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Singing, Painting and the Holocaust:
Interview with Leon Greenman

by Selma Stern


Leon Greenman was born in London in 1910. He lost his wife Esther, his son Barney and numerous relatives and friends in the holocaust. Greenman himself survived Auschwitz and five further camps as well as a 90 km death march. Today, having released a book and a film about his life during World War II, he is teaching about the holocaust and taking people to Auschwitz as a warning to young and old alike.

Greenman performed as professional singer after the war. Since years, he has been drawing and painting pictures that show his traumatic experiences in the camps of the 3rd Reich.

Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his
pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
you ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise
into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his arm is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger

Leon Greenman, Execution in Auschwitz July 1943, Drawing

Selma Stern: Have you ever met Paul Celan in person? How well does his poem reflect your own experiences in Auschwitz and the other camps you were in?

Leon Greenman: No, no, I never met Paul Celan. This poem is too CLASSIC, too cold, and too difficult to follow. It does nothing to me.

Your paintings and drawings remind me of Zoran Music's art works 'Fellows, I am the Last' and 'We are not the Last'. Do you compare your own works with the works by other holocaust victims?

I became a member of the HOLOCAUST CENTRE IN HENDON, London. My drawing teacher is BARBARA JACKSON. A marvelous teacher… has her own exhibitions. Time divided by participants, I only get some five minutes tuition. The class is too big with too many wonderful artists.

You exhibit your entire life in the Jewish Museum in London. Thomas Hart Benton, Felix Nussbaum, Josef Nassy, Esther Lurie, David Olere, Aldo Carpi, Fernand Van Horen, Yehuda Bacon, Josef Elgurt, Glid Nandor..., who have suffered similar faints, are representatives of what has become known as 'Holocaust Art'. Have you never made an attempt to make your paintings public?

When I was five years young, I draw with chalk on the blackboard that my father bought for my birthday. BUT NO ONE ever mentioned it. Later on in school when I was ten or eleven; but that was it. My art teacher Barbara Jackson, as she told me, tried to get my watercolors paintings that show what I remember of the camps etc. exhibited in some galleries, but the question put to her was "DID HE PAINT THESE IN THE CAMPS?" which is a foolish question. Only in the THERESIENSTADT CAMP the children were given chalk and paper to draw. To keep them quiet? I am not sure of this. BUT NEVER IN THE CAMPS, I DID NOT, WE DID NOT GET PAINTS AND PAPER, NEVER… I am not a technical drawer, I try to put on paper what comes into my head, mind, what I remember seeing in the camps. I AM NOT AN ANTON PIECK OF HOLLAND. He issued an album of pictures that he remembers of Buchenwald. Very good! It was presented to me by a friend. I cannot draw as Pieck does.

You always wanted to become a concert singer…

I studied at the Academy of Music etc. how to use the voice for singing. This took place in Holland, later on in London. In Holland, I was contracted for RADIO HILVERSUM. I did several programs for the K.R.O. Radio Company. I did a round of singing a few months in Holland, in London, musical… But I was never a rock singer, shouting etc. I was a romantic singer, I was told. All this happened in the 50s and 60s; another story to write about if I had the time.

Working as professional singer, did you write your own texts and were they dealing with the holocaust and/or did you use texts written by others that had the holocaust as subject?

I had a melody in my mind, which I sang in front of the school class, but I did not know the music notations, I was about six. It was a war melody against the German Kaiser. This is another story.
Later on I did make a song on paper, TITLE "WHY", a love song, I probably was in love at that time. This was in the 50s, just before Rock & Roll came into fashion. When I sing it, I am told, it is nice.
But I had a drawback in show business because I am short in figure, short legs. And so I was not much to look at. This is another story.
Now I would like to find another pianist, woman or man, who can read music to rehearse with me somehow and go out to sing for the sick and old people in the homes; but I have not found anyone yet. I think I can still give the ladies a thrill. I was told this. I lost the tape on which I was singing various songs. PERHAPS IT WAS NOT TO BE THAT; I WAS ONLY TO BE SOMEONE TO SPEAK ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST? Which I did and still do, since 1946. My show business singing name was MAURE, (my brother's name MORRY). This is the melody song text I made in the 50s, just before Rock & Roll came in use. I have forgotton now about music composition. I used to go to evening classes and was doing alright, but the teacher changed, went to Australia, and the new teacher – we could not follow her? So I gave up. UP, UP, UP, like a balloon. My manager van Weeren was a member of the SONGWRITERS ORGANISATION, I was NOT, so van Weeren could make it COPYRIGHT; in Holland.


From Coast to coast over land or Sea
Roaming alone
No Peace, no Rest, be't East or West
Roaming alone.
I seek you Dearest where can you be?
Please call me Home.

Why did you let me Go?
Why did you say
You knew I love you, always adore you
How I try, I can't forget you now
Though we are far apart
Darling Dearest believe me, o, please believe me
You're always in my heart.

Lyric and Melody by Leon Maure & Jos van Weeren, arranged by Dave CARROLL

Thank you so much for the interview.

© Selma Stern 2005

Further information:
Leon Greenman, The Jewish Museum, 80 East End Road, London N3 2SY, Tel: 0044-(0)20-83491143, Fax: 0049-(0)20-83432162, Eamil:, Website:

Suggested reading:

Leon Greenman, An Englishman in Auschwitz, Vallentine Mitchell London, Portland, Or, (2001, reprinted 2001, 2003).

[Deutsch] 24-08-2005

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