On Composing “Music and the Holocaust: ‘We Made Music in Hell’”

Kalah Karloff ’20 is the recipient of the 2020-2021 Gideon Klein Award, given to a student at Northeastern University or Hebrew College for a project on the Holocaust and music. This award honors the memory of Gideon Klein, pianist and composer, who was imprisoned in Terezin and other concentration camps until his death in 1945. The award was established in 1997 by Prof. Bill Giessen in memory of his mother, Gustel Cormann Giessen. Kalah will present her work on April 5 at 5 pm, online, as part of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at Northeastern University. Registration here. Her project is archived at Northeastern here.

By Kalah Karloff.

I spent my last semester at Northeastern utilizing the Gideon Klein Award to develop an educational research essay and accompanying musical collage that explores how music was used as a form of torture in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, and how the effect of music on the human body can change with its context. 

Beginning the Gideon Klein Award in a Global Pandemic

Music, whether it is being listened to or performed, is a powerful, unifying tool that can alter people’s emotions and experiences. In light of recent events, such as COVID-19, I found that our world became more divided, but also more unified. It forced me to reflect on the ways in which our society uses music in times of devastation and violence. Completing this project in the midst of a global pandemic was extremely relevant, serving a larger purpose to communicate the impact music has on the human experience. 

To construct my project, I broke my workload down into three main sections: research, writing, and the musical collage. At the very beginning, I wasn’t exactly sure what shape my project would take. Upon compiling over twenty pages of notes on the subject, I realized all of the incredible information I found would be best communicated through a scholarly essay, with accompanying musical examples. So, I began writing. 

Major Notes on my Research Paper

My research explores how musical life in concentration camps was used as a weapon by German Nazis, and the toll it had on human emotion and the body. Music in the camps came in the forms of well-known songs, music from radio, official camp orchestras, and songs originated in the camps. 

I assessed the specific songs the Nazis used to accompany violence, analyzing lyrical and musical content. Writing about these choices provides an example of how, even though we commonly think of music as uplifting and freeing, it can and has been used throughout history as a means of torture. 

Additionally, the circumstances of the Holocaust demonstrate that the meaning derived from music can be altered depending on the context in which it is played, performed, or listened to. This reveals how we as musicians can create music to affect the human body, while using different contexts to drive an emotional experience. 

Creating a Musical Collage

Finally, I created a 2-minute collage of the music featured in my essay. Upon first listening (especially to someone who does not know German), these songs sound relatively uplifting. After reading about the context in which they were used, however, the meaning of these songs changes into something much darker. Providing tangible examples that were used against prisoners in concentration camps adds much more depth to my project.


Although the global pandemic has definitely thrown things off, I am thankful for this opportunity and all of the knowledge and connections it has given me. Furthermore, I am excited to present my findings during Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at Northeastern this April.

Kalah Karloff graduated from Northeastern University in December 2020 with a degree in Communications, Music Industry, and Media Production.
Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at Northeastern runs from April 5-8, 2021. More details and a full schedule of events can be found here.

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