I visited Auschwitz (Birkenau) in 1992 with Dougie – my friend and mentor, the Jesuit priest who helped launch my career as a solo artist back in 1989. Our Polish host advised us against going, but I was determined to see what I had read so much about. I thought I was well enough prepared, but of course nothing can prepare a person for that place and the horrors it wrought.
Dougie had been a prisoner—two years in a Nazi camp as a tail-gunner during the war. His plane was shot down over the North Sea and he survived two days in the ocean clinging to a raft, only to be picked up by fisherman and eventually turned in to the SS. His own personal losses from WWll were profound, but he rarely spoke of them.
Walking through Auschwitz—among the gas chambers, torture cells, and dilapidated remains of the sleeping quarters (acre upon acre with only chimneys remaining)—Dougie suddenly collapsed to the ground in a crumble of heaving grief. For the remainder of our visit we walked like zombies from quarter to quarter. The lack of other visitors that day added to the haunted desolation and despair that clings to the place like a suffocating wet blanket. Later that night, Dougie confided in me some of the horrors he experienced while in a POW camp, and of the terrible losses he came home to upon release.
The walls of one of the preserved buildings were lined with black and white photos of the camp’s victims, meticulously documented by the Nazis: gaunt, hollow eyes relentlessly piercing the flesh of every passerby; room upon room piled with mountains of eyeglasses, luggage, braids of hair… unbearable to contemplate. In one of the compounds was evidence of pools filled with the sediment of human ash; sustained evil, all too much to absorb.
Upon coming home, it took months to begin to feel normal again. But normal, of sorts, does come. Humans are resilient… traumas fade, and I eventually found myself going days without thinking about it, then weeks and months.
One day, months later, I sat at my piano and started to play a melody that seemed to come out of nowhere. As I developed the theme, I became overwhelmed by emotion—grief so intense that I had to stop; perplexing and without discernible cause. I came back to the song the next day, and even though I developed the song further, again I had to stop because of sudden upsurges of overwhelming emotion. Finally, on the third day, working on the song some more, the tears came back with a vengeance, but this time, those grim faces lining the walls of the death camp suddenly came at me in rapid succession, one after another, almost like being bludgeoned repeatedly with a bat. A sharp pain rose in my stomach and I ended up on the floor clutching my middle for some time before I could resume working on the song.
That night, as my wife Nanci lay sleeping beside me, light from the waxing moon came flooding through the window to bathe her in pale light. She looked so beautiful; peaceful, safe. Tears flowed again as I thought of how that same moon had bathed Birkenau some 12 hours before, and of the hundreds of thousands who, decades before, were denied such serene peace. The song, the memory and the title came together: Moon Over Birkenau.
(click arrow to listen)
note: Birkenau is the name the Nazis gave to the largest of the cluster of death camps at Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz ll.
This recording is found on Steve Bell / SYMPHONY SESSIONS / Signpost Music, 2007.
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