Herbert Zipper

With a career that took him from Europe through the Philippines to the USA, the composer and conductor Herbert Zipper had a remarkable and international musical life.  Born in Vienna in 1904 to an assimilated Jewish family, Zipper had a happy and comfortable childhood.  His father was the son of a cantor, and his mother the daughter of a rabbi.  Nonetheless his parents raised him and his siblings in a largely secular environment – like so many of their counterparts, they identified more as Viennese than as Jews.  Zipper’s parents were great music lovers, and the children received an extensive musical education.

Zipper studied at the Viennese Academy of Music from 1923 to 1928. After graduating from the Academy, he struggled to find full-time work in a depressed Austria.  In 1930, he accepted a position in Düsseldorf, where he lived and taught for several years.  While there, he first came into contact with the Nazi party, even attending several rallies out of curiosity, though he did not take the threat that Hitler represented seriously.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, however, things changed dramatically for Zipper. Friends and co-workers began to snub him, and he was no longer welcome in many of their homes.  Eventually he decided to return to Vienna and be with his family, hoping, as did many artists of the time, to escape the influence of Nazism in the Austrian capital.  The city at this time, although not yet under Nazi rule, was under the leadership of a reactionary government, and opportunities for left-wing artists were few.  Zipper kept his head above water primarily by composing for underground theatres that had been banned by the new government.  During this phase in his career, he befriended many leftist artists and musicians, including the writer Jura Soyfer.  When German troops arrived in March 1938, he and his family finally began making plans to leave, but at this point it was already quite complicated to get all the necessary papers in order.  Zipper was picked up by the Austrian police in May 1938.  After being held in jail for two days, he and 20 others, including his brother Walter, were taken to the train station to be sent to Dachau.

Even at this early point, music was for Zipper a source of inspiration and resistance. One of the torture methods of the SS was to force the prisoners to sing on command, both individually and collectively.  When he was commanded to sing, he chose to sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in an attempt to comfort the other prisoners.  The train arrived in Dachau on 31 May, and Zipper remembers this brutal transport as a major transition in his life, marked by constant beatings, humiliations and deprivation of food and water.

When Zipper first arrived at the camp, he was assigned the back-breaking job of being a 'pack horse', which meant pushing a cement truck around the camp.  This had the advantage, however, of allowing him to talk to other prisoners while working, and it was here that he met up again with Jura Soyfer.  Reflecting on his time in Dachau, and this exhausting labour, he said: 'I could endure running around with 100 kilogram bags of beans on my back.  What I could not stand was the theft of my life.'  It was this desire to maintain some semblance of life that drove him to begin to recite poetry for other prisoners.  He got to know several other Jewish musicians, and persuaded some carpenters to build some string instruments illegally with stolen wood.  By the beginning of July 1938 he had assembled fourteen musicians, and initiated Sunday afternoon concerts.  During these illegal concerts, the musicians performed well-known classical pieces, as well as music that Zipper composed for them in the evenings after his day’s work.

Zipper also composed songs and poems together with Soyfer. One day he suggested that Soyfer compose a poem based on the infamous slogan of the camp, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work will set you free).  He memorised the poem that Soyfer recited to him a few days later, composed music to it in his head, and hummed it to some fellow prisoner-musicians.  This became known as the 'Dachaulied'. Soon the musicians had spread the song throughout the camp, where its martial mood and rebellious lyrics made it extremely popular.  Shortly after composing the song, in September 1938, Zipper was transferred to Buchenwald.  Here he was assigned to cleaning out the latrine pits, a particularly odious and dangerous job.

By this time, his parents had managed to flee to Paris, where they struggled desperately to get releases for him and his brother.  In February 1939 he was informed that they were to be released.  After a brief stay in Vienna they travelled to Paris, to be re-united with their family.  As an enemy national, Zipper was briefly detained in a French internment camp.  In May 1939, he received an invitation to be the founder and director of the Manila symphony orchestra. While there, he also succeeded in acquiring visas for his family to the US.  Meanwhile, Japanese designs on the Philippines had been becoming increasingly clear, and on 8 December 1941 Japan attacked the tiny nation, destroying the air force, and crippling universities, schools and public institutions.  In January 1941 the army marched in, and Zipper was arrested because of his friendship with Americans in Manila.  After a brief stay in jail, he was released in order to establish an orchestra intended to serve Japanese propaganda purposes.  He successfully stalled on building such an orchestra, instead joining the underground resistance, as well as passing on important military information to the Americans.  The city was liberated in February 1945, but it was totally destroyed by the fleeing Japanese.  In response to the destruction surrounding him, Zipper’s immediate instinct was to re-organise the symphony orchestra.  Although many of the musicians were dead, injured, or sick, most of those he found were eager to join.  Tickets for their first concert in May 1945 sold out immediately; they played Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvořák's New World Symphony.

In March 1946, Zipper and his wife decided to join his family in the US, where he worked as a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was the music director of several orchestras, including the Manila Symphony and the Brooklyn Symphony, and guest conductor for the Seoul Philharmonic.  He was active in music education until his death on 21 April 1997 in California.


Cummins, P., 1992. Dachau Song: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper, New York: Peter Lang.  

Hippen, R., 1988. Es Liegt in der Luft: Kabarett im Dritten Reich, Zürich: Pendo-Verlag.  

Rosen, P., 2002. Bearing witness: a resource guide to literature, poetry, art, music, and videos by Holocaust victims and survivors, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.  

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.

"Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper" - with permission of Terry Sanders, American Film Foundation.