Music in the Bergen-Belsen DP-camp

Following the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, British occupation forces established a Displaced Persons’ (DP) camp for survivors in the nearby barracks of Belsen, which existed until summer 1950. Concerts, theatre, dance, folk music and other genres of entertainment were (to varying degrees) present from the outset. 

By mid-May 1945, members of the British Forces and various aid organisations had already furnished a music room and ensured the procurement of gramophones and other musical instruments. In the summer of 1945, several revue-like events were organized in which a military band and musicians from the DP camp itself participated. These events included choirs and dance groups, a Polish-Czech camp band from the DP camp in Celle, several amateur musicians, as well as the opera singer Eva Stojowska and the violinist Lili Mathé. The programmes had an international character and included Polish dances, partisan songs, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew songs, opera arias and dance music. July 1945 also featured the appearance of several Italian former prisoners of war, the cellist Anita Lasker, and the singer Eva Steiner. Finally, already this early in the history of the DP camp, two foreign guests came to Bergen-Belsen: on 27 July, Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten gave two concerts in the framework of a short tour of the DP camps. 

To this first phase, which one can narrow down to the period between liberation in April 1945 and the first Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone in September 1945, must be added the second phase which lasted until summer 1946. For this phase, no information has survived in regards to musical performances such as those mentioned above. There are several potential reasons for this: a number of musicians active in the early days of the DP camp (which included former members of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau living in Belsen, as well as the above-mentioned Italian prisoners of war), had quickly emigrated. Others, however, following the initial euphoria of liberation, had to adjust to a potentially long stay in the DP camp. To that end, and as a consequence of the Congress in September 1945 and the election of a Central Committee, a phase of consolidation took place in the camp, which included strengthening the internal structures of the camp, for instance by creating a culture division. The Central Committee initiated a different type of cultural life than that which had existed in the camp’s initial months, focused on Jewish interests. By summer 1946, Bergen-Belsen had been transformed into an exclusively Jewish DP camp. 

A special role in this phase of transformation must be attributed to the Kazet-Theater (Concentration Camp Theatre), which reported to the Central Committee. It was headed by the actor and director Sammy Feder, and consisted of up to 50 actors, some of whom had already gathered experience and worked with Feder in the ghetto Bendin and the concentration camp Bunzlau, such as Sonia Boczkowska and Berl Friedler. The Kazet-Theater was initially conceived as a theatre school and held its first performance in September 1945. Until its disbandment in July 1947 following a tour to Belgium and France, the theatre rehearsed a multitude of short sketches as well as two works by Sholem Aleichem. The focus of these programmes, which in keeping with the traditions of Yiddish theatre always included a substantial musical component, was always the ability to deal with the immediate past, persecution, resistance and remembrance.

The year 1946 witnessed an expansion of cultural life in the DP camp. A second theatre group was established, the Yidishe Arbeter-Bine (Yiddish Workers' Stage). Under the management of Abraham Zandman, this group studied five stage plays, taking as a central theme the life of workers from Eastern Europe. The group held close affiliations to the socialist-Zionist party ‘Left Poale Zion’, and toured other DP camps along with a small, six-piece musical ensemble.

Alongside the Kazet-Theater and the Yidishe Arbeter-Bine, numerous theatre and cabaret groups worked and performed in Belsen, although they were generally short-lived: a theatre group of Polish displaced persons; a literary-musical group in which cantor Moshe Kraus, Mair-Ber Gutman, and Moshe Sanke were involved; a theatre group of camp residents organised by the actor Herman Shertser; the Amatorn Grupe, which belonged to the organisations Agudath Israel and Mizrachi. In addition to these theatre groups, two orchestras were formed in the camp: the orchestra of HaOved (The Worker), and the Yidisher Amatorn-Orkester (Jewish Amateurs’ Orchestra). 

Formal concerts organised by the DPs themselves were relatively few; most musical performances were part of larger events that took place for religious or political reasons. During funeral ceremonies, the prayer ‘El male rachamim’ played a vital role, as did Frédéric Chopin’s Funeral March, probably owing to the Polish heritage of many DPs. Many events ended in the singing of the ‘Hatikva’, whereas songs such as ‘Zog nit keynmol’ and ‘Es brent’ were sung at political demonstrations, along with the Zionist ‘Tech’zakna’ and the ‘Internationale’. Apart from these occasions, programmes were varied and contained works of classical-romantic origin and particularly religious songs and folk music, choir music and dance music. Recitations and scenic presentations were also popular. 

Concerts in the narrower sense were generally performed by prominent visiting artists. Apart from the above-mentioned concerts of Menuhin and Britten, the next concerts of foreign artists can only be confirmed for summer 1946. Josef Butterman, under the leadership of Günther Weißenborn, organised two concerts by a symphony orchestra from Hanover with the violinist Wolfgang Marschner, performances of the operetta Viennese Blood and most notably the opera Madame Butterfly. A classical chamber music evening was organised with the violinist Prof. Hayas and the pianist Oskar Michaelson, and another by Diana BlumenfeldJonas Turkov and Dydio Epsztein with Yiddish songs and recitations. These performances were followed by several concerts by the American singer Herman Yablokoff, accompanied by Tanya Grosman, a performance by singer Irene de Nuarei, as well as Josef Schreier with his music, song, and dance group in summer and autumn 1947. 1948 saw a concert of the pianist Michael Taube and the singer Elsa Jülich-Taube, who returned to Germany from Palestine and performed alongside survivor Lev Aronson (cello). In the same year, several musical evenings took place with Reyne Simon, Lola Folman and Khayele Rozental.

In the final phase of its existence, few artists came to the DP camp. In 1949, we know only of the performance of Niusia Gold together with pianist Sheynshneyder, and in 1950 the performance of the former Kazet-Theater member Sonia Boczkowska who, travelling from Paris, performed with composer Henech Kon. In addition, throughout the years, several theatres from other DP camps toured through Bergen-Belsen, as did the well-known comedy duet, Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumakher. 

The theatrical and musical performances in the DP camp Bergen-Belsen were not without contention. Discussions regarding quality, repertoire, origins of the artists and order of appearances abounded. These disputes and discussions reinforce the significance of music and theatre and their performances. They also reveal that the DPs perceived music and musicians as an object of identification. While preparing for emigration to Palestine and other countries, music and theatre linked them to a world that no longer existed.

By Sophie Fetthauer

Sources

Archive

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Rosensaft-Archiv (YV 0-70).

Newspapers

Unzer Sztyme (Our Voice), Zentralkomitee der befreiten Juden in der britischen Zone (Hg.), Nr. 1, 12. Juli 1945 – Nr. 24, 30. Okt. 1947.

Vokhnblat (Jewish Weekly), Zentralkomitee der befreiten Juden in der britischen Zone (Hg.), Jg. 1, Nr. 1, 5. Dez. 1947 – Jg. 4, Nr. 9/80, 18. Aug. 1950.

Secondary literature

Fetthauer, Sophie: „Musik im DP-Camp Bergen-Belsen und ihre Rolle bei der Identitätsfindung der jüdischen Displaced Persons“, in: Musikwelten – Lebenswelten. Jüdische Identitätssuche in der deutschen Musikkultur, Beatrix Borchard, Heidy Zimmermann (Hg.) (= Reihe Jüdische Moderne, Bd. 9, Alfred Bodenheimer und Jacques Picard (Hg.)), Köln, Weimar: Böhlau, 2009, S. 365-379.

Königseder, Angelika; Wetzel, Juliane: Lebensmut im Wartesaal. Die jüdischen DPs (Displaced Persons) im Nachkriegsdeutschland, Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1994.

Yantian, Nicholas: „’Aus der Versteinerung heraustreten’ – Das ‚Kazet-Theater’ im jüdischen ‚Displaced Persons’-Lager Bergen-Belsen, 1945-1947, in: Im Schatten des Holocaust. Jüdisches Leben in Niedersachsen nach 1945, Arbeitskreis Geschichte des Landes Niedersachsen (nach 1945), Herbert Obenaus (Hg.), Hannover: Hahn, 1997, 131-163.