Francesco Lotoro's Mission To Save the Music of European Jews

New Biography Details Musicologist's Obsession

Man on a Mission: Francesco Lotoro has been pursuing the music of European Jews with the single-mindedness of Inspector Javert.
Wikimedia Commons
Man on a Mission: Francesco Lotoro has been pursuing the music of European Jews with the single-mindedness of Inspector Javert.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published May 03, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

‘We lament the loss of the treasures of the library at Alexandria, and the great step back in knowledge it entailed. The same thing will happen if we lose the music of the concentration camps. It’s an imaginary library that may never materialize.”

Walking the narrow streets of the decaying industrial city of Barletta in southern Italy, Francesco Lotoro’s remark was more a sigh than it was a warning. Lotoro is the subject of a book recently published in France: Thomas Saintourens’s Le Maestro: A la Recherche de la Musique des Camps” (Stock, 2012). The title and subject play with Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Like Proust, Lotoro is engaged in the impossible imperative to recall and re-create, as fully as possibly, what once was.

In the case of Lotoro, though, it is not a madeleine that mediates the past. Instead, it is the crabbed notes scrawled on toilet paper. And they convey him not to the world of fin-de-siècle France, but instead to the end of the world represented by Auschwitz.

His father a tailor, his mother a seamstress, Francesco Lotoro showed great musical promise as a child. Enrolled in the local conservatory, he seemed bound for a career as a pianist. Yet destiny veered in a very different direction when Lotoro, on a classmate’s advice, transferred to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, in Budapest. He found more demanding teachers there than he had in somnolent southern Italy, but he also discovered the music of Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein, two Jewish composers who died in Auschwitz.

Upon returning to Barletta, Lotoro buried himself in the 12 volumes of the magisterial DEUMM, the Italian encyclopedia of music. As he read the biographical entries, two names kept returning: Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, the “model” Jewish ghetto near Prague that served as a transit camp to Auschwitz. While his fascination with these places deepened, so, too, did his understanding of his own family. Like the several generations of Lotoros before him, Francesco was raised as a Catholic. But he then learned from his grandfather that the family’s roots were, in fact, Jewish: His ancestors were Spanish marranos, “hidden Jews,” who arrived in Italy in the 16th century.

From the collision of these experiences burst an epiphany, one that propelled him to devote his life to a vast and mostly solitary salvage operation: tracking down, transcribing and performing all the music written in the concentration and death camps.

Music from the Holocaust was, until recently, a subject mostly sheathed in scholarly silence: a few monographs, a handful of articles, a smattering of conferences. But there have been a number of recordings. Several of these predate Lotoro’s revelation, but Saintourens tends to downplay them, leading to the misleading impression of Lotoro as the one individual standing between oblivion and remembrance for this music.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.