One of the most pernicious techniques of the Nazi machinery of genocide was the policy of Vernichtung durch Arbeit (Extermination through Work), intended to combine mass killing with the economic and military strengthening of the Reich. Countless labour and concentration camps were established where prisoners were forced to build military equipment, work for local factories or farms, or construct and maintain the camps themselves. One of the most notorious was Mauthausen, together with its network of sub-camps.

The first camp to be built outside of the boundaries of Germany, Mauthausen was created shortly after the Anschluss in March 1938, near a stone quarry three miles from the small town of Mauthausen in upper Austria.  Construction began in the summer and the first inmates were transferred there soon after. During the first year of operation, most of the prisoners were criminals and ‘asocials’, moved here from Dachau to fulfill the Reich’s vastly increasing demand for granite.  By December 1939, there were close to 3,000 prisoners, almost all German, and the camp population was to increase dramatically with the beginning of the war.

Dozens of smaller sub-camps were created around the main camp, in an attempt to deal with the huge influx of prisoners.  In addition to large numbers of Spanish republican prisoners of war (who had fled to France and were seized under the Vichy regime) and transfers from German camps, there came increasing numbers of Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks and French prisoners, as well as members of the Polish resistance.  A separate section of the camp housed Soviet POWs who flooded the camp after the Hitler-Stalin Pact was broken. For the early years of its operation, there were relatively few Jewish prisoners; it was not until the spring of 1944, when evacuations of camps in the east began, that the numbers began to increase. By the time of the camp’s liberation on 5 May 1945 by the Americans, approximately 200,000 prisoners had entered the camp, and 119,000 had died, of them around 38,000 Jews.

Given the conditions at Mauthausen, it is remarkable that there was a distinct musical world there as well.  In the early years of the camp, the generally hopeless atmosphere was augmented by an official prohibition on prisoner conversation, to say nothing of music-making.  In these years, public musical performances were almost entirely limited to various forms of musical torture: one former inmate, for example, remembered being forced to sing ‘O head full of blood and wounds’ as he was being beaten by the SS.  As in many other Nazi camps, prisoners who attempted to escape were often led to their execution by a band; accordions and violins would play the light-hearted melody ‘All the Little Birds are Already Here’. In addition, the camp commander allowed a few Roma and Sinti to perform when important guests came.

As the war progressed and German victories increased, conditions improved slightly and prisoners were allowed to sleep longer and talk more freely.  Singing was allowed, and eventually prisoners were permitted to send home for instruments.  In 1942, several Roma and Sinti put together a band that performed for other prisoners.  The camp commander decided, however, that the camp needed its own ‘real orchestra’, and replaced this band with classically-trained musicians, primarily from Poland and Czechoslovakia.  The original order came to a kapo in the summer of 1942; he selected a Czech musician to build a band out of seven Czech musicians, all of whom worked together in a construction commando.  The band quickly grew, and by 1943 it had 30 members, a year later over 60.  The musicians were often given ‘privileged’ work assignments in disinfection, which allowed them to smuggle clothing and goods for needy prisoners.  Playing at birthday parties and private celebrations also gave some band members extra rations or other privileges.  At its concerts, almost exclusively attended by the staff and elites of the camp, the band played works by Beethoven, Schubert, Smetana and Bruckner, as well as by other popular classical composers.

Hans Bonerawitz (on the wagon) was recaptured after escape attempts and was condemned to execution, led to the gallows by a band of musicians. Courtesy of Archiv der KZ-Gedenkstaette Mauthausen.

In the early part of 1944, the quality of its performance dramatically improved with the arrival of 20 musicians from the Warsaw Philharmonic. The orchestra was now able to perform complete orchestral works.  Although the orchestra was officially disbanded in the spring of 1944, a visit by Himmler in January 1945 was honoured with a performance.  In addition to this main orchestra, the brass instruments were grouped into a separate brass band that was forced to play in the mornings and evenings at the camp gate as the inmates entered and exited the camp.

Although the concerts of the orchestra were a pleasure almost entirely inaccessible to the prisoners, there were some smaller musical groups that put on small concerts, or toured the barracks. Beginning in the summer of 1943, groups of leftist prisoners organised cultural gatherings of poetry and song.  The same year saw the creation of a 25-man Czech chorus. There was also much performing of Czech resistance songs in barracks and, spontaneously, on the main camp square.  Czech musicians would occasionally visit sick prisoners, and played individually for prisoner birthdays.  There was an international group of musicians that formed a small jazz band in the summer of 1944, as well as a string quartet made up of members of the camp orchestra. In addition, several songs were composed by prisoners in the camp, often describing conditions of daily life.

When the Americans reached the camp on 5 May 1945, the remaining prisoners were almost dead of starvation; many others died in the first weeks after liberation from sickness and malnutrition.  Despite these conditions, the days of liberation at Mauthausen were marked by an explosion of music.  Between 5 and 15 May, concerts took place several times a day, including the assorted national hymns of the many prisoners who had passed through the camp.  On the last night, the hastily assembled orchestra played an excerpt from Beethoven’s Eroica, in memory of those who had died in the camp.

Mauthausen continued to inspire compositions after the war. One of the best-known pieces is the Mauthausen Trilogy by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, based on poems by the former Jewish prisoner Iacovos Kambanellis.  It went on to become popular in Israel, and has been used to promote peace and international co-operation at times of violent conflict.

View of the main gate to the Mauthausen concentration camp, Jul 1945. USHMM (74451), courtesy of Col. P. Robert Seibel.



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Forced laborers work on the stone foundation of the roll call area in Mauthausen. USHMM (11927), courtesy of Archiv der KZ-Gedenkstaette Mauthausen.