Vocal Music from Dachau

Leon Kaczmarek. Image courtesy of the Kulisiewicz Collection at the United States Holocaust Museum

Vocal Music from Dachau

By Kevin Allen

Thanks to Manuel Cini, concert pianist and professor at the University of Surrey—and thanks to his research in Holocaust music—we have learned of Leon Kaczmarek (1903-1973), a composer of vocal music and an inmate at Dachau concentration camp during the years 1940-1945. Not much is known about Kaczmarek’s early life and musical activities in Poland before the outbreak of World War II. According to the available sources, Kaczmarek was arrested by Gestapo in March 1940 and held as a political prisoner, first at Poznań’s Fort VII and then at Dachau.

Despite being subject to Nazi medical experiments and suffering a bout of typhus, Kaczmarek survived the five-year long ordeal alongside thousands of other inmates who were liberated by the advancing Allied armies in April of 1945. During his entire time at Dachau, Kaczmarek led a large men’s choir that was founded by the camp’s communist detainees in 1939. His musical expertise and knowledge of German proved helpful not only in securing his position as music director, but also allowed him to hire singers of other nationalities as long as German repertoire was performed. In time, Kaczmarek began to add his own compositions to the camp concert programs. They included works for piano, violin and piano, a number of Lieder as well as transcriptions of operatic and popular music. Unfortunately, only three notebooks with his music and a few other works have survived Kaczmarek’s wartime imprisonment.

Kaczmarek’s manuscript, courtesy of the Kulisiewicz Collection. Source: www.southampton.ac.uk

The composer returned to Poland after the war and settled in Ostrów Wielkopolski, a town in western Poland about 70 miles southeast of the regional capital, Poznań. There he became artistic director of the Echo Choir, a position he held from 1965 until his death in 1973. In 1968 he was awarded a Silver Cross of Merit from the Ministry of Culture and Art, but otherwise the information about his last few decades in Poland is also quite limited.

Professor Cini accompanied tenor James Beddoe in a world premiere concert of Kaczmarek’s Lieder composed in Dachau in 1942-1943 at the University of Southampton concert in December 2023. He also authored an article about Leon Kaczmarek, which can be found at holocaustmusic.ort.org. A selection from Professor Cini’s concert in Southampton can be heard on www.youtube.com.

[Source: email from prof. Cini]

The Polish Music Center at USC’s Thornton School of Music