Coaching two ensembles at Montclair State University, Tamara Freeman’s passion for Holocaust music comes through. She helps the musicians interpret the music, to play with a deeper understanding. “It’s not just about correct notes,” she said in a conversation with NJJN at the John J. Cali School of Music, where she is adjunct professor. “It’s about trying to put oneself in the prisoner’s place… understanding that there are musical gestures which are emulating or symbolizing or reflecting things that are happening in the camp itself.”
Listening to the rising notes from a cello in a piece composed in Terezin by Gideon Klein, “I interpret that gesture as being this throbbing pain coming from the person’s heart right up into their throat, and just coming right out,” she said. In the different parts of the music, she added, “You can hear the marching of the guards, you can hear the cries of the people, you can hear the sighs, you can hear the cacophony of people being confused, and being upset and feeling complete instability.”
There was a time when she had no idea that the Holocaust music education genre even existed. That was until 1994, when Holocaust education was mandated in New Jersey public schools. She was a music teacher in the Ridgewood public schools and volunteered to take a workshop about teaching the Holocaust at Ramapo College, even though the course focused on English and social studies. “I was wondering how I was going to teach music of that time,” she said. “I had no idea.”
That workshop changed the trajectory of her career. She ultimately earned a doctorate in Holocaust education at Rutgers University in 2007. For her dissertation, she created a K-12 curriculum focused on teaching the Holocaust through music education. Just as English teachers use books like “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry to enhance their classroom lessons, Freeman uses music to teach about the Holocaust.
Over the course of her journey, she discovered that there was plenty of music composed during the Holocaust in ghettos and concentration camps, many of the pieces written by teenagers and children, she said.
She has developed a library of the sheet music of these works as many are out of print and difficult to find. Freeman has also amassed recordings of Holocaust survivors singing the music they remember. For her dissertation, she said, she would sit at the dining room tables of survivors and interview them about their experiences. At first they were reluctant to speak to her, but as they grew more comfortable, she said, they would invite her into the den and show her their musical artifacts from the war. Finally, the survivors would sing for her and she would record their voices, so the music would remain even after they are gone.
Freeman has performed for survivor groups, such as the Café Europa program of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, where she sings and plays a violin or viola. Sometimes survivors knew the music and would add a verse; in one case they heard a song and recalled that it was part of a full opera.
“They would sing along, and tears would be coming down their faces,” Freeman said. “And a few times a survivor would say, ‘You’re playing this too fast,’ [or] ‘You’re playing it too slow,’ or ‘When I was in the Kovno ghetto, we sang another verse. It went like this.’”
The curriculum for the new program — which includes listening to music, composing music, and performing some of the archival music — stresses fundamental values like respecting each other and recognizing people’s differences. Gradually the Holocaust lessons become more sophisticated. The goal for high school students is to understand the details and facts of the Holocaust, in addition to its political underpinnings.
Her favorite part of the curriculum focuses on journals students keep over the course of their studies. At some point, they use their notes to create poetry and lyrics, and then they compose their own melodies.
“The children immediately lean into this part of the curriculum,” she said. “They’re singing about not just what happened during the Holocaust, but how it made them feel personally — how the events of the Holocaust might relate to some sort of woundedness or tragedy in their own lives. So it becomes a cathartic experience for them. They’re feeling the history within their own narrative.”
If Freeman’s dream becomes reality, Montclair State (MSU) will help her take the curriculum to the next level. It will be the first university in the country to include in its Holocaust education program an initiative that leans heavily on the arts, specifically music and visual arts.
“I want Montclair State to be the beacon of light” for interdisciplinary Holocaust education through the arts, she said. “I want people to have a place to go, where they can learn about the poetry, the artwork, the music, the theater” of the Holocaust.
While courses on the Holocaust around the country often include individual lectures about a painting or a concert of Holocaust music, Freeman said that the arts are rarely the focus or portal into the subject. Even though such events “touch everyone in the moment,” she said, “there’s no real educational follow-through.”
The Holocaust and Genocide Education, Theater and Arts initiative seeks to change that formula. Now in the planning stages, it is scheduled to launch in the spring of 2020, according to MSU development director Helene Barsamian. It will be timed to coincide with the spring’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, she said. Barsamian is tasked with raising the $500,000 needed to make it happen.
The program will be housed in the College of Education as part of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project, and will train aspiring and current teachers how to use the music and art from the Holocaust to delve into the material. It will also include a website where recorded interviews with local Holocaust survivors will be stored, along with lesson plans, music, and paintings by Ben Wilson and Israel Birnbaum, which are already in MSU’s collection.
“This is a sustainable ongoing program, not just one concert one evening, once a year,” Freeman said.
Freeman, 59, lives in Saddle River with her husband, Barry, and they belong to Temple Israel and JCC of Ridgewood. They have two grown daughters.
Her interests in the Holocaust and in music have roots in her family history. Freeman’s paternal grandfather escaped the Holocaust, but most of his family was shot in front of their home. Her grandfather shared few additional details, and she said that caused her to have “unresolved” interest in the Holocaust. Throughout her life she’s been drawn to memoirs and history about the Holocaust, she said.
Her interest in music could be genetic: Her mother was among the first generation of women to graduate from Hebrew Union College’s cantorial school.
Freeman felt it was her destiny to combine her interests in music and the Holocaust when she acquired a viola that had been designed for and owned by a woman murdered in the Shoa.
“I saw it as a sign,” she said.
If you go
What: “Music Composed by Children During the Holocaust: A K-12 Interdisciplinary Holocaust Education Workshop” led by Dr. Tamara Freeman
Who: For K-fifth grade music teachers and sixth-12th grade social studies and language arts teachers
When: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, 9 a.m-noon
Where: Montclair State University, John J. Cali School of Music (Chapin Hall), Room G55
Cost: $40 (free for MSU faculty)
RSVP: Dr. Lisa DeLorenzo, firstname.lastname@example.org