When it comes to talking about music-making during the Holocaust, the temptation is often to wax romantic: this is true both of historians and musicologists who tell the stories of the musicians who created art under the most inhumane circumstances, and the personal recollections of survivors who recall the strength and will to live that music provided them. One of the most powerful voices to counter this trend of romanticising the musical world of the concentration camps is that of the Polish-Jewish composer and conductor Szymon Laks. His memoirs, written soon after the war, were controversial precisely because he argued against the popular belief that music provided hope and a sort of 'mental self-defence' to the prisoners. Laks claimed that, "in no case did I ever meet a prisoner who found courage in our music, whose life our music helped save."
Szymon Laks was born in Warsaw on 1 November 1901. He studied mathematics and musical composition in Vilnius and Warsaw, and in 1925 left Poland and moved to Vienna. From there he went on to Paris to further his musical studies at the conservatory. Laks was beginning to build a reputation as a composer when the Germans defeated France in 1940.
In July 1941, Laks was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. One of the first things that he noticed upon arrival at the camp was the band setting up their music stands. Despite his extensive musical training, he was assigned to a unit of exhausting physical labour, where he worked for a month, to the point of near-collapse. He finally managed to get an audition and was accepted into the orchestra, given new clothes and moved to the music block.
When Laks first joined the orchestra, his countryman Jan Zaborski was the conductor. A kind and conscientious musician, Zaborski had been arrested for giving fake birth certificates to Jews. Soon after his arrival, however, Zaborski died and Ludwik Zuk-Skarszewski was put in charge of the orchestra. Soon, he was deported and Franz Kopka took over the baton. Throughout these changes, Laks had been making himself increasingly invaluable to the orchestra: in addition to being a violinist, he became the main copyist and arranger, developing great skill at writing arrangements that could substitute for soloists as they died or were deported. Because of his language skills he also served as a translator for those musicians who didn’t understand the Polish-speaking conductor.
One of the key figures in the development of the orchestra was the sub-camp commander Johann Schwarzhuber. Not satisfied with the poor performances, Schwarzhuber raised his demands on the conductor, insisting on more varied and more skilled performances. Kopka became increasingly dependent on the assistance of Laks. Laks successfully requested from Schwarzhuber increased rehearsal time, thus decreasing the hours of physical labour the musicians were forced to perform.
Eventually Kopka lost his position and Laks was appointed conductor. This formal change in his status allowed him to effect many positive changes for the musicians. By the end of 1943, he had the orchestra moved to a block equipped with a separate music room. Rations were improved, work hours decreased, and, during bad weather, they were no longer required to play outdoors. Laks was fully aware of the unfairness of these ‘privileges’, and had no illusions about the music that he and his orchestra were forced to create:
I personally believe that music was simply one of the parts of camp life and that it stupefied the newcomer in the same way as did everything else he encountered in his first days in the camp and to which he gradually became habituated in time – up to the moment of complete acclimatisation and callousness … Music kept up the 'spirit' (or rather the body) of only … the musicians, who did not have to go out to hard labour and could eat a little better.
Outside of the dreaded work marches, the opportunities for the majority of prisoners to hear music were very limited. For a while Laks alternated Sunday performances with the Birkenau women’s orchestra, and occasionally some prisoners would be invited to attend smaller concerts. One year at Christmas, Laks was given the assignment of playing carols for sick women in the infirmary. Overwhelmed by the stench, hardly able to breathe, he and his musicians struck up a Christmas carol. The women began to weep, and soon began to scream, yelling at them to leave and let them die in peace. Deeply troubled, Laks said that he 'did not know that a carol could give so much pain'.
The orchestra was also required to give regular Sunday afternoon concerts of light music and to play at formal camp visits or private SS gatherings. On other occasions, SS men would bring to the band their favourite songs and marches and order them to prepare them. It was painful for Laks to see time and again that
when an SS-man listened to music, especially of the kind he really liked, he somehow became strangely similar to a human being … at such moments the hope stirred in us that maybe everything was not lost after all. Could people who love music to this extent, people who can cry when they hear it, be at the same time capable of committing so many atrocities on the rest of humanity? There are realities in which one cannot believe.
In the autumn of 1944, the musicians were transported to Sachsenhausen for a short time, and then to Dachau. In April 1945, the prisoners were sent on a death march, marching for three days until their guards fled. Finally, on 3 May 1945, the Americans arrived. By 18 May, Laks was back in Paris, where he acquired French citizenship in 1947, and lived until his death in 1983. In France, he became a successful composer, writing orchestral, vocal and chamber works. In his compositions, he frequently worked to unite Polish musical traditions, French chansons and Jewish folk sounds. His memoir, written with Rene Coudy, was originally published in 1948 in Paris as Musiques d’un autre monde (published in English as Music from Another World) and remains one of the most important and disturbing accounts of music in the Nazi camps.
Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heister, H., Zenck, C.M. & Petersen, P. eds., Musik im Exil: Folgen des Nazismus für die Internationale Musikkultur, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.
Laks, S., 1989. Music of Another World, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Rosen, P., 2002. Bearing witness: a resource guide to literature, poetry, art, music, and videos by Holocaust victims and survivors, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.