“Engaging personality, polemicist of a universal culture…”

In Praise of Szymon Laks – Aleksander Tansman 1984


“Si Seulement…”

“If only…”

Ludwik Żuk-Skarszewski  (1905 – 1983)


Na głębie duszo, na głębie

Srebrzyste wypuść gołębie

Z kwitnącą różdżką oliwną.

Gołębie skrzydła rozwiną,

Z radosną wrócą nowiną,

Przyfruną z wieścią przedziwną :

Źe Bóg nam sady hoduje

Bóg jasny Dom nam buduje

I tańcząc kroki odmierza.

Do Boga słońce się śmieje,

A ponad Domen jasnieje

Tęcza naszego Przymierza.


From the deep spirit, from the deep

Release silvery doves

With blooming olive branches.

The dove’s wings unfold,

Cheerfully they return with the news,

They come fluttering along with prodigious promise:

That God grows an orchard for us.

God builds us a true home

And dancing measures the steps.

The sun smiles at God.

And above the house shines

The rainbow of our covenant.

Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) Trans. Dr. William Smialek

‘In Praise of Szymon Laks’

A Letter to the Polish Institute, November 1984

Aleksander Tansman Trans. Krysta Close

“I have known Szymon Laks since he arrived in Paris in 1926. Both of us being of Polish origin, we both also chose France as the framework for our musical activities. We were separated by war for a lengthy and sorrowful period of time. I had the good fortune of leaving the country with my family on the last boat before the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Szymon Laks was deported to a concentration camp where he was only able to save his life because the Nazis enjoyed music….

After returning from Auschwitz, it took a few years before Szymon Laks was able to return completely to composition. One does not recover one’s creative equilibrium easily after such a harrowing experience. But once he resumed his musical work, he bestowed upon us two works of excellent quality, which immediately met with great public success. These were the Fourth String Quartet, which carried off the grand prize at the Quatuor de Liege Competition in 1962 (where I participated along with Roland-Manuel, as a member of the jury), and the Concerto da Camera, for which he received the grand prize at Divonne-les-Bains in 1964. Roland-Manuel wrote of the Fourth String Quartet and the author:

 ‘This piece whose author was unknown to me, was first set upon me with a sort of necessity, like a product marked with the unmistakable sign of the Ecole de Paris. It was a String Quartet whose instrumental composition was both clear and refined and so stitched together that the melodies were raised to the very height of harmonic taste, simultaneously revealing Slavonic nature and French culture. I subsequently discovered that I had not been greatly mistaken in my evaluation. The piece was written by Szymon Laks, who had begun his studies in Poland under Melcer and Statkowski then finished them with Paul Vidal and Henri Rabaud at the Paris Conservatoire. His discretion seemed to be the distinctive mark of a musician who is apparently reluctant to attract attention either to himself or to his art, though the little that I know of him and his work serves to tame and make charming even the most severe forms of pure music’….”

Despite the interruption of his musical career and the loss of many scores destroyed by the war, Szymon Laks was abundant in his output, with some works still waiting to be discovered…I will cite principal titles: Sonatina for Piano; Quintet for Winds; Sonata for Cello and Piano; Polish Suite for Violin and Piano; five String Quartets; Brief Sonata for harpsichord/piano; Ballad – Homage to Chopin; Sinfonietta for String Orchestra; ……..The literary works (also) took a place of growing importance in the last few years of his life. We again find the same engaging personality of the polemicist of a universal culture, endowed with a quasi Anglo Saxon humour coloured by his Jewish heritage. In his books he returns, in various forms to those ideas, which were beyond musical composition, the three most central interests of his life: musicological problems, linguistic problems – it is appropriate to point out here that Szymon Laks was a talented translator, both from Polish to French and from French to Polish – and finally political problems, especially those concerning Jews all over the world and in the Middle East.

As we have seen, there is much to be said about the different aspects of the creative activities of Szymon Laks, concerning the extent of his knowledge and his conception of music in the contemporary world. An entire monograph would be necessary to handle this subject. Here I must be content to count myself among the most sincere admirers of the personality and the works of this man”.

‘A friend’ Aleksander Tansman – Royal Academy of Belgium

SZYMON LAKS was born into a Jewish family in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th Century – his paternal grandfather was a semi-official rabbi in a small town in the Polish countryside. Laks studied mathematics at the University of Vilnius, and musical composition and conducting at Warsaw Conservatoire with Henryk Melcer Szczawinski, Roman Statkowski, and Piotr Rytel before leaving Poland in 1925 to further his musical education for one year at the Academy of Music in Vienna.

Though there is a certain lack of clarity with regard to exactly where and when Laks studied (perhaps the best time frame of Laks life is viewed from the perspective of a chronological list of works, musical and literary) sources indicate that in 1926, Laks studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with the French composer, conductor and teacher – Paul Vidal, who had been a pupil of Jules Massenet and César Franck; and Henri Rabaud – composer, conductor and director of the Paris Conservatoire who had been a prodigiously gifted student of Massenet and André Gedalge.

Born into a family for whom singing was of vital and life enriching significance, Szymon Laks and his brothers, as children, were actively involved singing in the Warsaw synagogue choir. Evidently, from letters of Szymon Laks’ brother Henry in 1986, family life growing up in Warsaw, must have given Szymon Laks a vibrantly supportive musical ‘landscape’ from which to discover his vocation.

Seriously influenced by a devotion to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Mendelssohn, and due to his subsequent studies in Warsaw, Vienna and Paris, Laks’ highly evocative musical style is close to the Ecole de Paris and is expressed most clearly in his sensitive vocal compositions whose source derives from a deep innate love, understanding and study of Polish and Yiddish folk idioms. With his lifelong friend and fellow musician Aleksander Tansman who was also a student of Piotr Rytel in Warsaw, Laks soon became active among the young Polish and Polish Jewish composers living in Paris prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and an engaged member of a network of artists known as the ‘Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris’. The Association was dissolved in 1950.

The Association’s aims were to promote Polish musicians and composers in France, to provide advice and materials and to be a source of moral as well as financial support with the aid of older and more established musicians and composers. Founded in 1926 by the Polish composer Piotr Perkowski, the spiritual patron was none other than Karol Szymanowski who had begun sending all of his students to Paris for study in the post- war years. Szymanowski believed that for a rebirth of contemporary Polish music to be successful, it was best achieved through assimilation into the ‘French’ style and by 1927 nearly all of the Polish composers of that period had studied in Paris.

Its honorary members included Ignacy Jan Paderewski (Honorary President), Nadia Boulanger, Artur Rubinstein, Paweł Kochanski, Leopold Stokowski, Karol Szymanowski and Aleksander Tansman. The Association also helped in promoting the works of its artists through the organisation of concerts and competitions for composers, very much integrated with leading French music authorities as judges. Naturally, a kind of creative exchange and ‘trade – off’ took place too, for young French composers who were given opportunities to have their works performed in Poland.

During this time, Laks worked as a music teacher, found work as a violinist in cafés, and in addition to his serious compositions, wrote several tangos under the pseudonyms André Lorent and Robert Axel. Simon Laks also accompanied silent films, and it was in this environment that his important and loyal friendship first began with the outstanding artist and pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who was also employed, improvising for silent films, when a student.

After two years spent travelling on an ocean liner on a world tour as freelance violinist in the late 1920’s, (younger brother Leo was similarly employed on another ship), Laks returned to Paris and was commissioned to write the music for a Polish film through his brother Henry, who worked in the film making industry. Laks’ always wrote under a pseudonym for such undertakings. This film, based on a Goethe novel From Day to Day was given the title Marysia in Polish and directed by Joseph Leytes, a Jewish director.

Meanwhile, Laks continued to receive awards and performances of early works for example ‘Blues Symphonique’ (1928);  ‘Wind Quintet’ (1929); and ‘Second String Quartet’ (1932) – works which are lost. With the singer Tola Korian, he created a successful collaboration, which inspired numerous songs. Laks’ ‘Cello Sonata’ (1932), the 3rd Movement of which strangely prefigures the ‘Hymn to the Eternity of Jesus’ for Cello and Piano of his contemporary Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet For The End of Time’ (Prisoner of War camp, Gorlitz, Silesia, 1940-1941) received its World Premiere in Paris the same year (1932).  The work was dedicated to the cellist Maurice Maréchal and Perlemuter and Maréchal gave the first performance.

Laks’ loved the writings of Julian Tuwim, himself an assimilated Jew born in Poland and the most prominent founder of ‘Skamandra’ – a bohemian ‘literary movement’ in Warsaw of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the name of which refers to the Trojan River in Stanisław Wyspianski’s Acropolis, which “glittered with a Vistula wave” (Czesław Miłosz, ‘The History of Polish Literature’). Tuwim was a poet of great lyrical power. First published in 1918 ‘Czyhanie na Boga’‘Lying in wait for God’ caused wide controversy. With each subsequent volume, Tuwim proved himself to be one of the most vibrant and fresh poets of his time. His later collections titled ‘Dancing Socrates’ (1920); ‘Poems Volume 4’ (1923); ‘Words in Blood’ (1926); ‘Czarnolas Language’ (1929) and ‘Gypsy Bible’ (1933) established him as literary pioneer of ‘Polish Futurism’ a discovery of exoticism in every day life. His literary style has been called ‘Whitman-like in its joyous acceptance and affirmation of life’… ‘Przymierze’ – Covenant, quoted above, is a good example taken from Tuwim’s ‘debut’ collection. Laks, like other composers including Henryk Górecki, have found special resonance with his poetry. One of his most beautiful songs, composed around 1938, makes use of the words of this poem. Through the vital poetic contribution of the Polish Neo – Realists such as Antoni Słonimski, Jarosłav Iwaszkiewicz, Stanisław Balinski and Mieczysław Jastrun, – collective ‘co-founders’ of Skamandra – Szymon Laks kept discovering new reservoirs of inspiration for some of his most beautiful and enduring works. Worth mentioning is Laks Elegy for Jewish Villages written in 1961 on a poem by Słonimski, who then became his friend.

Laks’ arrest and deportation occurred in Paris, May 1941, first to Pithiviers camp near Orleans in France, then to Auschwitz Birkenau on the 19th July 1942, with the sixth transport of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt – Reich Main Security Office).

Given the number 49543 – Laks’ remarkable survival and precarious existence through the experience of the camp was in part due to one of his fellow comrades, the Polish Jewish composer and folklorist Ludwik Żuk Skarszewski who had been sent to Auschwitz I before Laks in the same year. It was here that Żuk Skarszewski discovered Szymon Laks, shortly after his arrival, completely disorientated, and suffering terribly. Żuk quite literally snatched Szymon Laks from the clutches of a convict detachment and despite the protests of his superiors arranged for Laks’ immediate transfer to the group of Notenschreiber – music copyists. From that time on, he did not have to go out to physical labour and was saved from a certain death on that occasion. His skills as Notenschreiber, translator and violinist subsequently led to his being Kapellmeister of Auschwitz II Mens Orchestra in Auschwitz Birkenau until 1944.

In 1944, Laks and his surviving comrades, Leon Weintraub and Tadeusz Jawor, were transported in the same cattle cars, this time to Oranienburg – Sachsenhausen for a short time, where Leon Weintraub died tragically. Here, Laks bade farewell to his companions including Tadeusz Jawor and Heinz Lewin. Not until after the liberation did Laks discover that Heinz Lewin had died at Mauthausen – Tadeusz Jawor survived, and in February 1974, thanks to Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who had been incarcerated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Laks discovered that Żuk had survived and was a school teacher in Chrzanów, Poland. His last memory of his friend was of seeing Zuk being carried on a stretcher to the ‘sick room’ – typhus ward, where he was told Zuk had died shortly afterwards.

Simon Laks writes in his memoir:

“I wrote without delay to the address Kulisiewicz had given me. My letter was sent on the 10 February 1974; the answer came back at the beginning of March. Zuk wrote:

    ‘I read your letter with indescribable joy, since like you about me I had false information about you. Namely, Prof. Lachs, whom I mistakenly took for you, informed my wife that you had perished in Auschwitz. What luck that this turned out to be untrue! After my departure from Birkenau I was in Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Falkensee, where we worked on the production of tanks and V-2 rockets. There I was also ordered to organise a Lagerkapelle, in which there were musicians of worldwide fame as well as Negroes and mulattoes.

I will answer your questions. I was arrested on 15 April 1942 for taking part in underground teaching along with several other professors and after a long interrogation departed to Auschwitz I on 3 June. I was given the number 37,937. There I went through another interrogation about my participation in cultural and social life in Silesia, where I was alleged to have harassed Germans in the secondary school. I somehow emerged from this plight in one piece and after two weeks was sent for punishment to the SK (Strafkommando, penal detachment) in Bunawerke (now the Oświęcim Chemical Works). On 27 June I was badly beaten up by a kapo (a prisoner in charge of a work detachment) for helping a Jew from Paris (whose name I do not remember) and dragged back to the camp along with the corpses of this detachment. I was lying on this heap of bodies when Dr Wasilewski, who was writing down the numbers of the corpses, stepped on my foot, and it turned out I was alive…Since Dr Wasilewski was in the “VIP’” (ie: for prisoners in higher positions) Barracks 24, where Franz Nierychlo, kapo of the kitchen and also conductor of the orchestra, lived, I managed to get into the Lagerkapelle as a violinist.

Shortly after this, sixteen musicians were selected and sent to Birkenau. Since I was a Notenschreiber and arranger, Nierychlo chose me to prepare the repertoire, for we had gotten instruments but no music. I had to recall marches and hits from memory, and it was while I was doing this job that you found me in Auschwitz”.

Laks continues: “So for more than thirty years both of us were convinced that the other was not alive. It took Aleksander Kulisiewicz’s collecting bug to rekindle a friendship that had been buried so long ago. What words should be used to celebrate such rediscoveries? I will not use any”.

It is important to add here that Laks two last songs, composed in October 1974, were set to words of Ludwik Zuk Skarszewski – ‘Gdybys’ (Si Seulement…) and later in November of the same year, ‘Pozegnanie’ (Adieu).

Then in November of 1944, Szymon Laks was sent to one of the many sub-camps called Kauferings (number 11) of Dachau, for the construction of an underground factory, a closely guarded ‘ terrible ‘secret of the Nazi machinery which was bombed within days of the arrival of the American Army, May 1945.

On 28 April 1945 the authorities of all the Kauferings ordered a general Antreten   (assembly), three days after the meeting of the Allied and Soviet forces on the Elbe and Baltic and two days before Hitler’s suicide. The camp commander made an official speech, asking those in captivity to remember that they had been humanely treated in accordance with “universally recognised rules”. There was apparently some truth in this speech: in the Kaufering, Laks and his comrades had been watched by military guards rather than SS, but in any case it was the beginning of the end for Laks and his fellow survivors. Four days later, near the small camp of Buchberg, he was a free man.

After his ‘liberation,’ eventual return and ‘political exile’ to Paris, 18 May 1945, Szymon Laks continued his artistic life as writer and composer (including composing for film scores under a pseudonym) on a solitary path.

As a freelance musician, doing linguistic research and writing subtitles for films, his works during this time include his String Quartet No 3 (1945); ‘Huit Chants Populaires Juifs’ for Soprano or Tenor and Piano (1947); ‘Symphony for Strings’ (1964); ‘L’Hirondelle Inattendue’ – opéra – bouffe, in one-act (1965).

Then Szymon Laks almost abandoned composition completely after the ‘Six Day War’ in 1967, to devote entirely to his literary life as publicist and translator.

His autobiographical memoir titled ‘Music Of Another World’ (1948) rejected for publication in Poland because its portrayal of the Nazis was ‘too sympathetic,’ is a disturbing testament to the ‘lid of hell’ that he suffered and witnessed during his captivity.

Andre Laks writes:

“published originally in France, with the title ‘Musiques d’un autre monde’, under the two names of S.Laks and R. Coudy, the revised – version has a Polish title which means ‘Auschwitzian Games’ or ‘Playings’. The title seemed impossible to the USA, who unfortunately adopted for the revised version a title translating that of the first book, ‘Music of Another World’. This has caused confusion, including in the catalogue of the Library of Congress. I explain all that in the text that will serve as a ‘Postface’ to the 2e edition of the French translation of the revised book ‘Melodies d’Auschwitz, ‘ Editions du CERF, 2004.”

Szymon Laks writes:

“Since for a long time I was a member of the orchestra at Auschwitz II and during a certain period its conductor, I regard it as my obligation to relate and some way to commemorate this strange chapter in the history of music, a chapter which will probably not be written by any professional historian of this art…however, in spite of my sincerest intentions, I shall not be able to omit entirely those ‘scenic and idyllic pictures’: to write about music in Birkenau without referring to the background against which this music was played would be counter to the aim and even sense of this book. For this is not a book about music. It is a book about music in a Nazi concentration camp. One could also say: about music in a distorting mirror.

Here is a quote from Victor Frankl’s book ‘Psychologist in a concentration camp.’

“Music as well as all other artistic endeavours were too grotesque in the concentration camp; they gave the impression of art only through the ghastly contrast with the background, which consisted of desperate existence.”

What conclusion can we reach from this? How was it really? Were or were not music and songs, factors in the ‘mental self- defense of prisoners’? (Polish periodical Przegląd Lekarski, 1977 Vol 1.)

It is difficult to make a judgement in the name of millions of people who passed through the Hitlerite camps, whether they died there or came out with their lives. In the end the supporters of one theory or the other were either witnesses of a small segment of camp life over a relatively short period of time or they base their opinions on documents left behind by victims. One must also consider that the music played in camps did not have the same effect on everyone. I personally believe that music was simply one of the parts of camp life and that it stupefied the newcomer in the same way as did everything else he encountered in the first days in the camp and to which he gradually became ‘habituated’ in time – up to the moment of complete acclimatization and callousness. Music kept up the’ spirit’ (or rather the body) of only…the musicians, who did not have to go out to hard labour and could eat a little better.

In the same issue of Przegląd Lekarski I read another pearl written by a professional musician, Adam Kopycinski, orchestra director in Auschwitz I: “Thanks to its power and suggestiveness, music strengthened in the camp listeners what was most important – their true nature. Perhaps that is why many certainly tried instinctively to make a certain cult out of this most beautiful of arts, which precisely there in camp conditions could be, and certainly was, medicine for the sick souls of the prisoners”.

It is hard for me to believe that this bombastic claptrap came from the mouth of a professional musician who was a prisoner in a real Hitlerite concentration camp and saw more or less the same things I saw in Birkenau. ‘Strengthened their true natures’!  ‘Medicine for sick souls’! In reality, the true nature of the prisoner manifested itself, with very few exceptions, under the influence of hunger, floggings and illness, and the ‘medicine’ for his ‘sick soul’ was food and real medicines, not music”!

To conclude; this Homage to Szymon Laks, is not an attempt to make a memorial to the him in Auschwitz Birkenau, but rather to offer a celebratory musical and literary tribute which it is hoped will inspire a greater awareness and interest in his artistic life and works. His compositional output is beautiful, abundant and still waiting to be discovered, especially his chamber and orchestral music, songs for voice and piano and choral works!

Szymon Laks died in Paris 1983. He had stood alone, and as an outsider- a free man, despite his journey through the abyss. His voice and his writings, polemical as they are, remain as relevant as they were immediately after his liberation, uncomfortable and challenging as his political perception has the justification to be. When are we going to listen?

© Jacqueline Cole 2004

Director, Viktor Ullmann Foundation


Quotations from ‘Music of Another World’ with kind permission of André Laks.

With special thanks to the estates of Aleksander Tansman, Ludwik Zuk Skarszewski, Elzbieta Żuk, Julian Tuwim; and Dr William Smialek, Molly Jane McCoy, Dr William Smialek, Professor Dr. André Laks, Professor Antony Polonsky, Professor Adrian Thomas, Bret Werb, Frank Harders Wuthenow and Maja Trochimczyk, Dr Guido Fackler.