THE EXPLOITATION OF MUSIC IN NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
by Dusty Sklar
MUSIC, SUFFERING AND DEATH are not usually linked in our contemplation. It is not widely remembered, for instance, that Nazi concentration camps often resounded with gorgeous sounds, counterpoint to the ghastly sounds of unimaginable grief…
Theresienstadt is the exception. By now, we’re well aware of the performances there. Songs and compositions which originated at that camp have been heard in America for decades. But all sorts of music played a starring role in concentration camps from the beginning, and music was an important aspect of life in almost every camp. How that could be boggles the mind.
According to Dr. Guido Fackler, co-creator of the event series, “Music in Concentration Camps,” who has done extensive research into the matter, the most common form was “singing on command. The inmates received their order to strike up a song from a sentry, for example, or from a prisoner functionary” as a way of demonstrating mental and physical force. “The guards used singing on command to intimidate insecure prisoners: it frightened, humiliated, and degraded them. After a long day of hard manual work, being forced to sing meant an enormous physical effort for the weakened prisoner.”
Prisoners were made to sing on command during roll-call, or as they marched or exercised, or on their way to and from work, guards mocking and humiliating them. Eberhard Schmidt, a Sachsenhausen prisoner, describes what it was like: “Those who didn’t know the songs were beaten. Those who sang too softly were beaten. Those who sang too loudly were beaten. SS men lashed out wildly.”
A FORMER INMATE of Dachau and Flossenbürg, Karl Roder, reports that being ordered to sing was part of the daily routine: “We sang in small groups, or one block would sing, or several thousand prisoners all at once. In the latter case, one of us had to conduct because otherwise it would not have been possible to keep time. Keeping time was very important. It had to be crisp, military, and above all loud. After several hours’ singing we were often unable to produce another note.”
Most often, they were ordered to sing Nazi songs. And, to further humiliate them, if they were communists or social democrats, they were forced to sing labor movement songs; if they were religious, they were forced to sing religious songs.
At Dachau, Wagner was played. At Buchenwald, nightly concerts blared from radios, disturbing the prisoners’ sleep. Marching music was used to muffle the sound of executions.
At Auschwitz, in the winter of 1941, a prisoner orchestra was started, conducted by Franz Nierychlo, who was also a kitchen kapo. It consisted of seven musicians, whose instruments were accordion, saxophone, trumpet, violin, contrabass, and percussion, all confiscated from surrounding towns. They soon expanded to a hundred members, which included professional Polish musicians but excluded Jews until 1944.
The orchestra marched with other prisoners to and from work, in good weather and bad, though eventually they were allowed indoors in rain and snow. On Saturdays, they played for the SS guards. On Sundays, they gave long concerts for Rudolf Hoess, the Auschwitz commandant, and his friends and family.
“MUSICAL SLAVES” were occasionally commandeered by some SS officers to play or sing. One prisoner, jazz musician Coco Schumann, reported that “the music could save you: if not your life, at least the day. The images that I saw every day were impossible to live with, and yet we held on. We played music to them, for our basic survival. We made music in hell.”
At Birkenau, unlike Auschwitz, Jews were permitted in the orchestra in 1942 in the men’s camp. Sixteen musicians were brought from Auschwitz. Jan Zaborski, a Polish prisoner, was the first conductor. The violinist Szymon Zaks recollects those early days: “They could beat us, torture us, even kill us without having to answer to anyone. Those who could not take this treatment threw themselves into the electric fence. These suicides built up the rage of our tormentors even more. One day, when the number of musicians who had killed themselves the night before was higher than usual, they called us all together and said ‘sons of whores, I warn you all, if you keep leaping into the electric wire, I will kill you all like dogs.'”
In 1943, ordered by the SS, an orchestra of young female prisoners was created at Birkenau by a Polish music teacher, conductor Zofia Czajkowska. She was ultimately succeeded by Gustav Mahler’s niece, Alma Rose, who had conducted a women’s orchestra in Vienna. The orchestra played at the gate when the prison workers went out, and again when they came back. It was the only female orchestra under Nazi rule. Many prisoners complained. As they returned to their barracks after work, exhausted, ill, and often having to drag along their dead fellow prisoners, they were forced to listen to the orchestra “‘play[ing] marches and modern foxtrots. It made you sick. . . we couldn’t stand this music, or the musicians. They were like puppets, all in blue skirts and white collars, sitting on comfortable chairs.”
One musician, Esther Bejarano, has said that they were often made to perform “when the trains arrived and the people were forced directly to the gas. The deported waved to us in a friendly way, because they thought, where the music is playing, that can’t be so bad. This was part of the tactic of the SS.”
There were also occasional cabaret acts. Moshe Pulawer, a theater artist, came to Birkenau in 1944 and gave his first performance: “Sung from the depths of my heart . . . I sang for those who only yesterday saw their wives and children cast into the flames . . . my friend and I sang and recited. With blood, with tears, we did what is called theater . . . . and not far from this place, thousands of bodies smoked and burned.”
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Some of her articles for us have dealt with American corporate collaboration with Nazism, the American eugenics movement’s influence upon Nazism, and Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Zionism and the Holocaust.