No single word evokes the horrors of the Holocaust like the name Auschwitz. The largest of the Nazi concentration camps, this sprawling complex was the site of the murder of millions, through gas, beatings and shootings, illness, medical experimentation, exhaustion and starvation. Prisoners from all over Western, Central and Eastern Europe were forced on cattle-car rides to the labor and death camp located just 35 miles from the Polish city of Krakow; the vast majority would never return.
This song ”The Most Beautiful Time of Life” is thought to be last performed in 1942 or 1943 by Auschwitz prisoners who were forced to play music in front of the SS guards on Saturdays, and to perform long Sunday concerts for the pleasure of camp commander Rudolf Hess Hoess and his family and friends.
Two years ago, music theory professor Patricia Hall traveled to Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. She hoped to learn about the music performed by the Jewish prisoners in the death camps of the Holocaust.
Hall, who teaches music at the University of Michigan, had heard that the museum had handwritten manuscripts of such songs.
But, she was surprised by what she found at the museum: unexpectedly happy and popular works, with names such as “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” and “Sing a Song When You’re Sad.”
Hall returned to the Polish museum several times over the next two years. She continued to study other handwritten manuscripts of songs arranged and performed by the Jewish prisoners.
From 1940 to 1945, more than 1 million people, most of whom were Jewish, died in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers, or from hunger, disease and forced labor.
Hall said she felt it was important for modern audiences to hear the prisoners’ music. So, she asked Josh Devries, a University of Michigan student, and university professor Oriol Sans to rewrite the manuscripts onto special music software. This made it easier to read and play the music.
Sans is also director of the school’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble. Last month, the group of musicians gathered to play and record “The Most Beautiful Time of Life.” The recording is to become part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.
Hall has so far identified two of the three prisoners who arranged the piece. They are Antoni Gargul, who was released from Auschwitz in 1943, and Maksymilian Pilat, who was released in 1945.
Hall said of the musicians, “We like to think that the musicians were saved because they had that ability to play instruments. However, it’s been documented by another prisoner that about 50 of them … were taken out and shot.”