Conductor of Dachau: Herbert Zipper

Gave the musicians a reason to live

Herbert Zipper was a conductor and composer who founded a secret orchestra at Dachau, and wrote a song that became an anthem for death camp inmates.

Born in 1904 to an affluent Jewish family in Vienna, Herbert was a musical prodigy who studied at the prestigious Vienna Music Academy with the great composer Richard Strauss. He found employment as a conductor and composer for cabaret shows.

Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and immediately started persecuting Jewish citizens. Herbert was arrested that year and sent by the SS to Dachau, where he became a “horse,” pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with heavy rocks for 12 hours a day. One of the most talented composers in Europe was doing the work of an animal.

Herbert was not the only music man in Dachau. All the Jewish members of the Munich Philharmonic – comprising most of the orchestra – were also incarcerated there. Herbert enlisted the other musicians in an audacious, even insane, plan. They would make instruments and create an orchestra, right there at Dachau.

How could anybody create musical instruments in a concentration camp? They combed the camp for discarded pieces of wood and metal and fashioned eleven primitive yet functional instruments. At least one guard helped the musicians; Herbert requested a piece of wire for a string instrument, and later found it under his pillow.

Herbert’s Dachau orchestra performed concerts for the other inmates every Sunday, in an outhouse. It’s hard to imagine the experience of listening to sublime music in a filthy environment, while knowing they could be all killed for their participation. Herbert said that the concerts were not for entertainment, but rather to bring purpose and even a bit of normalcy back to their lives.

Noted playwright Jura Soyfer, an old friend of Herbert’s from his cabaret days, was also at Dachau. Together they wrote “Dachaulied” (Dachau song), with Herbert composing the haunting music in his head and Jura penning the sad, sardonic lyrics inspired by the concentration camp motto “Work will make you free.” They thought that writing the song would help them maintain some dignity in an atmosphere of constant humiliation and demonization. Herbert deliberately made the song difficult to learn, so that his fellow inmates would have to use all of their concentration and thereby mentally escape from their horrific surroundings. Amazingly, the Nazis never discovered the secret orchestra.

At the end of 1938, Herbert and Jura were transferred to Buchenwald where they taught other inmates the Dachau song. Soon after, Jura died of typhus at age 26, and Herbert lovingly prepared his body for burial. At this time Hitler hadn’t yet began to implement his “Final Solution” to kill all the Jews, which started in 1941. Herbert’s father Emil was in London, desperately trying to get a visa for Herbert and his two brothers to escape Austria. Miraculously, Emil was able to secure his sons’ release from Buchenwald, and they joined him in Paris on March 16, 1939.

During all this time, Herbert’s fiancee, dancer Trudl Dubsky, was working in Manila, in the Philippines. She recommended him for the job of conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and he was hired, traveling there in September, 1939. Herbert and Trudl were married on October 1. Although it wasn’t a world-class orchestra at the time, Herbert enjoyed working with the Manila Orchestra and under his leadership it improved dramatically. Life was good for Herbert and Trudl until January 1942, when the Japanese army invaded the Philippines and occupied Manila. It was a brutal occupation and once again Herbert was arrested, this time for refusing to conduct the orchestra for Japanese military officers. He was incarcerated and harshly interrogated for four months before being released. For the next three years Herbert and Trudl survived hand-to-mouth, owning no belongings and traveling frequently in search of safe haven in a country at war.

The most difficult period was the Battle of Manila in early 1945. More than once the building where they took shelter was bombed by the Japanese artillery and they escaped with only seconds to spare. In the end of February they were living with hundreds of other displaced people in a seven-story building in Manila that had neither electricity or water. Herbert volunteered to get water every day, a dangerous and difficult undertaking.  On the early morning of February 26, 1945, Herbert was on his water run when he saw an opportunity to reach the American front line, and he rushed across a battle field to do it. While there he received a crucial piece of information: the apartment building where he was staying was due to be bombed by the Allies within fifteen minutes! Herbert desperately explained that 800-1000 civilians were inside the building! Due to his pleas, the bombardment was delayed for 45 minutes, giving him just enough time to get back to the building and rescue everyone inside including Trudl.

Until Japan was defeated on September 2, 1945, Herbert worked secretly for the American army under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, transmitting valuable information about Japanese shipping schedules by shortwave radio. When Japan finally surrendered, Herbert organized and conducted a concert of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, a goal he’d set during the darkest hours at Dachau. The concert was performed in a bombed-out church.

Herbert and Trudl immigrated to America in 1946, joining the rest of his family. He co-founded and conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, and organized another orchestra especially to give free concerts for public school children. Students called Herbert, who had no children of his own, “Papa Z.” For the rest of his life he volunteered and supported arts education for young people.

Herbert was close friends with poet Langston Hughes and they collaborated on an opera together, “Barrier.” Trudl worked as a ballet tacher. They moved to Chicago in 1953, where Herbert founded the Music Center of the North Shore, and then to Los Angeles, where Herbert directed the School of Performing Arts at USC.

Interviewed by a Los Angeles Times reporter at the end of his life, Herbert said “We have to see the world as it is, but we have to think about what the world could be. That’s what the arts are about.”

Herbert is the subject of a biography, “Dachau Song: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper,” and a documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award. His beloved wife Trudl died of lung cancer in 1976. He continued his music for two more decades, conducting his last concert in 1996. Herbert Zipper died in Santa Monica in 1997.

For inspiring concentration camp inmates and inner-city schoolchildren with his music, and for saving hundreds of lives during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, we honor Herbert Zipper as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Lyrics of Dachau Song:

Barbed wire fraught with death surrounds our world

On which a merciless heaven visits frost and sunburn.

Far from us are all joys, far our home, far the women

When mute we march to work, thousands in the gray dawn.

But we learned the Dachau motto and it made us hard as steel.

Be a man, comrade, remain human comrade

Do good work, pitch in, comrade

Because work, work will make you free!

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