to realize just what on a grand scale this all took place. Auschwitz 1, the main camp, is pretty much preserved how it was at the end of the war. The Infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign over the main entrance, a reminder to all mankind the deceit that took place there. But it is Birkenau that takes the breath away. This is the size of a small town, at least as big as Tilbury, in Essex, where I live, and it is when you see just how huge the place is that one can start to grasp the fact and figures that we read about today. Over 1.1 million alone died in Birkenau. The crematoria worked almost to full capacity 24 hours a day, and could consume up to 24,000 bodies if all four were running simultaneously. It beggars belief, it really does.
So on the 28th July, Fay and myself made our visit. I took with me my trusty Sony Dictaphone Recorder as I intended to stand on the spot of the selection ramp and come up with some music based on how I felt at that moment. This I duly did, and the finished track 'Birkenau - The Selection Ramp' is that music.
Back at the hotel that evening, Fay wrote her beautiful 'Eyes On A Wall' poem and later we had dinner in the main square in Krakow. By irony or not, we will never know, they had a small ensemble playing in front of our table. A young lady on Piano, a young man on violin and another young lady on a cello. The first piece of music they played was the theme from 'Schindlers List’! We both were nearly in tears.
The first piece of music I recorded was eventually to become the first track on the CD 'Auschwitz-Birkenau'. This was recorded just before I went to Poland and when the project was still under the working title of 'Deathly Still'. Visiting the museum though changed all that, and I decided to make a whole album worth of material solely about 'Auschwitz-Birkenau'. Thus began a two year, on-off, spell of recording. I re-read all the books I already had and bought over a dozen more including the exhaustive and extensive five volume 'Official History' that I bought from the camp bookshop. I then put together a number of titles that I wanted to record and put them in some sort of chronological order. As the main camp was open first, I based the first six tracks around the history and incidents surrounding 'Auschwitz 1'. As the death camp, 'Birkenau' needed more explanation, so it ended up with the remainder of the eighteen tracks. The process of the recording though was not without problems. I set off like a sprinter and recorded a dozen tracks in about three months. During this time I was getting through so much reading together with checking and re-checking the information to make sure all the facts were correct that I fell into a state of depression. Trying to take in some many sad and haunting stories eventually wore me down. I put down tools for the best part of a year and waited until I felt I could finish it. Eventually I shook myself out of the state I was in and had another sprint to finish the remainder of the tracks. All through this period I was listening, re-arranging and in some instances, re-recording material until I was satisfied with what I had. Some tracks were, I felt, initially too long and I learned a valuable lesson that sometimes the impact of a short sparse piece is far greater than a longer dense piece.
Quite a few people nowadays are familiar with the story of 'Auschwitz-Birkenau' in general, but I do think that there is a need to explain some of the more less known incidents and places. So for this reason, I will give a brief run down of the tracks as follows,
'Auschwitz-Birkenau' is fairly self-explanatory. This is an introduction piece designed to set the scene.
'4.30 AM Roll Call' ('Appell') is also fairly self-explanatory. The prisoners were woken by a gong at that time and then had to parade in all weathers for sometimes hours on end as the numbers had to match up with those held by the registrars. Bearing in mind that quite a few people died naturally overnight this was never as straightforward as it may appear. Also any indiscretions such as not having your cap on straight or being late were usually dealt with by a bullet to the head or the very least a hard beating which again meant there had to a further count. Music wise, I added the sounds of the birds on a summer morning mixed with the rumble of a cart carrying off the dead.
'Arbeit Macht Frei' ('Work Makes You Free') is of course the cynical motto that hung over the entrance of the main gate in Auschwitz 1. After roll call, the prisoners were marched off to work, past an orchestra made up of prisoners. Everyone had to march in time and those that didn't were given a severe beating. The prisoners sometimes worked a twelve-hour day on meagre rations. The work involved very heavy lifting with very little breaks and sometimes took place in sub zero temperatures wearing only the thinnest of clothes and very poor quality footwear.
'Block 11 - The Death Block' - 'The most frightening place in Auschwitz 1 was 'Block 11'. Some of the most hideous of crimes took place here including the first trials of using gas as a method to kill.
'The Black Wall' ('The Execution Wall') was an area next to 'Block 11' where prisoners found guilty of any crimes, many of minor trivialities, were taken and shot. Sometimes a trial would be arranged that was a travesty of the word, lasting no more than 30 seconds.
'Father Kolbe' was a Catholic Priest who gave up his own life in return for that of a young Polish Jew. After the war, Father Kolbe was made a Saint.
'The Gateway Of Death' is the image that most people associate with the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The gateway is actually the entrance to the Birkenau complex through which every train passed, carrying over a million people to their deaths. Barking dogs, and at night, searing searchlights, were the first things a prisoner saw through the barbed wire of the carriage.
'Birkenau - The Selection Ramp' was where the transport trains finally stopped. Just inside the Gateway Of Death, the railway line split into two and a spur went off to the right. Here ramps were put up to allow the prisoners to disembark, and on most occasions a number of SS Officers, including the infamous Dr Mengle, were on hand to flick a finger to tell a prisoner which way to go. Left or Right. Life or Death. Barracks or Gas Chamber. When I stood on this exact spot and came up with the music for this piece it made my blood run cold. And I also realized afterwards that I probably spent longer in Birkenau itself that quite a lot of the people that arrived via these transports.
'Kanada' (Canada) - was the area in the camp where all the stolen belongings were stored and sorted. It got it's name as most people from the east always considered the country of Canada to be a land of prosperity and was heaven compared to the poverty that they lived in themselves, hence working in 'Kanada' was considered a 'cushy' number for two reasons. First of all, the work was quite light compared to other jobs and was done inside; giving protection from the harsh weather conditions that could be experienced during the winter. And secondly, the people that worked there had access to all manner of goods, including food, which they could barter on the black market for other luxuries and favours. Of course, stealing was punished harshly, but most were prepared to take the risk.
'The Muselmanner' (Muselmen - The Walking Dead) - or to give the literal translation, the 'Muslems', were those who could no longer put up with the harsh conditions that they were living under and decided to 'give up'. They spent the remainder of their days gradually wasting away until they either died of natural causes or committed some offence that meant they were selected for the gas chambers. Musically I made this track a relative of 'Father Kolbe' and they share the same melody. The connection? Father Kolbe 'gave up' his life, the Muselmanner had 'given up'. This track was originally going to be entirely different and much longer and I kept going round and round with different ideas until the obvious one came to me, 'make it very simple and very short'. I think this short piece is very sad.
'The 'Roma' (2nd August 44) and The 'Hungarian Jews' - At the 1st of August there were just under 23,000 'Roma' or Gypsies in the camp. These people were treated slightly differently to others as they had their own 'family' area within the camp and were not forced to wear usual blue and white striped camp suit. This, they felt, meant they were not in any danger as they lived pretty much a normal life. However, behind the scenes the Nazi's were as cynical as ever and they prepared for all four gas chambers and crematoria to be made ready for the night of 1st August. Starting late on the 1st August through to the early hours of the 2nd August, the entire 'Roma' were liquidated. Every man, woman and child. The Hungarian Jews were the last major arrivals to Birkenau and did not start arriving until late 44. As soon as they arrived they were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers, most were only in the camp for as long as it took them to walk from the selection ramp to the gas chamber, others went to a barrack overnight and then murdered the next morning. The crematoria couldn't burn the bodies quick enough so massive pyres were made behind the crematoria where pits were dug and the bodies were thrown on top of one another and set alight. Of the almost 250,000 Hungarian Jews that were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in late 44, over 200,000 were murdered in just a few months.
'The 'Sonderkommandos' ('To The Showers') - were the unfortunate souls who were chosen to 'help' run the gas chambers and crematoria. These people performed the worst job known to man. First of all, they had to help those chosen for 'selection' make their way to the gas chambers whilst keeping up the deceit that they were simply going for a shower. Amongst those chosen to die there were often friends and family of a 'Sonderkommando' and they couldn't say anything or let on what was going to happen to them. Their next job was to go in after the murders took place and untangle all the bodies and wash down the gas chambers ready for the next batch and then finally they had to then transport the bodies to the crematoria and load them up. They were also responsible for setting alight the pyres in the pits when the crematoria couldn't keep up. Those amongst them that couldn't handle it anymore just chucked themselves on the pyres. The shelf life of a 'Sonderkommando' was very short and only those in charge were kept alive to train new ones. The reason being that these people were 'witnesses' and therefore had to be dispatched themselves every few months.
'The Showers / The Gas Chamber' - Of course, the biggest deceit was the fact that most people amongst the new arrivals truly believed they were going for disinfection and a shower before moving into the camp barracks. A number of signs were in place to assure these people that they needed to be clean before being released into the camp. Those already in the camp and subsequently 'selected' knew what fate had in store for them,
'Zyklon B' - was the name of the pellets that were dropped through an opening in the roof of the gas chambers. When they reacted with air they released the lethal gas that murdered millions, Originally 'Zyklon B' was made as a pesticide, but the Nazi's found that this product was the most suitable and quickest method for mass killing. Musically, this one was difficult to come up with. I wanted to get the sound of the release of the gas and eventually used a number of bell trees. The piano part was, naturally, a 'B' note played over five octaves. Five being the number of gas chambers and crematoria in the camps.
'The 'Kapos' And The 'Sonderkommandos' (Dedicated To Filip Muller)- A Kapo is basically someone who was put in charge of a barrack and performed various other duties. They were usually German criminals but were occasionally Jews. Throughout the history of the camp, most of these people were despised and they had control, almost to the point of life and death, over the prisoners. After the war there were very few that had good words for a kapo. Of course, some used their position to help others, but most abused their position. During war crimes trials, the few that were decent people were exonerated of all crimes. Musically, I have linked the 'hard' kapo with the ‘sad’ sonderkommando. At this point I have imagined the kapo instructing the sonderkommando to prepare and fill the gas chamber with the next selection of prisoners. I have dedicated this piece to one particular Sonderkommando, Filip Muller. Filip wrote probably the most moving account ever of being a Sonderkommando in his book 'Eyewitness Auschwitz'. Finding himself considered one of the most experienced and useful of this camp squad, he was able to survive for a number of years in a job that had a life expectancy of a few months. He tells in his book how he was confronted one day with literally the whole of his home village and had to persuade them to enter the gas chamber whilst telling them there was no reason to be alarmed. He goes on to explain that they knew their fate anyway and as he closed the doors they started to sing the Czech national anthem. This broke him and he said he wanted to stay in the chamber with them but they forced him to leave as he was in a position to let the world know just what was happening, should he ever survive. It is to his and their credit that he did survive and was able to write his book.
'The Five Chimneys / The Crematoria' - Four of the five crematoria were in the Birkenau camp, the other, and originally the first, was in the Auschwitz main camp. Over the years, the crematoria were gradually updated to make them more efficient! Designed by a leading German company, 'Toft & Sons', the four based in Birkenau were in use practically twenty four hours a day and were only shut down occasionally for maintenance. The best method for disposal of the bodies was even worked out to the finest of details right down to the suggestion that two adults should be cremated with one child. The Nazi’s worked out that they would use less fuel this way as the body fat's would help the incineration. Musically, this track was a mixture of feel and exact science. The feel was that as each crematoria was fired up, the intensity would grow bigger and bigger. The science was five notes played five times followed by five drumbeats represented the five crematoria.
'(Liberation - 27th Jan 45) A Long way from home)' - This I wanted to represent the loss that every prisoner must had felt once they knew they had survived. Most had lost all their family and had no home to go back to, having been displaced and their homes given to German citizens. Musically, this is a variation of the opening track and originally I was going to have Fay's poem recited over it, but I eventually decided against that Idea. I felt that Fay's work was better read and not heard. Just hearing it would have taken away some of the impact.
'1.1 Million?' - This is a reflection piece. Even today, most of the survivors can recall the sights, sounds and smells of the camp as if it was yesterday. Some will talk about it, others refuse to do so. Musically I wanted this to have 'echoes' of the sounds and themes that had gone before, hence why the train whistles, the voices, and a reminder of the 'Five Chimneys' theme are all present. I also speeded up all the effects to represent that although every day must have lasted a life time during their captivity, subsequently time flies by so quickly that it must be difficult for these people to put it all into perspective, time wise, with the remainder of their lives. In some instances certain people were there only for a few months, others survived a few years and yet here they / we are 65 years later. I cannot even begin to imagine what goes through these peoples minds at any given time, especially when they go to sleep.
I recorded the score at home on an 'Apple PowerBook G4 Laptop'. It may surprise some people, but everything, bar the sound effects, is a 'soft' instrument. In other words, there is not a 'real' instrument used at all! I used the internal 'Garageband' application that is free with all apple computers and used an 'orchestral' jam pack update to get all the sounds I required. I played everything via two midi keyboards, one an 'M-Audio Keystation 61 ES', and the other an 'M-Audio Oxygen 8'. So on the computer, the score resembles Morse code rather than music. It's just a series of dots and dashes. In fact, the Apple computer played a big part not only for the music, but also the making of the CD booklet. All photos and text was put into a wonderful application called Iphoto and I was then able to lay out each page as I imagined and wanted it. The finished mock up was then sent via the internet to Apple Publishing in Holland and a week later they arrived back, printed, bound and finished. I also 'burned' the masters for all the music on my Apple as well, so in the case of 'Auschwitz-Birkenau' everything was made via an 'Apple PowerBook G4 Laptop' lock, stock and barrel!
'Eyes On A Wall' - By Fay Solley
Eyes on a wall where the spirit is lost
Where all that remains is the ash and the ghost
Horrors untold in a night time of tears
From the eyes of the children that shows only fear
Eyes on a wall where the sparkle is gone
Singing in silence 'the mourning song'
Uncertainty lies in depravities home
Where love and emotion are no longer shown
Eyes on a wall that are empty and bleak
A mouth in the frame with no words they can speak
A sadness so deep in the core of the heart
The crime of birth was only the start
Eyes on a wall where a number is given
A name don’t exist where life is forbidden
Their captors are laughing in sounds of self praise
At the end of selection from each of the trains
Eyes on a wall from the faces of the twins
Saved from the gas by their make up of genes
A pawn in the ego of a doctors alliance
To make his name in the mask of science
Eyes on a wall facing hell and disease
Only in death can they find some release
Imprisonment forced for the ones out of place
Born outside of the aryan race
Eyes on a wall taught the lesson of shame
By tools made for torture to bring maximum pain
Regular beatings while standing in line
On snow covered ground for hours in time
Eyes on a wall in the house of death
It’s sweet sickly stench fills the lungs with each breath
Day becomes night in crematorium skies
Remains of the free on the four winds they fly
Eyes on a wall that are no longer hidden
Their story is told to all that will listen
Never forget all the pain and abuse
Ordered by some on the race of the jews
Copyright Of Fay Solley (2005)