Crossroads School thanks its courageous music man
Crossroads School in Santa Monica might not be where one would expect to find the archived works of a celebrated composer who survived Dachau and Buchenwald, especially when one considers that the Vienna-born Herbert Zipper worked as an educator at a variety of institutions of higher learning, including USC and the New School for Social Research in New York. But when Zipper died at the age of 93 in 1997, he left his papers to the K-12 school where he taught musical composition and theory in his retirement years. His relationship with the school was such that co-founder and former headmaster Paul Cummins wrote Zipper’s biography.
“[Zipper] helped steer Crossroads into arts education” and had an “impact on the curriculum” that is still felt to this day, said David Martino, Crossroads archivist and curator of the April 22 exhibition, “Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher,” which marks the official opening of the archive to the public.
Among the items to be found in the permanent collection are a German-language letter sent by Zipper on Buchenwald Konzentrationslager letterhead and the original manuscript of “Dachau Song,” Zipper’s stirring anti-Nazi anthem,which was initially titled, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the ironic words hanging above the Dachau gate, which translate roughly as “Work will set you free.”
On April 22, six tall panels — collages of musical notations, photos and other artifacts — will be displayed in the high-ceilinged, first-floor lobby of the school’s Paul Cummins Library. The panels document Zipper’s long life and career: his days in Vienna before the war; his time in the concentration camps in 1938 and 1939; his wartime work in the underground in Manila, radioing Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the movements of the Japanese; and his postwar career in the United States.
Despite all the inhumanity he witnessed and endured, Zipper never battled depression nor lacked for style. One characteristic picture of him at the archive shows Zipper wearing a bow tie and gray suit, sporting a smile on his face.
“I’ve seen pictures of him from the 1900s to the end of his life, and he went through the Holocaust and World War II, and I think I’ve only seen one picture where he looked unkempt,” Martino said.
Zipper hailed from a well-to-do family and was exposed to classical music at a young age, studying with well-known composers like Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Later he became a composer and teacher himself, leading orchestras in Manila, Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was when he convinced an SS guard in Dachau to get him violin string. Zipper and his fellow inmates then stole wood wherever they could find it, cobbled together makeshift instruments and performed compositions such as “Dachau Song,” whose lyrics were written by poet Jura Soyfer, another prisoner. Known in German as “Dachau Lied,” the piece was first performed in an abandoned Dachau building filled with latrines.
Of the secret concerts in the Dachau outhouse, Martino added, “It helped keep people’s sanity and dignity.” Yet even before Zipper came up with this scheme, he began reciting Goethe to others in the concentration camp, refelcting his belief that the arts gave people their humanity.
In addition to the Holocaust-related items, the archive’s permanent collection also includes a telegram signed by General MacArthur expressing his gratefulness for the “splendid contribution” of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, which, conducted by Zipper, performed for American servicemen after the city was liberated.
Zipper might never have led that orchestra or many others were it not for his father, a successful inventor, who was able to secure his release from Buchenwald in 1939, before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy. But Zipper’s time in Dachau was marked by all the indignities and torture that were characteristic of the Holocaust. Zipper saw many fellow inmates murdered. He himself suffered several broken ribs on the way to Dachau when an SS guard leveled him with a rifle butt, which also closed his left eye.
After he got out of Buchenwald, Zipper showed great insight into the Nazi psyche in a letter to his friend Eric Simon, in which he noted that the SS guards “were replaced every half hour” because otherwise they might begin to identify with their captives. “Nazi ideology does not permit free reign of the raw instincts of brutalized monsters. That would be a mistake, because eventually the worst brute after a while will have spent his sadistic impulses and for at least a time may become tame.”
Zipper might not be as famous as Ravel, Strauss or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a friend who became a film composer in Hollywood. But Zipper was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Never Give Up.” And his work lives on in myriad students whom he taught around the world, from China and the Philippines to Germany and the United States. He infused them all with the possibilities opened up by the imaginative realm.
As he once said, “We have to see the world as it is, but we must think about what the world could be.”
“Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher” will be on display Sunday, April 22, 2-5 p.m., at Crossroads School, Paul Cummins Library, 1714 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-7391 ext. 259 or visit