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A Survivor from Warsaw

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A Survivor from Warsaw

A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46, is a work for narrator, men's chorus, and orchestra written by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1947. The initial inspiration for the work was a suggestion from the Russian émigrée dancer Corinne Chochem for a work to pay tribute to the Holocaust victims of the German Third Reich. While the collaboration between Chochem and Schoenberg did not come to fruition, Schoenberg continued to develop the idea for such a work independently. He then received a letter from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for a commission for an orchestral work. Schoenberg then decided to fulfill this commission with this tribute work. He wrote the work from 11 August 1947 to 23 August 1947.


Because of the connection of the Koussevitzsky Foundation and the conductor Serge Koussevitzsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was presumed at the time that the Boston Symphony and Koussevitzsky would give the premiere. However, Kurt Frederick, conductor of the Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra, had heard about this new work, and wrote to Schoenberg to ask for permission to give the premiere. Schoenberg agreed, and stipulated that, in lieu of a performance fee, the New Mexico musicians prepare a full set of orchestral and choral parts and send those to him. The premiere was originally scheduled for 7 September 1948, but did not occur until 4 November 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the University of New Mexico. Kurt Frederick conducted the Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra, with Sherman Smith as the narrator. Between the two dates of the scheduled and actual premiere, Koussevitzsky had heard of the request from Albuquerque, and approved of the situation.

The work lasts a little more than six minutes. Richard S. Hill published a contemporary analysis of Schoenberg's use of twelve-tone rows in this composition. Jacques-Louis Monod prepared a definitive edition of the score, which was published in 1979. Beat A. Föllmi has published a detailed analysis of the narrative of A Survivor from Warsaw.


The narration depicts the story of a survivor from the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, from his time in a concentration camp. The narrator does not remember how he ended up living in the Warsaw sewers. One day, in the camp, the Nazi authorities held a roll call of a group of Jews. The group tried to assemble, but there was confusion, and the guards beat the old and ailing Jews who could not line up quickly enough. Those Jews left on the ground were presumed to be dead, and the guards asked for another count, to see how many would be deported to the death camps. The guards ask for a faster and faster head count, and the work culminates as the Jews begin to sing the prayer Shema Yisrael. In Schoenberg’s piece, the creed ends with Deuteronomy 6:7, which reads “and when thou liest down, and when thou riseth up."


I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time.

I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed!

But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time. The day began as usual: Reveille when it still was dark. "Get out!" Whether you slept or whether worries kept you awake the whole night. You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents. You don't know what happened to them... How could you sleep?

The trumpets again – "Get out! The sergeant will be furious!" They came out; some very slowly, the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility. They fear the sergeant. They hurry as much as they can. In vain! Much too much noise, much too much commotion! And not fast enough! The Feldwebel shouts: "Achtung! Stillgestanden! Na wird's mal! Oder soll ich mit dem Jewehrkolben nachhelfen? Na jut; wenn ihrs durchaus haben wollt!" ("Attention! Stand still! How about it, or should I help you along with the butt of my rifle? Oh well, if you really want to have it!")

The sergeant and his subordinates hit (everyone): young or old, (strong or sick), guilty or innocent ...

It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning.

I heard it though I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down. We all on the (ground) who could not stand up were (then) beaten over the head...

I must have been unconscious. The next thing I heard was a soldier saying: "They are all dead!"

Whereupon the sergeant ordered to do away with us.

There I lay aside half conscious. It had become very still – fear and pain. Then I heard the sergeant shouting: „Abzählen!“ ("Count off!")

They start slowly and irregularly: one, two, three, four – "Achtung!" The sergeant shouted again, "Rascher! Nochmals von vorn anfange! In einer Minute will ich wissen, wieviele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzählen!“ ("Faster! Once more, start from the beginning! In one minute I want to know how many I am going to send off to the gas chamber! Count off!")

They began again, first slowly: one, two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and (all) of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the Shema Yisroel.

Performance history

As noted in the documentary The Ninth, at least one performance (the date is not mentioned), "In a tremendous symbolic gesture, the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn plays Schoenberg's 'A Survivor from Warsaw' and without a pause goes straight into the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The Jewish prayer is joined by Beethoven's."

On 30 October 2010, the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle performed this piece in the same way into Mahler's Second Symphony.


  • RCA LSC-7055 Boston Symphony Orchestra; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor, Sherrill Milnes, narrator, New England Conservatory Chorus, Lorna Cooke deVaron, conductor.
  • Columbia SBRG 72119-20: CBC Symphony Orchestra; Robert Craft, conductor
  • CBS 76577: BBC Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor, Günter Reich, speaker
  • Naxos 8.557528 Philharmonia Orchestra; Simon Joly Chorale; Robert Craft, conductor, David Wilson-Johnson, narrator
  • References

    A Survivor from Warsaw Wikipedia

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