How Music Led One Kansas City Teacher And Countless Students To Mark The Holocaust

Apr 24, 2017

Jim Murray will never forget the first time he heard "Study for Strings" by the Czech composer Pavel Haas. It was a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Kansas City back when Murray was a junior at William Jewell College.

"It was the first time I became aware there were orchestras in concentration camps, or pieces being written in concentration camps," says Murray.

Haas wrote music in Terezín before he was sent to Auschwitz, where he died in a gas chamber in 1944.

Now Murray has college students of his own, and a shelf full of books about the music of the Holocaust in his office at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods, where Murray teaches music. And for the last 14 years, he has commemorated the work of Haas and other Holocaust composers with a public Day of Remembrance program of music, art and poetry.

"It’s hard to explain why certain music appeals to certain people, but for whatever reason that first piece really moved me, spoke to me," says Murray (who is not Jewish). "And since then, as I started to investigate this music and learn more of it and perform it with my orchestras."

"What is fascinating to me about it is, on the surface a lot of the music is very hopeful, because they’re writing the opposite of their world – if you’re in a situation that doesn’t have much hope, you don’t need to be reminded of that in your artistic output," Murray says. "But once I started putting the music together in artistic programs, I noticed a very uneasy undercurrent that's prevalent in all of these pieces, which would clearly speak to the uncertainty of their immediate situation."

Besides being committed to the material because of its powerful and timeless lessons, Murray wanted to find a way to engage students at the end of the semester. So he has invited visual art students to create pieces based on poetry by Holocaust survivors, or, depending on the year, writing students to compose poetry based on Holocaust music.

MCC-Maple Woods music instructor Jim Murray with 'Endless Hope,' a 2005 drawing by student J.T. Tanner, purchased by the college after that year's Day of Remembrance.
Credit Courtesy Jim Murray

"It's fascinating to see how that plays out," he says. "We always want to create something new based on what was created during this period, and the student work has always been amazing, be it literary or visual art."

For this year's program, Abby Wolff, who is in her final year at Maple Woods before heading to Missouri Western State University, where she'll major in animation and minor in musical theater, made a drawing in response to Elie Wiesel's "Never Shall I Forget." 

"When I first read it, the visual that I got in my head after a few of the lines was just ash everywhere," says Wolff. Using charcoal on paper, she drew a picture of a hand and chipped away at the charcoal to create "what looks as close to ash as you can get without using ash, just to show all the destruction that happens and the ash that’s left over from it."

Murray also invites musicians from the community to participate. Among this year's professional performers is Kim Foskett, who has played oboe with the Northland Symphony (which Murray also conducts). She'll be playing Haas's "Suite for Oboe and Piano."

Kim Foskett performs Pavel Haas' 'Suite for Oboe and Piano' at MCC-Maple Woods' 14th annual Day of Remembrance.
Credit Courtesy Kim Foskett

"I’m learning it for the first time," says Foskett. "It's very modern, with a lot of unique time signatures and some atonality, so it’s not just your standard oboe piece. A lot of oboe music is very romantic and baroque, so playing it has been a new challenge."

Knowing Haas' story "definitely gives some weight to the piece," Foskett says. "A lot of composers have a story of some kind of suffering. I'm not trying to equate everyone’s suffering, but it's important to take into account what was happening in a composer’s life so I can tell the story of the piece effectively."

Wolff, for her part, has heard about the annual Day of Remembrance program and has always wanted to participate. She anticipates a powerful evening.

"It's a heavy topic to talk about, when you’re remembering something as horrific as the Holocaust," she says. "It kind of makes you look into your own life and think, 'What can I be doing to make a difference in my own little world so that terrible things like this don’t happen?' It makes us realize how petty racism and judging people is, and how we should be loving our fellow man."

The 14th Annual Day of Remembrance: Remembering the Holocaust Through Music and Art, 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 24 at MCC-Maple Woods, 2601 Northeast Barry Road, Kansas City, Missouri 64156.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.