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Wolf Durmashkin

The namesake of the competition

Name giver

Wolf Durmashkin came from a Jewish-Polish family of musicians from what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. On the one hand, he was committed to traditional Jewish culture, while on the other, the family cultivated the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. Wolf Durmashkin conducted the Vilnius Symphony Orchestra, was a choirmaster and also composed.

After the German occupation in 1941, his activities were limited to the ghetto and concentration camps. He was separated from his family and died in 1944, one day before the liberation by the Red Army, in an Estonian concentration camp that had been set on fire by the SS. Durmashkin is portrayed as an outstanding character in the relevant literature.

The orchestra

His sisters Henia (singer) and Fania (pianist) were finally deported to the Kaufering/Landsberg subcamp and sent on the death march to Dachau. Four weeks after their liberation, the St. Ottilien DP Orchestra was founded, which consisted of a handful of musicians and disbanded in 1948/49 when its members emigrated to America and Israel. Other musicians included Isma Rosmarin, a pianist, who exchanged his “hand piano”, an accordion, for two loaves of bread during the death march through Landsberg to avoid starvation.

Like Rosmarin, the conductor Micha Hofmekler also came from Kaunas in Lithuania and was also a concentration camp prisoner in Landsberg. The three Borstein brothers were trumpeters and violinists, like Max Beker and Chaim Arbeitman, who later called himself David Arben and became a member of the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Other musicians such as George Horvath came from Hungary to join the DP Orchestra of St. Ottilien. The program from 10 May 1948, which Leonard Bernstein conducted in Landsberg, is a reflection of the spectrum between Jewish cultural tradition and classical music, far removed from the usual Anatevka romanticism.

Music was played during the National Socialist regime as a form of spiritual and artistic resistance. After the liberation, one of the orchestra’s aims was to help the survivors in the DP camps to come to terms with their trauma through music, a survival instrument in the truest sense of the word.

Compared to other concentration camp inmates, musicians were often considered privileged: The Nazis loved music. However, they didn’t just have to play for the edification of their tormentors. Music was also used to distract from the screams during executions, or to drown them out. On the way to an execution, for example, musicians were forced to play “Hänschen klein”. However, being a musician was no guarantee of survival, as the example of Wolf Durmashkin shows.

A distinction must therefore be made between music made out of one’s own motives and interests – between despair, humiliation and hope – and that which was desired or ordered, i.e. forced, by the National Socialists.

In Kaufering/Landsberg, this partial preferential treatment only applied to a limited extent. Survivors describe the period between summer 1944 and April 1945 as the worst they had ever experienced.
Abba Naor, Max Mannheimer’s successor as spokesman for the International Dachau Committee, who sang for the SS in Kaunas at the age of 15, still says today:

“The Nazis stole my soul in Kaufering”

They all witnessed torture and shootings in the eleven subcamps; the victims were members of their own families or close friends, former neighbors and acquaintances. Despite these ordeals, some artists still had the strength to write poems or compositions and to sing secretly, such as the Internationale, even if they were not communists.