The ear of the remnant: New modes of listening in the Second World War

by Ian Biddle

This blog post examines the thesis, often stated in sound studies (Goodman, Hartford, Porcello, Daughtry), that war transforms the ways in which humans engage with sound. Much of this recent work has focussed on the idea that, as Hartford puts it, war ‘challenged prior understandings of the relationship between “listening”, “noise”, and “music”.’[1] There is good reason to take this at face value: the human sensorium ensnared in modernity’s ugliest moments in what Badiou has famously referred to as the ‘accursed century’, is a sensorium ensnared in dangerous and traumatic extremis, and in desperate need to develop mechanisms for coping with that traumatic discombobulation.[2] Yet I want to query the notion, in particular, that war delivers new auditory cultures that are discontinuous with cultures that precede or follow them. In other words, I want to argue that, although war certainly does throw listening agents into intensely challenging auditory theatres of action, the entrained cultural resources those agents draw on are also nonetheless in some kind of continuity with life before and after war. Focusing in particular on the second world war, and on Yiddish-, German- and Polish-language sources, I seek to understand transitions from war to peace (and from peace to war) from an auditory-cultures perspective. What, I ask, remains in auditory aftermaths? How are those remains marshalled and collated by agents touched by war? And what do these efforts teach us about listening as a cultural and political act?

Traumatic listening

In his short poem, ‘A horde muzik’ (1941), Yiddish-language poet (and Jewish partisan) Avrom Sutzkever delivers us into a terrifying scene of listening in extremis:

I prick up my ears to hear

the voice of a friend

the voice of a friend

only from far away, like my echo, are carried

the music of wolves

in a blinding half circle


Is this all that remains to me?

The music of wolves

All that remains

Across forest snow like frozen howls

It draws near sharp as steel

To me, towards me

Horde music. [3]

In this scene, sounds become unbearably amplified and speak of potential saviours, or of traitors, murderers, genocidal maniacs; sounds are profoundly ambivalent, ideologically unmoored, cut loose from everything we thought we knew about living; they speak of either betrayal or of friendship, of food from kind strangers, or of abandonment to the hoar cold of the forest. The scene sets out something we have become familiar with in Holocaust Studies – namely, the notion that war enacts the impossibility of community at the edge of humanity, it isolates its agents and throws them into a state of emergency. Agamben has famously characterised this state, theorising it from within his close reading of Roman law (and the now famous Benjamin-Schmitt debate [4]), as, in some sense, a logical extension of pre-existing political, legal and social structures. For Aganben, the relation between the exception and the norm, between being in extremis and in iure, (in lege, in normalis temporibus), is one of inversion, but not one of pure antimony. Hence, states of exception (such as the state of emergency) do not emerge from nowhere, and although they might represent a limit or boundary change, they are not a fundamental suspension of the polis or iustitium that nurtures them.[5]

With this in mind, we note in Sutzkever’s ‘A horde musik’ that listening is situated at a border zone of animalisation, but that that zone does not fundamentally contradict humanity (here marked out by the promise of a kol fun a khaver “the voice of a friend”). In Sutzkever’s epic poem Geheymshtot [Clandestine City] (1945-7), moreover, this spectre of a truncated humanity is played out in the community of the ‘nation of 10’ [‘a folk zalbatsent’] who run, hide, fight the Nazis, from their base in the sewers of the occupied city. Like the promise of ‘a kol fun a khaver’, the ‘voice of a friend’, the folk zalbatsent stands as a kind of remnant (in Yiddish the sheyres hapleyte) and thus for the missing whole, a desirous synecdoche:

Black eyeballs in the dark, they sniff my flesh

Like animals around a new-born babe,

Their fingers — greying motions, stretching out

To touch in me a kin lost with no grave.

— A Jew still living? — and a murmur thin:

Are we the last remaining ten? (Above,

An iron grate, we saw a speck of sky

And hovering in air a sunny dove.)

— Of ten — a breath curled bluish in the hollow —

A nation will arise, to spite the Moloch. [6]

What is striking here is that Sutzkever is making the claim that to listen at this border zone of humanity is not to suspend normative listening, but to listen in a way that draws us back to the normative and, perhaps most usefully for this blog post, to cast critical doubt on the stability of what seems normal, what seems secure. In Geheymshtot, then, life and death co-exist in a grey-blue world, underground, in abandonment, under the logic of the remnant (in Yiddish di pleyte), a distinctly complex logic that poses some urgent questions about sound and listening: what are the mechanisms by which listeners are organised in war, and how is this organisation undone afterwards? In other words, what are the processes by which listeners cross the threshold from everyday to emergency listening?

Listening underground: Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał (Poland 1956)

Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s extraordinary second feature film, Kanał (Poland 1956) is based on a story about the Warsaw Uprising by Polish author and screenwriter Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, which first appeared in the literary magazine Twórczość [Creation][7]. What is perhaps most striking in Wajda’s film is its acoustic organisation. The score, by composer Jan Krenz, is very light touch and much of the film left completely unscored. The opening panoramic shots, from the Allied Forces’ reconnaissance material from 1945 (already iconic) of the devastated city (resonating with Rossellini’s Berlin in the earlier Germania anno zero (1948)) is accompanied by Krenz’s avowedly modernist score and marks the panoramic “light” half of the film. The second, half, fascinating for its sudden aesthetic shift, is shot in the dark of the sewers under Warsaw. Like Sutzkever’s account of life in the sewers [kanaln] of a fictionalised Vilnius in Geheymshtot, Wajda and Stawiński’s portrayal of the underworld of the kanały [sewers] of Warsaw is separated from the sunny upside by a quite specific acoustic ecology. Unlike Sutzkver, however, the world of the kanały is quiet, almost silent. The upside is cacophonous, the site of encounter between retreating (possibly AK) soldiers and civilians. The underside, where filth and dirt and abjection threaten every wound, every breath taken by the fighters is riddled with the stench of the decaying city, sound is amplified, but is also less cacophonous; sound is deeply resonant in the echo chambers of the kanały but rarer, more “hi-fi”, to use R Murray Shafer’s term.[8]

This is unusual. Indeed, it seems to contradict other well-know representations of makeshift underground worlds made during war. Compare this with the “lo-fi” cacophony of Suzkever’s sewers:

The pipes, the channels, they are varied,

Like highways, roads, and lanes.

We’ll speak of this more, according to an order.

Normally the water is subdued, so it’s possible to

“stroll.” In times of rain, it rises higher

With whistles like the song of a witch,

It flows over through side holes

Into the “storm canal,” thin as a larynx and long,

Roaring under the broadest main street.

Galloping like a herd of buffalos, it pours.


And abruptly it thunders down into another channel,

Which runs into the Viliya. And more,

Several side pipes, branching add to it

From under narrow streets that suddenly

Contribute to the flood in times of rain.

The flow brings from all backyards

Eternal filth like an infernal fire,

It rains down strikes on your swooning brow — hard, stinking shards.

At night a weaker current, mute, barely heard,

Like torn organs the pipes burble.[9]

Only in two lines is there any human agency: in the mention of shpatsirn “strolling” and in that strange mention of the Seyder or “order” (also a ceremonial meal on the first two nights of Passover, and possibly also referring to the recitations of passages from the Torah). The latter is a deliberate marking of Jewishness; it is also rather confusing: who is this mir [we] here? Is it the author and us, together entering into a conversation, or is it the “mir” contained within the poem, the folk zalbatsent [a nation of 10]? This confusion, I would argue, speaks to the radical nature of Sutzkever’s imagination of the soundscape here: it is a contained and discrete world into which we are drawn, whilst also being fundamentally excluded from it. Our position in relation to it will always be as one outside, listening in. Indeed, there is little trace at all of the listener in this cacophonous roar of water and effluence, no room for us to stand, no place for us to take up in relation to it. Here listening emerges merely as a by-product of there being sound at all.

Wajda’s “hi-fi” soundscape of the sewers of Warsaw is quite different. The cinematic medium no doubt enables this, but, compared to other Polish cinematic attempts at representing the Warsaw Uprising, (see for example Jerzy Zarzycki’s Miasto Nieujarzmione/Unvanquished City (1950)), Kanał is unusual for its concentration on the world of the sewer and its exploration of that world’s sonic characteristics. This is particularly evident at a key structural moment in the film where the central protagonists descend from the cacophonous upside into the quiet darkness of the sewers. On the one hand, this seems like a strict cinematic inversion: light to dark, cacophony to near silence, dust to water and so on. But, as mentioned, above, this inversion only works to the extent that one world negates the other. This is clearly not the case here. As a woman occupies the frame, incanting over and over “Panowie, zaczekajcie, panowie, miejcie litość, nie opuszczajcie nas.” [Gentleman, wait, take pity, do not leave us], her voice is slowly drowned out by the sound of the ongoing bombardment and screams. The film cuts to a close up of the main protagonists descending via a manhole into the sewers. The ongoing sounds of war continue as they descend. Suddenly, at 46’34”, all sounds stop abruptly. The lo-fi cacophony of war gives way to the hi-fi logic of the closed space of the sewers.

This first evocation of the world of the kanały [sewers], then, is completely silent. This clear flouting of the rules of sound seepage and acoustics is deliberate: Wajda seeks to mark the transformation as absolute, fundamental. Indeed, this new acoustic space changes the film’s aesthetic dramatically. No longer simply an action film in the standard post-war model, the film becomes much more intimate, more closely focussed on the bodies of the protagonists. As they pass the camera, one by one, we see them close-up. No one speaks for a good four minutes. Only when the wounded Korab (Tadeusz Janczar) coughs, is the silence broken. This long silent shot amplifies Korab’s cough which stands out in this hi-fi sound world as an autonomous sound object. What also changes here, of course, is that each of the protagonists themselves must take on the role of a careful listener: those imprisoned in the sewers with them announce themselves through the strange distorting effects of the sewer tunnels. “Gaz, gaz, Niemcy, gaz” [gas, gas, Germans, gas] cry voices in the distance and then suddenly the acousmêtres are upon them. Only after these figures have dispersed and the protagonists decide to proceed, is Krenz’s soundtrack fleetingly heard again (a rising figure picked out on the vibraphone). This is suddenly brutally curtailed by the arrival of another figure escaping the gas “Co to jest?” [What is it?] screams Lt. “Zadra” (Wieńczysław Gliński). “Niemcy wpuszczali gaz” [the Germans have let in gas] replies the figure. Lost in the sewers, the figure returns again, screams “Mam dość tych kanałów i tę cholerną grę w chowanego” [I’ve had enough of these sewers and this shitty game of hide and seek]. He then climbs out of the nearest manhole cover, and drops down again to the sound of machine gun fire, dead.

Throughout this extended episode in the sewers, sounds become autonomous: each staccato incursion is a jolt. Wajda deliberately organises sound such that listening becomes traumatic. Here new kinds of listening dominate: listening for evidence of others, for the sound of gunfire above, for the rumble of hand grenades. The expectation of death lingers in every sound: Kolba’s cough, a shout, the unhinged screams of someone lost, the dying moans of a wounded soldier, the sound of someone drowning. Throughout, Krenz’s score is almost completely absent. Brief isolated chords underline the horror, and also underline the acoustic logic of this whole scene: these sounds float like detritus on the oily effluence of the sewer, emerging and dissipating sometimes suddenly, sometimes subtly, but always in isolation. These atomised discontinuous sounds mark the topsy-turvy space of the sewer as a nightmarish non-linear world. No longer able to ascend into the light, those trapped below will one by one lose their lives, picked off in this hellish labyrinth by hunger, disorientation and madness, infection, or murdered by Germans when they try to escape.

New modes of listening?

There is a frustrating complexity in trying to understand what is ‘new’ (discontinuous) in these forms of listening and what connects with the world before and after war. We are driven always, it seems, to mark war and peace as non-continuous, to mark out war as the rare exception to the rule of peace. In so doing, of course, we perpetuate some complicated and stubborn tendencies in our thinking to organise modernity into forms of “good” and “bad” modernities, without recognising the continuities between them. For Holocaust scholars in particular, but also for scholars of war more broadly, this raises questions about how listening subjects move between war and peace and how, more importantly perhaps, we recognise in listening subjects a propensity to make such moves. Sutzkever and Wajda/Stawiński show that war does indeed bring new forms of listening, but these forms are stubbornly continuous with other forms of listening: traumatic listening is not a pure inversion, it is, rather, a complex addendum to our (usually. but not always, peace-ful) everyday.

What emerges in these examples is, rather, an intensification of listening: in the sewers of Warsaw and Vilnius, listening takes centre stage as a new and studied way of reading environmental dangers. To an extent animalised, this listening is also dominated by the staccato, and by extraordinary intensifications of both lo-fi and hi-fi soundscapes. These intensifications, moreover, lead to radical transformations of the shape and length of the site of listening: either it is curtailed, dismembered into atomised arrhythmic moments (in Wajda’s sewers), or it is made continuous and cacophonous (Sutzkever’s roar of the sewers of Vilnius, Wajda’s endless repetitive bombardment of the city of Warsaw). But in the final analysis these transformations of listening into “new” forms of aurality are often overstated to the point of caricature.

  1. Kassandra Hartford, ‘Listening to the din of the First World War’, Sound Studies, 3:2 (2017), 98-114: 98.
  2. Alain Badiou, The Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 2.
  3. Avrom Sutzkever, “A horde muzik,” in Lider fun yam hamoves: fun vilner geto, vald un vander (New York: Bergen-Belsen Memorial Press, 1968), 18.
  4. For more on this see Samuel Weber, ‘Taking exception to decision: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt’, Diacritics, Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1992), 5–18.
  5. Much of Agamben’s thinking on this topic is covered in a lecture given at the Centre Roland-Barthes (Universite Paris VII, Denis-Diderot) ‘Lo stato di eccezione come paradigm di governo’, available in PhaINomeNa, special edition ed. Jurij Verč “Selected Essays in Contemporary Italian Philosophy”, Vol. 21, No. 82-83 (November 2012), 163-172: 171.
  6. Avrom Sutzkever, Geheymshtot (Tel Aviv: Akhdes, 1948), 10 (my translation).
  7.  Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, “Kanał”, Twórczość, No 3 (1956), 66-92. Kanał was made in the context of a slight relaxation of the Polish communist authorities’ censorship (following the so-called “thaw” [оттепель] in the Soviet Union). Nonetheless, some sensitivities remained for the authorities: the representation, for example, of the AK (the Armia Krajowa or Home Army) was still fraught with difficulties as many members of the AK were nationalists and avowed anti-communists. Nonetheless, the film, despite many of the compromises forced on the director, represents a profound break with Soviet-orthodox representations of the Warsaw uprising. For a detailed analysis of this context, see Matilda Mroz, ‘The Monument and the Sewer: Memory and Death inWajda’s Kanal (1957)’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 34 No. 4 (2014), 528-545, especially 529-531.
  8. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 1977).
  9. Sutzkever, Geheymshtot, 13-14 (my translation).
Ian Biddle is senior lecturer and Head of Postgraduate Studies in Music at Newcastle University. He is co-founder and co-ordinating editor (with Richard Middleton) of the journal Radical Musicology and the author of Music, Masculinity and the Claims of History (Ashgate, 2011) and Sound, Music, Affect (Bloomsbury, 2013).


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