Last Updated: May 28th, 2019

In the 1990s, near the end of his life, I became friends with a neighbour of mine in Los Angeles, Herbert Zipper. He died at the age of 93, in 1997.

Herbert was a composer and conductor from Vienna. In his childhood, he was dandled on the knees of Sigmund Freud and was part of the fertile and intense Viennese/Jewish cultural life in the early part of the 20th century. He was on track to become, perhaps, one of the major orchestral conductors. Then the Anschluss came, and Hitler marched into Austria.

Poetry and music at Dachau

Prisoner's barracks at Dachau concentration camp

Herbert was thrown into the concentration camp at Dachau. When I met him, he described to me what it was like, the second or third day of slave labour. The prisoners were hauling cartloads of cement and digging ditches, and mourning the loss of everything in their lives.

One night, something possessed Herbert to recite a few verses of poetry by Goethe, and, as he related it, he saw his fellow prisoners standing a bit straighter and breathing a bit deeper. Another man who knew the poems began trading lines with him, each reinforcing the other’s memory; a crowd gathered and came back for more the next night, and the next.

The men on that work crew weren’t all literate or educated; many had been labourers, farmers or criminals, but they found some degree of refuge and solace in the poetry. As Zipper later said, “Poetry did its intended work.”

After a time, Herbert met some fellow musicians among the prisoners and started a clandestine orchestra. He composed pieces that they sang and played on junk instruments made of pieces of wire and wood.

The orchestra and their audience were made up of men who knew that most of them were going to die soon. Their daily lives consisted of shovelling mountains of garbage from one place to another, and many of them died buried in it. They were in a place where every possible accoutrement of civilized life had been stripped away, where even their names had been stripped away. But they discovered in music and poetry a way to connect with the life within them.

They held concerts behind the latrines. There would be a 15-minute concert, and then another group of prisoners would come in for their turn. They posted sentries to see if the SS was coming, so the clandestine musicians could disperse.

To compose, Zipper volunteered for the worst job, latrine duty, because that was the only way he could have solitude during the day. He kept pails of toilet water on hand; if one of the SS guards came, Herbert would slop this shit mixture back onto the floor. There would be a terrible stink, and then he’d start mopping it up again (like Penelope endlessly reweaving her shroud), and the guard would go away.

In that way, he bought himself the privacy to compose music in his mind, then wrote it on scraps of propaganda fliers that he pasted together. “Dachau Song,” which he wrote with his friend and fellow prisoner, the playwright Jura Soyfer, spread by word of mouth to other concentration camps. These songs were remembered as anthems of hope for the creative spirit under duress in those horrific places.

To say that music or poetry kept them alive is an exaggeration. Survival was to a great extent random. But those who survived in this context did so without the mind-eating bitterness that might so easily have dominated the rest of their lives. With the help of their art, they remained sane.

A makeshift orchestra

From Dachau, Herbert was thrown into Buchenwald, an even deadlier place. Fortunately, it was early 1939, before the war exploded, and his father, who’d escaped to London, succeeded in bribing Nazi officials to get him out of there.

Herbert made his way to Paris and then London, and was immediately offered a job as conductor of the Manila Symphony. So he moved on to the Philippines—as far away from Nazi Germany as one could get—just in time for the Japanese to invade.

He ended up in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, one of the few people to be imprisoned on both sides of the global war. He eventually escaped, joined the Philippine resistance, and spent the rest of the war working with the underground as a spy for [Douglas] MacArthur’s forces.

The day that Manila was liberated by the Americans—and by liberation, we mean a 30-day battle in which the entire city was essentially destroyed, and a huge part of the population killed either by the retreating Japanese or in the crossfire—he decided that music was needed again.

The songs Zipper wrote in Dachau were not “great” or innovative music. But the people who participated in those concerts came alive as death nipped at their heels.

Many of the Filipino musicians had been scattered, but when the Japanese first invaded, Herbert had arranged for them to bury their instruments in basements out in the countryside and go into hiding, preparing for this moment. He rallied the surviving musicians to come out, retrieved the instruments, marched into General MacArthur’s office, and said, “We’re going to have a concert.”

General MacArthur asked, “Where?”

Zipper said, “In the bombed-out shell of the Santa Cruz Cathedral.” He requisitioned lumber from the army to build a stage, and gave a concert of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

That concert wouldn’t have been reviewed in the musical press as one of the finest performances of the Eroica, from the point of view of technical virtuosity and perfect orchestral playing. The songs Zipper wrote in Dachau were not “great” or innovative music. But the people who participated in those concerts came alive as death nipped at their heels.

Art doesn’t come as a decorative enhancement to life after you’ve already built your fortune and your missile defenses. Art is life—the part most worth preserving.

An ombudsman for the power of the arts

9/11 art on fence of car lot in New York City

Herbert eventually came to America, where at first he conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He became a staunch advocate for artists in education, launching some of the first programs to bring practitioners into public schools as teachers.

As a conductor, he was no longer interested in standing at the head of a big institutional symphony; instead, he brought orchestral music to inner cities that never had access to it. He moved on to Chicago and finally to Los Angeles, where he lived for the rest of his life, dedicating himself to bringing music to kids in impoverished places there and around the world. Throughout his career in America, he served as an ombudsman for the power of the arts to change people’s lives for the better.

In his eighties, he was invited to teach in China and found himself in a hotel in Tiananmen Square, just when the army moved in to crush the young demonstrators in 1989. Even in old age, he had a knack for being where the trouble was and not being afraid of it. The other foreign guests left the country immediately, but Herbert stayed because he wanted to see what was going on.

We’ve become increasingly used to hearing, especially in the hard languages of money, that the arts are a frill, a decoration, non-essential—or, worse, “content” to be vacuumed up by media and internet companies and “consumed.” They only amount, in this utilitarian language, to a hill of beans.

I’m here to tell you that they amount to a mountain of gold. I’m here to tell you that the arts aren’t frosting on life; they aren’t an extra little entertaining piece that you add in when everything else is taken care of. Art is life itself.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in New York City, improvised shrines sprang up on the streets, an explosion of folk art, writing and music. Poetry was suddenly flying over the internet, and people sent each other artwork and bits of film and pasted things up on the walls of buildings. There was a profound hunger for spiritual connectedness—and the sanity that comes from making and participating in art.

One poem that widely circulated at that time was Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” from another fateful moment when nationalized hate exploded into massive violence—the day the Nazis started the Second World War. Amid the horror, Auden spoke of “the Just” exchanging their messages of light, affirming life against the negation and despair that was falling all around them.

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Front cover of Art of IsStephen Nachmanovitch is the author of The Art of Is and Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. He performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist and lecturer. Having collaborated with other artists in music, dance, theater and film, he’s passionate about creativity and exploring the spiritual underpinnings of art. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia (U.S.). Find out more about his work online at

Excerpted from the book The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life. Copyright ©2019 by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Printed with permission from New World Library—

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