Few musicians are as passionately committed to the political importance of music as Rosebery D’Arguto. Born Martin Rosenberg in Czarist Poland in 1890, he was to pursue an unusual career in workers’ choral music, one cut short by his deportation to Sachsenhausen and eventual death at Auschwitz. Rosenberg had always been an active political leftist: at age 15 he participated in the 1905 protests in Warsaw, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the post-war Revolution in Germany. His personal ambition, however, was to reform music education and to offer music to the working classes, as a path to political empowerment and enlightenment.
In Germany, there was a long tradition linking socialist politics with choral music. Since the late 19th century, the labour movement had encouraged the development of proletariat choirs, believing that they both stimulated solidarity and helped to inspire and educate both singers and listeners. Rosenberg, now under the professional name Rosebery D’Arguto, continued this tradition. As a young man newly arrived in Weimar Berlin, he was active in reforming music teaching, focusing in particular on the development of the young singing voice. He founded an alternative singing school where he could develop his theories of community-based musical training, and his newly-formed working-class children’s chorus was a surprise hit. He achieved the highest critical acclaim for his leadership of a large mixed workers’ chorus in Berlin during the 1920s and 30s. The Gesangsgemeinschaft Rosebery D’Arguto (Singing community of Rosebery D’Arguto), with almost 400 members, was a highly successful choir that performed regularly at demonstrations and rallies, particularly for the German Communist Party, and in support of proletarian organizations. D’Arguto was celebrated for his musical and educational reforms by the mainstream press, and for his politics in the left wing press.
With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, however, D’Arguto’s activities with the choir were banned. He returned to Poland in 1934, and remained there until 1939. On a short trip to Germany to settle some personal matters in September 1939, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and taken to Sachsenhausen on 13 September. There he set about organizing a Jewish choir, which was established in April 1940 with between 20 and 30 members. D’Arguto worked hard with his singers, as he saw the choir as an important vehicle for expressing opposition to the regime. Non-Jewish political prisoners in the main camp helped him to find rehearsal spaces for the group and to secure their activities (the choir was illegal and its rehearsals and performances had to be carefully secured if they were to remain undetected).
According to his fellow inmate Aleksander Kulisiewicz, D’Arguto and the choir found out in late 1942 that a transport would soon be taking Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek. In response to this news, D’Arguto wrote a song named the ‘Jüdischer Todessang’ (Jewish Death Song) based on the Yiddish folk melody ‘Tsen brider’ (Ten brothers). The song was transformed by D’Arguto’s pen into a painful record of the Jews’ destruction at the hands of the Nazis, as the ten brothers were killed in the gas chambers. Soon thereafter, in October 1942, D’Arguto and the choir were sent to Auschwitz.
After the war, Kulisiwicz dedicated his life to spreading awareness of Nazi crimes through his music. One of his most successful and moving numbers was the ‘Jüdischer Todessang’. Rosenberg himself, however, remains largely forgotten, although in the GDR there was some interest in his political and musical career.
Andert, P., 1987. Rosebery d'Arguto: Versuche zur Erneuerung des proletarischen Chorgesangs. In K. Kändler, H. Karolewski, & I. Siebert, eds. Berliner Begegnungen: Ausländische Künstler in Berlin 1918 bis 1933. Berlin: Dietz, pp. 340-5.
Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.
Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kalisch, S. & Meister, B., 1985. Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, New York: Harper and Row.