Rock 'N' Roll Never Forgets Holocaust's Horror

By Scott Benarde, Palm Beach Post, May 6, 2005

When remembering and teaching the Holocaust, we often forget the power of the popular song.

Some rock, pop, folk and rap songs serve as gripping reminders of the Shoah. On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Hitler's death camps, and in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day today (celebrated this week by area Jewish organizations), it's worth listening to how contemporary music shouts and cries "Never again!"

The following list of Holocaust references in popular music and comments from musicians was culled from research conducted for Stars of David: Rock 'n' Roll's Jewish Stories.

'With God on Our Side'

Bob Dylan

One of the earliest Holocaust references in popular music is Bob Dylan's classic With God on Our Side from 1964's The Times They Are A-Changin'. It goes like this: "When the Second World War/ Came to an end/ We forgave the Germans/ and we were friends/ Though they murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried/ The Germans now too/ Have God on their side."

The Klezmatics update Woody Guthrie

Folk icon Woody Guthrie wrote about the Holocaust when he penned Ilsa Koch in 1948 about the sadistic wife of the commandant of Buchenwald. The opening couplet immediately sets the hopeless scene: "I'm here in Buchenwald/ My number's on my skin."

The Klezmatics pulled the recently unearthed song into the 21st century by adding music, turning the as-yet unrecorded Ilsa Koch into a fearful dirge in concert. (The song is to be included on a Klezmatics CD called Holy Ground set for release in September.)

David Axelrod

David Axelrod, a noted jazz producer and composer who also worked with the '60s rock act Electric Prunes, was compelled to write and produce Requiem: The Holocaust (Liberty Records, 1993) in response to watching white supremacist Tom Metzger deny the Holocaust during a TV broadcast. Axelrod's haunting opera includes but four arias: Krystallnacht, Trains, Auschwitz and Gas Chambers.

Boynton Beach journalist Scott Benarde is the author of Stars of David: Rock 'n' Roll's Jewish Stories.

More Holocaust-themed songs

'Red Sector A'

by Rush (From 1984's Grace Under Pressure):

Perhaps the most well-known of Holocaust-influenced rock songs as it first appeared on the band's hit 1984 album Grace Under Pressure, and has been a staple of the band's live shows ever since. The seeds for this harrowing rocker were planted 60 years ago in April of 1945 when British soldiers liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Rush lead singer Geddy Lee's mother, Mary Rubenstein, was among the survivors. "I once asked my mother her first thoughts upon being liberated," Lee said. "She didn't believe (liberation) was possible. She didn't believe that if there was a society outside the camp how they could allow this to exist... " Lee related the story to band drummer and lyricist Neil Peart and also wrote the music. Peart came up with lines such as: "Are we the last ones left alive?/ Are we the only human beings to survive?" "The whole album," Lee said, "is about being on the brink and having the courage and strength to survive."

'This Train Revised'

by the Indigo Girls (From 1994's Swamp Ophelia):

Set to blazing fiddles and volcanic drums, the song steams along like an out-of-control engine spitting smoke-and-fire images: "It's a fish-white-belly, lump-in-the-throat, razor-on-the-wire, skin-and-bone, piss-and-blood in a railroad car, 100 people — gypsies, queers and David's star, this train is bound for glory... "

Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who is not Jewish, says the song began to take root after learning about the Holocaust during a religion course, which included a visit by a survivor, at Emory University in 1986. "I hadn't been taught about the Holocaust in (public) school, and I was shocked by a lot of what I learned about the human capacity for evil," she said. "I was always really struck by the train imagery of (the Holocaust). In the South, where I grew up, the train image is one of going to a better place. That irony and cruelty resonated with me... I wanted the song to feel harsh and show cruelty. I felt angry when I wrote it. I was so angry about what happened." (A live version of the song is on the 1995 double CD 1,200 Curfews.)

'The Door'

by Martin Page (From 1995's In the House of Stone and Light):

The non-Jewish Page did not set out to write a Holocaust-inspired song for the album. He had a piece of music he describes as "uplifting, dark and mysterious," and he kept singing the phrase "the door," to a certain part of the melody. After he finished making a 'demo' recording of the tune in his home studio, he glanced up at a bookshelf, saw Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner, grabbed it and read it. "I was so moved," Page said. "I grew up in England, so I was very aware of the Holocaust, but I was not aware of the bravery at Treblinka... I instantly went back into the studio and the song, in a way, wrote itself.

"He said The Door is the door to the gas chambers or the door to hope," and added that, "the story is basically told through the eyes of a character I imagined had survived. I wanted to end the album with it because it is a testament to heroics and hope."

'Never Again'

by Remedy (From the 1998 compilation The Swarm: Wu Tang Presents the Killa Bees):

Frustrated that public schools weren't teaching enough about the Holocaust, the Jewish Staten Island rapper (born Ross Filler) composed his own history lesson. Combining ancient Jewish prayers, hip-hop rhythms, an ominous melody and quaking lyrics resulted in the most complete and defiant portrait of the Holocaust painted in song: "Never again — shall we march like sheep to the slaughter/ Never again — shall we sit and take orders/Stripped of our culture, robbed of our name, raped of our freedom and thrown into the flames/ Forced from our families, taken from our homes/ Pulled from our God and burned of our bones/ Never Again!" (Also available on Remedy's 2001 and 2002 solo releases The Genuine Article and Code: Red.)


by Janis Ian (From the 1993 album Breaking Silence):

Ian was 10 when she first learned about the Holocaust from books in her parents' home library. As an adult, she tried for years to write a song addressing the calamity. The poignant, almost-whispered Tattoo, which reminds us that survivors never completely heal, is the result: "Her new name was tattooed to her wrist/ It was longer than the old one/ Sealed in the silence with a fist/ This night will be a cold one."

'Ride 'em Jewboy'

by Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys (From 1973's Sold American):

Perhaps the most misunderstood pro-Jewish Jewish musician around, Friedman's choice of band name and song titles offended many Jews and gave a chuckle to many bigots. If everyone had listened to the songs, they would have realized that Kinky was a proud Jew and that Ride 'em Jewboy was a sentimental tribute to those who perished in the Holocaust: "Dead limbs play with ring-less fingers/ A melody which burns you deep inside/ Oh, how the song becomes the singers/ May peace be ever with you as you ride."


by Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy (From 2002's The Swastika EP):

Bern lost grandparents, aunts and uncles when the Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941 and wiped out the Jewish population. Hitler and the Holocaust are a recurring theme in Bern's music, but nothing is as cathartic as Lithuania. Long and angry, it includes this passage: "I sometimes want to dance on Hitler's grave and shout out 'Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, Abby Hoffman, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Houdini, Sandy Koufax!' And then I want to scream and sing as loud as I can, to the chandeliers that sway dangerously overhead, and proclaim Krystalnacht is over!" My Little Swastika, about trying to reclaim and defuse the symbol of ultimate evil, is also on the CD.


by Jill Sobule (From the 1997 album Happy Town):

The Denver-born singer-songwriter conjures up the ghost of Anne Frank when she asks in a wistful, almost naäve tone, "Would you have hidden me in your attic? That's the question I'd like to know." The acoustic tune poses a most powerful question between its pretty melody and Sobule's delicate, almost fragile singing. Sobule, who is Jewish, said she feels compelled to put songs about WWII on her albums.

'Dachau Blues'

by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (From 1969's Trout Fish Replica):

Disjointed and atonal, musically annoying to pop-loving ears, the song quickly makes its point. Beefheart, who is not Jewish, croaks in gruff voice, "Dachau blues those poor Jews/ Dachau blues those poor Jews... One mad man, six million lose... " Former band guitarist Gary Lucas shed some light on why the reclusive Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) wrote this song. Lucas said that Beefheart once told him that he wanted Jewish musicians in his band because, "Jews understand suffering."


by Peter Himmelman (From 1992's Flown this Acid World):

Also known as "The Taxi Song," Himmelman based this quiet yet potent tale on his own experience of riding in a taxi with a bigoted, anti-Semitic cabbie who doesn't realize his passenger is Jewish. During conversation, the driver speaks of his admiration for Hitler saying, "Hitler's only fault was that he had to go and lose." The song ends with Himmelman visiting a survivor: "I spent the next morning with a man who had death camp numbers on his arm/ And I swore to myself I would do anything to protect him from further harm/ and he told me 'Wherever you may go/ You must refute them if they say it wasn't so.'"