Saying a Prayer
In September 1944, an 18 year old Polish highland woman was captured by the Nazis and with other people was held in a Gestapo cell, awaiting her fate before being sent to the death camps. With what is believed to be a broken tooth, she scrawled on her cell wall this prayer:
“Oh Mamma, do not cry, no most pure Queen of Heaven, protect me always, Hail Mary -Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna, age 18, detained since 25 September 1944”.
In 1973 Polish composer Henryk Gorecki visited the cell and amongst all the other inscriptions prisoners had made on the cell wall, he was deeply moved by Helena’s prayer. He explained that the other inscriptions were to him so loud and banal (“I’m innocent”, “Murderers” or “Free me”) whilst this young woman’s prayer was different – she was not crying or screaming out for revenge. Her only thought was about her own mother as it is she who will experience true despair.
As a result, the composer in 1976 wrote what is known as either ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ or its official title of ‘Symphony No. 3 Op. 36’. It is a symphony in three movements, but it is the 2nd movement (‘Lento e large- Tranquillissimo’ ) that is inspired by Helena’s ordeal and prayer. When it was first played, few listened, and critics dismissed the work. However, God it seemed had other ideas and in 1992 it was recorded by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta and something quite amazing happened. A piece of work written by someone few people outside of avant-garde eastern European classical music had heard of, sung in a language most people did not understand suddenly got a huge reaction from listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.
The CD topped the UK and US classical charts, it even reached no 6 in the mainstream music charts and was in the US Classical Music Chart for nearly 3.5 years, selling over a million copies. It is possibly the best selling contemporary classical record of all time. All because of one 18 year old’s prayer on a prison cell.
But why? I think the answer is that what Gorecki the composer produced with the soprano Dawn Upshaw is an 8 minute piece of slow music which has such emotional power that it feels it is just injected directly into the soul of whoever listens to it. It forces you to stop what you are doing and just listen, and it moved me like few pieces of music can-so much so that I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. It’s themes are Motherhood, despair, and faith. It starts with a wonderful folk drone, and it reaches a crescendo when the soprano reaches a climaxing top A b. I frequently cry when I listen to it.
But what of 18 year old Helena? God was not about to abandon her. In November 1944 she was being shipped on a train to Auschwitz when she was one of 12 people rescued by Polish partisans. She then walked over mountains and returned to her grandparents in her home town. For the rest of the war, people protected and hid her identity. In 1950 she was married and had five children. She died at the age of 73 in 1999.
You can hear the stunning music inspired by her prayer below: