Hymns from Auschwitz

It’s music symbolizing unspeakable pain, loss and death during the Holocaust…and up until now, this music had never been heard in public before.

16 years after his death, one of Michel Assael’s decades-old symphonies came to life for the first time at Manhattan’s iconic Carnegie Hall. Deborah Assael Migliore shares her father’s miraculous story with us.

"My father was sometimes called out in the middle of the night to play for the SS, for the Nazi officers."

Michel Assael was one of approximately 75,000 Jews living in Greece before the Holocaust. Only about 2,000 of them survived the war. Assael always credited his survival to his musical talents. 

"There was an orchestra in the concentration camp that was used to play while victims went to the gas chamber, but the orchestra also played for the German officers also," said Dr. Joe Halio, a Sephardic Historian.

Nazis selected Assael to be part of that orchestra as an accordion player in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was forced to perform day and night. It was an unimaginable decision that he had to make— play or die.

"They played all kinds of music under all kinds of conditions. Outdoors, all types of weather, it wasn’t an easy job, but it was better than other jobs in the concentration camp," said Halio. 

That orchestra did ultimately save his life, but it also caused him a lifetime of pain and guilt, after witnessing the murders of countless others. He channeled that pain into creating a tribute to their memories.

"After he was liberated from the camps he did go back to Greece and he spent five years there before coming to the United States, during that time he composed this symphonic poem dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz," said Assael’s daughter Deborah. 

According to Assael’s family, once he was living in New York, the musician tried hard to submit his Auschwitz symphony to various orchestras, but he had no success. Now, about 75 years later, pianist Renan Koen, who performs music from Holocaust victims on stages across the globe, worked with the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County to bring this musical masterpiece to life on Wednesday night.

The concert was titled "Hymns from Auschwitz."

"Their music tells what they have been through. This is the most fascinating thing about them," said Koen.

"It’s an important piece of history because the Holocaust about Greek survivors is always overlooked, the Sephardic community is a minority in the mainstream Jewish community and no one talks about the Sephardic Holocaust, it’s an overlooked area in holocaust studies," Halio. 

"I so wish my father were here, I hope in some way he knows that this is happening in his honor," said Deborah Assael Migliore. 

No doubt, music and a legacy that will live on for generations to come.