Based on “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” the classic volume of children’s poems written in the Terezin concentration camp, Dana Sandler has created a song-cycle for nine poems from the book. Her album of the same name features the poetry of five children—Pavel Friedmann, who wrote the poem from which the book’s title and Sandler’s album originate, Franta Bass, Alena Synkova-Munkova and the work of two anonymous children who also perished in the Holocaust.

Sandler recently spoke to JewishBoston about her upcoming concert at Temple Shalom in Newton, where she will debut her album. The album’s inspiration goes back to Sandler’s teenage years. “My mother brought back ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’ from Europe, and the book left its mark on me,” she recalled. “At the time, I was the same age as the poets in the book, and I kept a place in my heart for them.”

The poetry’s subject was too intense for Sandler. It wasn’t until she became a mother that she revisited the poems and thought about setting them to music. By that time, she also had a master’s degree in jazz vocal music and was a physician assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. But after the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, Sandler said, “I felt a fire under me. At the beginning of the project, I read survivor testimonies, and my prime concern was, how do we remember these people?”

Sandler’s album is dedicated to Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an Austrian artist and educator who was deported to Terezin in December 1942. In the ghetto, she taught clandestine art classes until she was sent to Auschwitz in September 1944. During those two years in Terezin, Dicker-Brandeis filled two suitcases with 4,500 children’s drawings and poems. She entrusted her precious collection to a tutor in the girls’ barrack in Terezin. After the war, the suitcases were sent to the Jewish community in Prague, and their contents remain on display in the Jewish Museum there. A selection of the poems and artwork comprise “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

(Courtesy image)
(Courtesy image)

“The overall concept of the album is to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Sandler said. “I also want to honor the voices of those who were silenced too soon. My music is also a response to the rise of antisemitism and the overall hate in this climate. It’s so important to talk about this history today. For example, I’ve seen the artwork of separated children [at the U.S. southern border] who have drawn pictures of themselves in cages. These pictures are eerily similar to the artwork in the book. It alludes to the importance that the Holocaust happened not that long ago. It can happen again if we don’t talk about it.”

Sandler, a vocalist and composer, said that as she was writing, she was conscious of the work’s musical arc. Each of the song-cycles starts on a heartbreaking note but ends in a hopeful place. “There is beauty in those young poets’ words despite what they were going through,” she said. “My intention was to see their hopes and dreams go forward musically. The poems have classical settings, and each section has an instrumental dedication to set up the tone, the rhythmic figure and the center for the poems. There are also little hints of pieces from other parts that connect all four sections.”


Sandler noted that she owes a debt to other artists who have set poetry to music. “I love the medium, and it’s opened up an entire world for me,” she said. “I’m in control musically, but I also take into consideration the lyrics and the spacing. Before I do anything with a song, I say the words to find the natural spaces. I see what unique phrasing comes out of that exercise. When I read poetry, I have an emotional connection to it, and it’s not just about setting the words to music; I write music that has nothing to do with the lyrics. The music is a response to the poems.”

Sandler composed the music for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” in just six months. “The process happened very organically,” she said. “I sat down to write, and the music poured out of me. Halfway through, I knew there would be an album’s worth of music.” Sandler further noted the first piece in the song-cycle is an overture in which “each instrument introduces itself. Tracks three and four are based on Franta Bass’s poems. He is the youngest of the poets I highlighted. Other than Bass’s poems, we only know his date of birth and the date of his death. But I created a story about him in which the clarinet represents this little boy. The bass is the home, or the foundation, and the piano reflects Franta daydreaming about life before Terezin.”

The only music Sandler did not write for the song-cycle was by Rebbe Azriel David Fastag, a talented singer and composer of Hassidic music. In 1942, Fastag was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. On the train, he composed a new melody to Ani Ma’amin—Judaism’s 13 principles of faith. Fastag initially sang the song quietly on the train, gradually raising his voice. The song caught on and was sung throughout the cars. After several rounds of singing, Fastag proclaimed that he would give half of his share of “the world to come” to whoever could deliver the song to his mentor, the Moditzer Rebbe. One man jumped from the moving train and successfully delivered Fastag’s melody to the Rebbe. Upon receiving it, the Rebbe reportedly cried out: “With this niggun (melody), the Jewish people went to the gas chambers, and with this niggun, the Jews will march to greet the Messiah.”

Dana Sandler and fellow musicians will be performing “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” at Temple Shalom in Newton on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 4 p.m. Find more information here.