‘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.