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Music and Genocide


Wojciech Klimczyk and Agata Świerzowska

At first glance, no two experiences could be further apart than genocide and music. Yet real, live culture usually goes beyond rational divisions. It is now fairly commonly known that art is not absent from the sites of mass killings. Both victims and prosecutors engage in artistic activities in prisons and camps, as well as at other places where genocides take place. What is the music of genocide? Can the experience of ultimate terror be expressed in music? How does music reflect on genocide? How do we perceive music after genocide? What is music and what is silence in a world marked by mass killings? Is post-genocidal silence really possible or appropriate? The goal of the volume is to reveal and, maybe even to some extent, resolve the most profound dilemma that was expressed by Theodor W. Adorno when he asked «whether it is even permissible for someone who accidentally escaped and by all rights ought to have been murdered, to go on living after Auschwitz.» It is not for the sake of pure curiosity that the relation between music and genocide is examined. In a sense we are all survivors who accidentally escaped genocide. It might have happened to us. It may still happen.
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The Aural Landscape of Majdanek


We would like to open with an important question: why has music such overwhelming power over humans? It may perhaps be connected with the characteristics of our senses, since closing our eyes and turning off the sense of sight seems easy, whereas in terms of hearing we feel more defenceless. Closing our eyes serves metaphorically and literally as a refusal to participate. Yet, at the same time our ears are open day and night, whether awake or asleep. Often we hear sounds subconsciously and without our consent. Sometimes a sound erupts violently, forcing us to react. The dominant visual preference of our culture stems from Greek tradition; in the Bible, the contrary occurs: the God of Israel does not tell his people to “see” but rather to “listen”. In the Jewish tradition, listening is the most important activity, elevated to the realm of the sacred.

The ear, as the most accurate and sensitive sense organ provides us with a permanent flow of information on what is happening around us, helping us to recognize and remember spaces which are sound-specific. The Majdanek concentration camp is a place with a unique set of sounds as well, as former prisoners inevitably mention in their recollections of their past.

Analysis of accounts made by concentration camp prisoners, with their powerful repetition and resonation of various sounds, appears to prove that the audio landscape of Majdanek did indeed influence prison life in a significant way. Among the vast array...

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