Music is deeply intertwined in the religious and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Prayers and Torah readings are chanted and sung by cantors and rabbis. Songs with lyrics written in Yiddish—the common language of Eastern European Jews—date back 150 years. They tell stories, both humorous and tragic, about local characters, the Czar, daily life in the shtetl (village), and pogroms (organized attacks) staged against them. Many times a tune written in earlier times was recycled with new lyrics to fit the new situation.
In September 1939, after the Nazis conquered Poland, and through the early 1940s as the Nazis pulverized country after country throughout Europe, Jews remaining in those areas became subject to devastating laws and restrictions. The German oppressors sought to control every aspect of their lives. Despite threats of deportation and death, Jews resisted spiritually in any way they could. They continued to pray, to educate their children, and to participate in religious and cultural activities that flourished in both ghettos and concentration camps.
The “model ghetto” established by the Nazis at Theresienstadt was home to several world-class composers, conductors, and musicians whose SS masters ordered them to create operas, concerts, and musical reviews to impress the International Red Cross and present to the outside world a false front of decent treatment of Jews. Internees Viktor Ullmann, Robert Brock, Alice Herz-Sommer, Gideon Klein, Egon Ledec, Rafael Schachter, Hans Krasa, David Grunfeld, and others met their demands but also produced numerous musical pieces they freely performed for