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St. Paul, Minn. — When composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield describes the poetry of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, he quotes Joseph Conrad, calling it "the face of a joke on the body of truth."
"I was very taken with the movie The Producers when it first came out," says Schoenfield. "It was one of the best protests to God about the Holocaust I'd ever heard. And Kulisiewicz had the same idea with these biting poems -- they show such dignity and such strength."
The Nazis arrested Polish journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz for his political beliefs. He spent six years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. During that time he wrote 54 songs mocking Nazi Germany, the lives of the prisoners, and even God.
Once liberated, Kulisiewicz devoted much of his life to collecting and documenting the music and poetry created in the Nazi concentration camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., acquired the collection upon Kulisiewicz' death in 1982.
It was there Paul Schoenfield discovered his work and was immediately drawn to its character and sarcasm.
"It's really sticking out the third finger of both hands and shaking it hard," says Schoenfield of the tone of the work.
Schoenfield set Kulisiewicz's songs to grand, lively music that draws together Gustav Mahler, Kurt Weill, klezmer, folk and jazz.
Vocalist Maria Jette sings three of the Camp Songs, including one titled The Corpse Carrier's Tango. It's about a prisoner who works in the camp crematorium. Eventually he's kicked to death by soldiers.
"It sets this scene where you're surrounded by horror, but at least it's nice and cozy and warm," says Jette.
The songs are in Polish, which Jette says she found very challenging. But perhaps more challenging is the subject matter. Songs such as The Corpse Carrier's Tango mix macabre humor with horrifying images.
O beautiful lovely lady death, okay!
Poor thing, she's looking for a partner,
And you dear fellow are the guy that she's ogling -
She'll eat you right up with her hungry eyes!
You ask her to rendezvous at the corpse-cellar,
And there you allow her to gaze at your festering wound,
Soon it's stink will give way,
to a tender, decadent, tete a tete.
"They've got a kind of disturbed perverse charm to them," says Jette. "They've got kind of an ironic extremely dark humor which makes them a little bit easier to swallow, I think."
Jette says the energy in the language and the music makes these songs inspiring. They evoke the grim determination needed to survive such horrid circumstances. She says she finds the songs particularly relevant today. "Especially during times of war, to do pieces like this -- it feels heavy in kind of a good way I guess," she says. "It's hard to sing music like this even during happy times, but it feels important at a time like this."
Camp Songs was commissioned by Music of Remembrance, a non-profit organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians through their art. Composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield performs Camp Songs with the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota this Sunday at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.