Ute Lemper’s songs from the soul

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

Ute Lemper’s songs from the soul

The award-winning German performer tells Francine Wolfisz why she made it her mission to bring back music written in the Nazi camps

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

“When you are not allowed to speak your thoughts, raise your hand or even cry out with tears of pain, music can capture those emotions in the most direct and pure way,” reflects singer Ute Lemper. “These are songs that expressed what words and actions could not express. They speak to the soul.”

The award-winning performer, a familiar face on Broadway and the West End stages, is best known for her interpretation of the work of German-Jewish composer
Kurt Weill.

But for the past two years, the 54-year-old – who won an Olivier award for her turn as Velma Kelly in Chicago – has thrown all her energy behind a project that resonates with her on a deeply personal level.

Songs For Eternity features the works of largely unknown composers, written between 1942 and 1944, by Jewish victims of Nazi persecution sent to the ghettos and concentration camps.

Lemper will bring the special programme of songs to JW3, Finchley Road, on Tuesday.

Having been raised in a Roman Catholic family in post-war Germany, the mother-of-four tells me that she sees it as her “mission” to bring this forgotten music back to life and confront one of the darkest – and most painful – episodes in the history of her native country.

Speaking from her home in New York, Lemper, whose husband is Jewish, explains: “I was born in Germany in 1963. It was a Germany that was suffering from the consequences of the war.

Listen to Ute Lemper on the Jewish Views podcast:

“My parents remember it very much, the aeroplanes and the bombing and the fear, having been only children themselves at the time, and they suffered nightmares.

“But they were pained to speak about the Holocaust. It was impossible to say anything about these atrocities that were committed.”

Lemper admits feeling “pained” by the reluctance of her parents’ generation to speak out and resolved to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust were never forgotten.

The opportunity to do just that came in 2015 after meeting Italian composer Francesco Lotoro, who has dedicated his life to researching music written in the concentration camps.

Together, they began researching material for a special programme of songs composed by victims of the Holocaust forced to endure life in the camps, and also the ghettos.

Of the latter, Lemper came across Songs Never Silenced, a book first published in 1948 by Shmerke Katsherginski and later Velvel Pasternak, which included a wealth of largely-forgotten compositions.

Lemper tells me: “I picked the songs that created a complex picture of life in the ghettos and concentration camps. A variety of tragic pieces that reflect the lives behind barbed wire, the assassination of kids, the impossible bearing of the torture and witnessing of death, but also the songs that celebrate life and hope and rebellion.

“There are also songs for children, cradle songs at night and songs of consolation.”

Among the 15 titles selected by Lemper is Shtiler Shtiler, written by Katsherginski in an effort to mobilise the Jewish community against the Nazis.

“The song is about hope, but it was secretly meant as a message of rebellion,” adds Lemper.

Also included is the work of Viktor Ullmann, a contemporary of Weill incarcerated at Theresienstadt where, alongside many other professional musicians, he was ordered to put on performances for the Nazis at the weekend.

In 1944, all were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

Then there are the anonymous songs, sourced by Lotoro, which were heard at Buchenwald and delivered by word-of-mouth to other survivors.

Lemper reflects: “All of them are unique and profoundly touching.

“It really is an incredible collection and I am so dedicated to keeping this repertoire present, especially in this time of rising nationalism, neo-Nazis and people who seem to have forget what has happened.

“Seventy years is nothing. It’s quite unbelievable how these ideas that lay behind discrimination, violence and cruelty are still manufactured and advertised in our world today.”

Ute Lemper: Songs For Eternity arrives on Tuesday, 22 May, 7.30pm
at JW3, Finchley Road. Details: jw3.org.uk



Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: