In 2015, British composer and conductor Leo Geyer visited Auschwitz to do research for the composition he had recently been commissioned to create to honor the memory of historian and Holocaust expert Martin Gilbert.
“I had a conversation with one of the archivists, and he said in a somewhat offhand way that there were some [musical] manuscripts in the archive,” Geyer says to the Washington Post’s María Luisa Paúl. “I nearly fell over at the time when he mentioned it because I couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist and that it had been overlooked all this time.”
A month later, he returned to Poland to see what the archives held, CNN’s Lianne Kolirin writes. He found the remnants of 210 musical scores arranged and played by orchestras at the concentration camp. The pieces, already of varying levels of completion, had been mostly destroyed, and some had burned at the edges.
One work in particular caught his eye. Titled “Futile Regrets,” it was written in handwriting “identical to mine,” Geyer tells the Jewish Chronicle’s Olivia Gittel. “It sent goosebumps down my spine and I felt it was my duty to finish it.” Geyer believes it’s unlikely that those in the camp performed the piece, given its deeply sorrowful tone and emotional weight.
In the years following, Geyer has made it his mission to “recompose” the fragments into a piece honoring the victims of the Holocaust and making sure the horrors they experienced aren’t forgotten. Thus far, the undertaking has involved hours of research, multiple visits to Auschwitz and several interviews with survivors, including Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who had been a cellist in a camp orchestra and credited that position for her survival. Geyer tells the Jewish Chronicle he spent years cross-referencing survivors’ accounts to understand who played when and with what instruments.
“It’s the equivalent of several hundred jigsaw puzzles, except many of the pieces are missing,” he says to the Post. “It requires a certain amount of musical detective work to put the pieces together, to recompose missing parts, to discover the music.”
This week, Geyer led a chamber orchestra in the first public performance of excerpts from his project, an opera-ballet called “The Orchestras of Auschwitz.” The concert was part of a larger awareness and fundraising campaign for a stage production and tour of the piece, which Geyer hopes to bring to audiences in 2025. His work joins similar efforts of those like Mark Ludwig, who works to document the music created by prisoners at Terezin concentration camp, and researcher Patricia Hall, who brought a work from Auschwitz I’s Men’s Orchestra to the public for the first time.
At one point, Auschwitz had as many as six orchestras that were sanctioned by the SS, Geyer tells CNN. They usually proved to be a strange amalgamation, featuring instruments like accordions or saxophones that aren’t typically found in traditional orchestras while lacking instruments like oboes and bassoons. Many of the songs they played were German marches.
“The grim realities of Auschwitz often played out against a backdrop of jaunty music,” Smithsonian’s Brigit Katz wrote in 2018. “An orchestra of prisoners was forced to perform as their fellow captives marched to and from work, and on Sundays, the musicians were tasked with entertaining Nazi officers.”
However, prisoners also resisted in subtle ways, weaving in the Polish national anthem and music by American composer John Philip Sousa, the Post reports. They also sometimes played for others in secret.
“Many people were extremely grateful for the music that they heard, it gave them some sense of normality in an otherwise unimaginable place—a chink of daylight in the darkness,” Geyer tells CNN.
Geyer wants to shine a light on history for the sake of making the world a better place, he says to the Religion Media Center’s Ruth Peacock.
“With this project I hope to encourage the public to commemorate and learn from history, so that we can do better,” he says. “Change happens when we stand together.”