Moon Over Birkenau – On the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Moon Over Birkenau PicI 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.

Birkenau Chimneys
photo: Ruth Denton

victimsThe 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.



steve-bell-symphony-sessionsThis recording is found on Steve Bell / SYMPHONY SESSIONS / Signpost Music, 2007.

For more info and to sample tracks click HERE…




14 thoughts on “Moon Over Birkenau – On the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

  1. royal from Lewis & Royal here. That song is stunning. The emotions composed were captured in the recording. Tears flowed steadily . It is a instant classic. Ageless. The description and photos fine tuned the picture brilliantly. Thank you Steve.

  2. A couple of years ago, our youngest son was in a low place, about to lose his family because of alcohol. I was praying for him and his young family; in the background I had one of Steve’s CDs playing. I quieted myself and Moon Over… began playing. I truly felt the Spirit drawing me to listen intently. I began to weep because it touched something deep, deep in my spirit and soul. At first I was mourning and then great hope arose within me. I was praising through tears by the end of the song. Each note ministered. As I said, no song has ever penetrated to the depth of my spirit as this song has and still does.
    The rest of the story: our son is doing well, and his young family has grown by a new little 3 month old daughter. Thank you Steve Bell for music that is most certainly in the vein of King David. You are a man after God’s heart. Blessings on you and all who are with you.

  3. I remember the evening in Burlington when you played this during the symphony series…I was stunned, am stunned by its haunting beauty.
    Your music is amazing…Moon over Birkenau is something beyond that.
    Thank you. …and till listening, in Simcoe.
    And thanks for this touching blog…adding depth to it all.

  4. I stood numbly in the ‘arena’ at Dachau in 2012 and so I thank you Steve for giving poignantly powerful voice to what the effect of being there seems like.

  5. Hi Steve!
    This was forwarded to me by my dear friend Donna. I was very moved by your poignant account of visiting Birkenau, and subsequent journey of writing such a beautiful song. Also very moving. Thanks so much for sharing your gifts.
    Sincerely, your high school class-mate from Selkirk (what?),
    Maureen Neskar!

  6. Steve, the depth of your empathy and compassion enriches your friends and fans just as surely as your musical gifts. God is good to share you with us. Wendy

  7. It was interesting to realize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp was last week – by coincidence I was reading “A Train in Winter”, a captivating book by Caroline Morehead which chronicles the journey of young French women who were part of the resistance in that country and whose journey ultimately took them to Birkenau. For a story of the intimacy of friendship interlaced with the horrors of Birkenau I’d highly recommend it…

  8. “Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all … but YOU ARE the music, while the music lasts.” TS Eliot

  9. Thanks Steve. Your music and words continue to cause me to reflect more deeply on life, delight more fully in life itself and live more intentionally in the moment. Please know that your life’s work is blessing many!

  10. I’ve always had a soft spot for instrumentals. Often the message words can’t express! When they are interspersed on an album or at a live concert, the hearers can meditate and the artist gets rest.
    Selah. The tapestry of the experience is all the richer.

  11. I love this song. It is so touching and profound. I really enjoyed reading its origin and inspiration for the composing.
    Steve, I appreciate your work since 1998… so it’s been a long time!
    God bless you in this journey! May He inspire you with more songs and deep lyrics.
    Cheers from Curitiba, Brazil.

  12. What a beautiful piece. You truly capture so many emotions and it’s people like you who will keep those who lost their lives, memories alive.Gd Bless, from Australia.

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