“When you are not allowed to speak your thoughts, raise your hand or even cry out with tears of pain, music can capture those emotions in the most direct and pure way,” reflects singer Ute Lemper. “These are songs that expressed what words and actions could not express. They speak to the soul.”
The award-winning performer, a familiar face on Broadway and the West End stages, is best known for her interpretation of the work of German-Jewish composer
But for the past two years, the 54-year-old – who won an Olivier award for her turn as Velma Kelly in Chicago – has thrown all her energy behind a project that resonates with her on a deeply personal level.
Songs For Eternity features the works of largely unknown composers, written between 1942 and 1944, by Jewish victims of Nazi persecution sent to the ghettos and concentration camps.
Lemper will bring the special programme of songs to JW3, Finchley Road, on Tuesday.
Having been raised in a Roman Catholic family in post-war Germany, the mother-of-four tells me that she sees it as her “mission” to bring this forgotten music back to life and confront one of the darkest – and most painful – episodes in the history of her native country.
Speaking from her home in New York, Lemper, whose husband is Jewish, explains: “I was born in Germany in 1963. It was a Germany that was suffering from the consequences of the war.
Listen to Ute Lemper on the Jewish Views podcast:
“My parents remember it very much, the aeroplanes and the bombing and the fear, having been only children themselves at the time, and they suffered nightmares.
“But they were pained to speak about the Holocaust. It was impossible to say anything about these atrocities that were committed.”
Lemper admits feeling “pained” by the reluctance of her parents’ generation to speak out and resolved to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust were never forgotten.
The opportunity to do just that came in 2015 after meeting Italian composer Francesco Lotoro, who has dedicated his life to researching music written in the concentration camps.
Together, they began researching material for a special programme of songs composed by victims of the Holocaust forced to endure life in the camps, and also the ghettos.
Of the latter, Lemper came across Songs Never Silenced, a book first published in 1948 by Shmerke Katsherginski and later Velvel Pasternak, which included a wealth of largely-forgotten compositions.
Lemper tells me: “I picked the songs that created a complex picture of life in the ghettos and concentration camps. A variety of tragic pieces that reflect the lives behind barbed wire, the assassination of kids, the impossible bearing of the torture and witnessing of death, but also the songs that celebrate life and hope and rebellion.
“There are also songs for children, cradle songs at night and songs of consolation.”
Among the 15 titles selected by Lemper is Shtiler Shtiler, written by Katsherginski in an effort to mobilise the Jewish community against the Nazis.
“The song is about hope, but it was secretly meant as a message of rebellion,” adds Lemper.
Also included is the work of Viktor Ullmann, a contemporary of Weill incarcerated at Theresienstadt where, alongside many other professional musicians, he was ordered to put on performances for the Nazis at the weekend.
In 1944, all were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Then there are the anonymous songs, sourced by Lotoro, which were heard at Buchenwald and delivered by word-of-mouth to other survivors.
Lemper reflects: “All of them are unique and profoundly touching.
“It really is an incredible collection and I am so dedicated to keeping this repertoire present, especially in this time of rising nationalism, neo-Nazis and people who seem to have forget what has happened.
“Seventy years is nothing. It’s quite unbelievable how these ideas that lay behind discrimination, violence and cruelty are still manufactured and advertised in our world today.”
Ute Lemper: Songs For Eternity arrives on Tuesday, 22 May, 7.30pm
at JW3, Finchley Road. Details: jw3.org.uk