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The Life and Death Orchestra
This Way For the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen

When trying to find interesting things to write about for a journal entry, I stumbled across something called The Life and Death Orchestra. There was not much information to be found about the group, but I did gather that it is a musical group that focuses it's artistic energy on the events of the Holocaust.

The composers and main performers of The Life and Death Orchestra are Bill Smith, Bim Sinclair, Angi Mariani and Herbie Flowers. Their album, Songs for the Betrayed World is a compilation of Holocaust survivor's poems set to music. It took 25 years to put together. In a BBC interview in 2004, Bill Smith, the creator of the album, says that it came about because he read a book called "The Poetry of Survival" and it was really moving to him. He set a few of the poems to music and decided to expand the project and met with a Jewish composer to complete the project.

He wanted to use poems that provided eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. A passage from Elie Wiesel's Night is also recorded on the album. I found this to be a really interesting way to commemorate the Holocaust. It is different because it is not something you can read, or watch, or look at. It is something that you hear. The Life and Death Orchestra focuses on the need to let the voices and feelings of guilt, and anger be heard and speak the unspeakable. Their songs form pictures and leave lasting messages. The songs are all really intense and moving.

This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen is one of the most moving songs on the album. It was adapted from the short story by Tadeusz Borowski and it depicts an ordinary but horrific day in the gas chambers detailing things like the zyklon B, the cruelty of the SS, the transports, the summary executions, and the slaughter that went on there. The song has also been adapted into a short musical production.

The Life and Death Orchestra
This Way For the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen

A fun musical about the horrors of Auschwitz sounds like an oxymoron. But the writers and producers of the Life and Death Orchestra have created a powerful new work, which premiered at Komedia on Holocaust Memorial Day. With a first half based on daily life in Auschwitz and the second about the present-day tragedy of Darfur, the musical trod a fine line between the horrors of genocide and the optimism of the human spirit.

The story mainly revolved around Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowsky (Beth Morgan). The show's epic song, This Way For The Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, was adapted from his tale of an ordinary day in Auschwitz.

Other characters included Polish deputy Kapo (Ross Gurney-Randall), who was forced to work in the gas chambers, Borowsky's girlfriend Maria Rundo (Adele Ziz), Micheline Maurel (Angi Mariani), and the artist Arnold Daghani (Guy Picot) and his wife Nanino (Jenny James), the sole survivors of Mikhailowka forced labour camp. These last two later emigrated to the UK, becoming residents of Hove.

The show also featured Joan (Kerry Mclean) playing a Darfur refugee. Composer Bill Smith believes Borowsky's account to be one of the great works of world literature. "Even though prisoners were not complicit in these barbaric acts, Tadeusz Borowsky felt immense guilt," he said.

Although the characters were based on real people the words they spoke were drawn from many sources, including their own texts. Written by Smith, Guy Picot and Angi Mariani with music by Smith and Bim Sinclair, the score was performed by the Brighton Youth Orchestra conducted by Andrew Sherwood, and the Rainbow Chorus. Far from a superficial sing-along musical, this was a performance that treated its audience like intelligent people concerned with real issues.

The Argus, Ferbruary 2007


starstarstarstarstar 5 stars

Well done, somebody; candles and red tablecloths bring a welcome degree of nightclub intimacy to the cavernous barn that is the Southside Theatre.

Bill Smith, the composer of all the songs we are going to hear today, greets us as we sit down and tells us that the words are written by people who survived the Nazi concentration camps, or visited them afterwards. The orchestra of seven take their places. The music begins.

"After Auschwitz, poetry is barbaric," wrote the German critic Theodor Adorno. But the Life and Death Orchestra adhere to the greater imperative; the need to give voice to feelings of guilt, anger, despair and human betrayal, to speak of the unspeakable.
As they play and sing, pictures begin to form of a terrible, monochrome place; a place where real and desperate people throw their last messages from trains and gas is carried to the chambers in Red Cross vans; a place where children are flung in the air for target practice and parents must scour the ground for little naked bodies.

And so what was billed as "an astonishingly dramatic musical performance" was, in many ways, the opposite; a simple, delicate, respectful and utterly moving collection of songs, narratives and instrumental pieces, eschewing the blatancy of drama in favour of the power of words and music and the sheer weight of history.

The songs are rich and intense - from strong narrative works like "Five Men" or "Death Fugue", musically reminiscent of Bob Dylan's best work, to melancholy gypsy paeans and exceptional, emotional pieces like "This Way to the Gas". At times the violin becomes a train, then the screams of its human cargo; Herbie Flowers's bass talks of foreboding and doom; Angi Mariani's voice soars sweetly and the sense of engagement is total. I would have liked a little more from Bill Smith in the way of introductions to some of the pieces and the stage lighting was a bit on the harsh and static side. Other than that, it lives long in the memory, one of the most moving and enriching shows on the Fringe.

Penny Barr Wednesday, 8th August 2001

starstarstarstarstar 5 stars

The Life & Death Orchestra This Way For The Gas Ladies & Gentlemen
Venue Komedia Southside

This is a unique show - a collection of poems on the holocaust set to music. It is simple but moving. Some of the songs are hauntingly beautiful and will linger in the mind long after the performance is over. The lyrics - which include work by two nobel laureates - are very powerful. It's the mix that hits you.

There are terrible images of course, and horrific gallows humour, as in Children ("You'd think it would be harder to kill the children. It's easy. They can be thrown in the air for target practice..."). However these are intertwined with poems of life, dignity - even love. And it has the terrible force of being true. A couple of pieces are responses to the holocaust, but most are auto-biographical. One is a last message from a child, thrown from a train: "Don't cry for me Mummy, I am strong."

Also included is a simple meditation on more recent genocides by British poet Kevin Carey: "Remember Dachau which you said would never happen again." The quality of playing is excellent. The music, which has an appropriately eastern european feel to it, sets of the poems well. Soft sad waltzs predominate, although a couple of pieces are pared down to rhythm and a tortured violin.

There are flaws to this show but the strength of the poetry shines through. It must be the most tragic moving show in the festival.

The Life and Death Orchestra

The musical programme of this piece, based on writings from and about the Holocaust, is a deeply moving experience. It is very much to the credit of the creators and performers that it is also ultimately more uplifting that depressing.

The seven piece orchestra is led by Bill Smith, who set the poetry, letters
and memoirs that make up the text to music. He alternates vocal duties with Angi Mariani, and while neither has a conventionally trained voice - he leans toward Dylanesque nasality while she has a church singer's tremolo - the roughness of their delivery gives it all a passionate sincerity.

Texts range from survivor memoirs to the works of poets like Zbigniew
Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz. The juxtapositions of prose and music can prove very affecting, as when the mode of a torch song supports lyrics about the ultimate separation. Most movingly, the programme ends with a waltz and the affirmation of love and life.a fully worthwhile hour.

Gerald Berkowitz, The Stage

Theatre Review
The Life and Death Orchestra

Gallows humour is fused with words of unfathomable poignancy by Brighton's Life and Death Orchestra in their musical about the Holocaust and genocide, "This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen". Based on the writings of Holocaust survivors and poets, the production by the seven-piece orchestra harmonises the harrowing recollections of the Nazi concentration camps in a series of 18 songs, interspersed with stark narrative passages.

Incorporating the outer limits of what humanity has proved capable of doing to itself in a song may seem incongruous, but Bill Smith and Bim Sinclair's compositions prove a compelling amalgam of Tom Waits' black vision with String Driven Thing's tortured humanity - and are searing in their simplicity.

From the wispily haunting despair of 'Never', to the jauntily ironic despair of the Ravensbruck inspired 'Be Happy', via the casually destructive velocity of a bullet in 'Five Men', the message may be unerringly bleak, but there is also a delicate beauty in pianist Mike Hatchard's instrumental, 'Klara's Escape', and for all their horror the lyrics also look out across history to find universal, albeit unedifying truths.

Angi Mariani is superb in the title piece, based on the words of Tadeusz Borowski, - who survived Auschwitz only to commit suicide in Warsaw.

Lee Levitt, August 2001
Journalist, Jewish Chronicle

The Life and Death Orchestra
This Way For the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen

Go placidly amid the noise and haste of the Fringe and remember what peace there is in silence. We sat in silence, stunned by the sheer emotional waste of humanity portrayed in the almost informal performance of songs and narrative taken from the victims of the Nazi Death camps. Bill Smith introduced each section with heartfelt conviction and the accomplished musicianship of the orchestra was evident immediately. The acoustics of the venue were well mixed and suited the sombre nature of the pieces incredibly well.

Nick Pynn;s violin, shrieking a discordant wail in the opening cacophony of Deathfugue and then soaring into wonderful rapture with Angi Mariani's
ethereal vocals, singing of 'naked little bodies with bloated skin' was enough to make you weep.

It is a masterpiece.Humanity is listening and long may the voices from the Holocaust of man's making be heard.

Marc de Launay, Metro, August 16 2001

Despairing Lyrics with Upbeat Message
Songs for the Betrayed World by The Life and Death Orchestra

The Life and Death Orchestra, the stirring Brighton based group, played away from home for the first time to launch Manchester's Holocaust Education Week.

In fact, it was a Jewish Telegraph article last September which led to the booking for this auspicious occasion.

Their rousing music, which combines the often despairing lyrics of holocaust testimonies with upbeat music, itself a symbol of hope, was a supremely fitting performance for the occasion.

Now the orchestra would like to tour nationally.

Composer and vocalist Bill Smith was given a book of Holocaust poems a few years ago. He was so moved that he set them to music. He says, "The poems led me to want to know more about the Holocaust, so I researched, read and spoke to people about the Holocaust as much as I could.

On of the outstanding writers whose work is used, is Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz, but gassed himself in 1951 because he could not cope with the guilt of survival. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a cynical portrayal of Jewish Kapos who collaborated in concentration camps in order to save their own skins.

Prose pieces are also set to music. One of the most poignant is by Ruth
Altbeker Cyprys, describing a letter from a 10 year old girl on her way to
the death camps to her mother.

The CD and concert also contain pieces on more recent massacres, as well as from Elie Wiesel and Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. Despite the gruesome nature of much of the lyrics, the inspiringly haunting music with excellent vocals by Bill Smith and Angi Mariani form an unforgettable experience.

Songs for the Betrayed World is available from The Life and Death Orchestra at, or from all good record shops in the UK.

DW, The Jewish Telegraph, 2001


Edinburgh Festival August 4th - 17th 2001.  

KOMEDIA, Brighton Brighton May Festival concerts - May 2000

Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square, Manchester
Sunday, 21st January 2001

Pavilion Theatre, Brighton
Saturday, 27th January 2001


The icons and artwork at the top are based on the work by great UK artist, Ralph Freeman from the work, Rosina & Carlos IV (1940) - 1997 mixed media on canvas.

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