Herbert Zipper; Formed Secret Dachau Orchestra


Herbert Zipper, the stalwart Viennese conductor who formed a secret orchestra in a Nazi concentration camp and later took concerts to America’s inner-city schools, died Monday. He was 92.

Zipper, subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary airing tonight at 10 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28, died at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica of lung cancer, said Paul Cummins, his biographer.

Zipper had continued giving concerts and volunteering at the private Crossroads School, where Cummins is president, until last fall. The educator’s biography of Zipper, “Dachau Song,” was published in 1992.


Profiled by The Times only two weeks ago, Zipper had been imprisoned by the Nazis first at Dachau, later in Buchenwald. After his family in Paris got him a visa and rescued him, Zipper went to Manila only to be imprisoned again by the invading Japanese. He later worked as a secret informant for U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In Dachau, Zipper recruited fellow inmates who had been in Vienna and Munich orchestras to give secret concerts to bolster other prisoners. They carved 11 instruments of wood with metal strings supplied by a sympathetic officer and presented the concerts on Sunday afternoons in an abandoned outhouse.

Zipper also co-wrote “Dachau Song,” a resistance song that spread from prison camp to prison camp.

“I realized in Dachau that the arts in general have the power to keep you not just alive,” he told The Times a few weeks ago, “but to make your life meaningful even under the most dreadful circumstances.”

He also reassembled the Manila Symphony for concerts in a church after Manila was liberated in 1945.

When Zipper came to the United States after the war to conduct the Brooklyn Symphony, he helped poet Langston Hughes organize music programs in New York City’s Harlem.

He continued taking music to inner-city youths in Chicago and, beginning in the 1970s, in Los Angeles, where he worked with USC’s School of the Performing Arts.

Cummins said a memorial concert honoring Zipper is being planned.

Zipper is survived by a niece, Lucy Horowitz of Boston, and a nephew, Henry Holt of Virginia. Horowitz said Zipper had asked that any memorial contributions be made to the Zipper Orchestra Endowment Fund at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, 3131 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles.

* TV REVIEW: Documentary on Zipper’s life airs tonight. F1