Fifty years ago, Herbert Zipper founded an orchestra in hell.
As an inmate at Dachau in 1938, the young conductor/composer discovered that a number of fine musicians were incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camp, including several excellent string players. And so Zipper--shorn, half-starved, constantly vilified and threatened with violence--began organizing an orchestra behind the backs of his Nazi captors.
Zipper had been arrested in his native Vienna. For being a Jew? For writing theater pieces that ridiculed the Fascists? He never found out. When he arrived at Dachau, the commandant greeted the new inmates with the warning that “Everything in Dachau is prohibited, even life itself. If it happens, it happens by accident.” But for Zipper and some others, creating music was worth the almost unimaginable risk.
The story of Dachau’s outhouse orchestra is recounted in an unpublished book on Zipper by Paul Cummins, headmaster of Santa Monica’s Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences.
A founder of the prestigious private high school, Cummins, 53, has previously published a monograph on poet Richard Wilbur and poems that have appeared in such periodicals as Black Buzzard Review and Bad Haircut Quarterly. The Zipper biography is his first book.
As Cummins writes, a few instruments were found in Dachau and others were secretly fashioned in the camp shop from stolen wood. Sensing that one of the SS guards was less bestial than the rest, Zipper asked him for violin strings. He got them (the guard was actually a communist spy, not a committed Nazi). Forced to push a cart full of stone 12 hours a day, Zipper composed music in his head while the guards screamed and flailed.
Soon Zipper was conducting secret Sunday concerts in an unused latrine. While inmates took turns keeping watch, 20 or 30 prisoners would listen silently while Zipper and his 14 musicians played. Every 15 minutes another group of inmates would sneak into the outhouse to hear art triumph, if only for a moment, over terror and nihilism.
Before the Third Reich, Cummins reports, Dachau had been known primarily for its artists colony.
Zipper survived Dachau and a subsequent stay in Buchenwald. He was released from the Nazis’ “protective custody” in 1939 after his father, living in Paris, secured him an exit visa to go to Uruguay. Zipper was one of the lucky ones, able to slip out of the Nazis’ grasp before the war on the Jews escalated into the “final solution.”
He came out of the camp a changed man. In such hellholes, he said, people are stripped to their essential selves. “I found where one can find the human gold--and, of course, the opposite of it.” He said he also came to appreciate the humanizing power of the arts.
In the years that followed, Zipper organized other remarkable concerts in remarkable places. Pulling together the shattered Manila Symphony Orchestra in 1945, its maestro celebrated the Allied liberation of Manila and the fall of the Third Reich with a performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” in the bombed-out shell of Santa Cruz Cathedral. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s wife sat in the front row.
Now 86 and living in Pacific Palisades, Zipper continues to conduct, compose and teach. Last week, he drove to local schools to conduct professional musicians in symphonic programs and taught his twice-weekly counterpoint classes at Crossroads. He travels regularly to China to work with young musicians.
He is also working with Cummins on a project that will take Crossroads’ distinguished student orchestra to local elementary and junior high schools that don’t have music programs of their own. Zipper will conduct. Instruments, bought with grant money, will be left behind for those in the audience who decide they too would like to learn to play. Music teachers also will be found for the youngsters.
According to Cummins, Zipper was one of the first to bring symphonic music into American schools, including rural and inner-city schools. Instead of busing youngsters to concert halls, where the chandeliers may dazzle them more than the music, Zipper began giving concerts in school gyms and cafeterias soon after he arrived in the United States in 1946. Zipper explains that most Americans are not steeped in music the way his generation was in Vienna, where his teachers at the Viennese Academy included Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.
In the United States, Zipper said, “the arts are generally standing on a pedestal. They are admired by millions, but, by and large, they are not part of people’s lives. Only a very small minority participate.”
Before he could walk, Zipper said, he would creep under the family piano and listen to his mother practice. “My mother told me it was the only time I was quiet,” he said. As an educator, Cummins said, Zipper’s motto has been: “You can’t build from the top with adults; you have to start with children.” In the 1940s, when he was teaching music history and theory courses at the New School for Social Research in New York City, he also devised a course for “expectant ladies,” a sort of cultural Lamaze course that taught mothers-to-be how to sing a better lullaby.
He treats his youngest musicians with great respect, composing original music for them and adapting the classics to their level of skill. There are no gold stars. The intrinsic satisfaction of creation is the best reward.
Since Cummins began writing his book in 1987, he has been meeting with Zipper every Sunday morning, promptly at 8 o’clock, in Zipper’s ocean-view home. Cummins’s musician wife, Mary Ann, brought the men together after she heard Zipper speak at a gathering of music educators in 1972.
The men are different in many ways. Cummins is a Chicago-born WASP who runs an innovative, academically demanding private school that is popular with the entertainment industry--actor Rob Lowe played the part of Cummins in one of the school’s annual, professionally scripted cabarets. He has a Ph.D. from USC and plays basketball twice a week. Zipper is from another time and place, an aristocratic refugee who has seen extraordinary, unspeakable things and makes elegant wood sculpture in his spare time. But their friendship is firmly grounded in a shared passion for education and the arts.
Zipper is a role model for him, Cummins said. “He’s an intensely serious, untrivial man. He loves to talk about ideas, but he also loves to do things. I’ve rarely met people in my life who are so consistent in their integrity.”
Zipper’s aspiration, he told Cummins, is to be “a good ancestor.”
“The man,” Cummins said, “is totally focused on making this world a better world.”
As Cummins has told Zipper, that makes him a biographer’s nightmare. “Biographies are big sellers, especially if they are exposes,” Cummins said. “This isn’t an expose. This is about a good man who has been consistently good.”
Zipper is human. In 1927, he fell in love with Trudl Dubsky, already a professional dancer even though she was only 14. They married in the Philippines and were together until her death in 1976. Zipper still remembers her phone number in Vienna.
But the tabloids are not going to clamor for the Herbert Zipper story, even if it is, as Cummins maintains, “a 20th-Century Odyssey.”
Zipper is not only good, his biographer said, he also appears to be relatively untroubled by his turbulent past. As Cummins listened to Zipper’s story and read the literature of the Nazi era, Cummins was often furious.
“I think of the Herbert Zippers who were murdered,” Cummins said. He was infuriated anew with each account of smashed lives, talent destroyed and cultural institutions obliterated.
“I’ve had difficulty controlling my own anger at what was done to people, and I’m consistently surprised by Herbert’s lack of anger. I think he’s made an existential choice not to be angry because he felt to give in to anger would make him no different from the people who did these terrible things.” Cummins speculates that Zipper grabbed his emotions and brought them under control by “an extraordinary act of will,” allowing Zipper to turn his energy to music, education and other things of enduring value.
Time spent with Zipper, Cummins said, has deepened his own conviction that “the arts are as essential to life as breathing.” Zipper explained his view recently. “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.”
Cummins calls the book, which has attracted publishers in Europe and China but not the United States, “Dachau Song.” In Dachau, Zipper observed to his friend and fellow inmate, the playwright Jura Soyfer, that the motto over the camp’s gate--the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Freedom)--would make a good song. Soyfer wrote the words, urging “Stay humane, Dachau mate!” Zipper wrote music for their “Dachau Song.”
Soyfer died in Buchenwald. Zipper and another of the brilliant writer’s friends carried his body to the mounting pile. It wasn’t until years later that Zipper learned that their song, never written down, had been passed from one prisoner to another and even from camp to camp. In 1988, Zipper conducted its world premiere, sung by a chorus of 30 young men, at a festival of the arts in the Austrian city of Graz.
Zipper doesn’t dwell on the past. He was on the scene for many of the most violent upheavals of his time, including the Anschluss and, during one of his trips to China, the massacre of dissidents in Tian An Men Square. As fellow conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “Zipper, you didn’t omit a chance to be killed.” And yet he emerged unharmed, physically or emotionally. “I went through practically every storm of this century, and I didn’t get wet.”
But on a recent trip to Europe together, Cummins visited Dachau--without Herbert Zipper.
“He didn’t want to go,” Cummins explained. “He said he had seen enough of it.”