Friday, May 19, 2006

Orpheus Raising Hell: Memories Of The Late Aleksander Kulisiewicz By Peter Wortsman

"The late Aleksander Kulisiewicz (Alex to his friends) lived in a world turned topsy turvy. While others did backward somersaults of denial to compensate for the rude disruption to their everyday lives, turning a blind eye to the unsightly reality, thereby deflecting attention from themselves and feigning normalcy, Alex had the effrontery (foolish or courageous—take your pick) to stand upright and look the lies and liars in the eye. Neither Jew nor Gypsy, Communist, homosexual, Jehovah's Witness, high profile Polish intellectual or other likely candidate for the Nazi roster of undesirables, he could, like most of his contemporaries, have kept his mouth shut and bit his tongue to still the hunger and disgust, but Alex stuck out his tongue. "Genug Hitler, Heil Butter!" (Enough Hitler, Heil Butter!) he wrote in an anonymous jibe entitled "Homemade Hitlerisms" in a student newspaper subsequently traced by the Gestapo back to its author. He was arrested in 1939, at the age of 22, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the grim finishing school, where he spent the next five years (or more precisely, 66 months in Hell) and found his true calling as a modern day Orpheus, a troubadour of the unutterable. In 54 of his own songs composed and first performed surreptitiously during his incarceration, Alex snubbed his nose at the German authorities to amuse and boost the morale of his fellow inmates. He also committed to memory hundreds of other songs and poems gathered from those who suspected that their own end was near. Following an informant's denunciation and the subsequent brutal interrogation, he was injected with diphtheria bacilli to shut him up for good ... "

Opening lines to the essay
Orpheus Raising Hell: Memories of the late Aleksander Kulisiewicz
By Peter Wortsman

The full essay is available on the Web-site of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum, at this page (one must click the
link to the Wortsman essay near the bottom of the opening page):


"Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918–1982) was a law student in German-occupied Poland when, in October 1939, he was denounced for antifascist writings, arrested by the Gestapo, and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin. An amateur singer and songwriter, Kulisiewicz composed 54 songs during nearly six years of imprisonment at Sachsenhausen. After liberation he remembered his songs, as well as those learned from fellow prisoners, dictating hundreds of pages of text to his attending nurse at a Polish infirmary.

The majority of Kulisiewicz’s songs are darkly humorous ballads concerning the sadistic treatment of prisoners. Performed at secret gatherings, imbued with biting wit and subversive attitude, these songs helped inmates cope with their hunger and despair, raised morale, and offered hope of survival. Beyond this spiritual and psychological purport, Kulisiewicz also considered the camp song to be a form of documentation. “In the camp,” he wrote, “I tried under all circumstances to create verses that would serve as direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs.”

In the 1950s, Kulisiewicz began amassing a private collection of music, poetry, and artwork created by camp prisoners, gathering this material through correspondence and hundreds of hours of recorded interviews. In the 1960s, he inaugurated a series of public recitals of his repertoire of camp songs, and issued several recordings. Kulisiewicz's major project, a monumental study of the cultural life of the camps and the vital role music played as a means of survival for many prisoners, remained unpublished at the time of his death. His archive—the largest extant collection of music composed in the camps—is now a part of the USHMM Archives."

Aleksander Kulisiewicz, standing in front of his collection, ca. 1970. From Konrad Strzelewicz, Zapis: Opowiesc Aleksandra Kulisiewicza (Krakow, 1984). All rights reserved.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum link also includes a photograph of Aleksander Kulisiewicz playing the guitar and singing in Krakow, Poland, ca. 1980.

Photo credit: Konrad Strzelewicz, Krakow, Poland. All rights reserved. [Via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.] With thanks.


[With special thanks to PW.]


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