Over the past two decades, the public has started to become aware of music-making in Nazi concentration camps. This is primarily due to contemporary performances of ghetto and Konzentrationslagern (KZ, or concentration camp) songs and of compositions from Theresienstadt, such as the 1975 premiere performance of Viktor Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder der Tod dankt ab (The Emperor from Atlantis or Death Abdicates) in Amsterdam. It also owes to the memoirs of musician survivors, as well as to films such as Daniel Monn’s Playing for Time (1980) and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). It is little known, however, that music of all types, styles and genres formed a fundamental component of life in the concentration camps, including the death camps. This begs the questions of how music could be created at all under these circumstances and what functions and meanings music served in the camps.
Music on Command
From the time the first concentration camps were established in 1933, camp guards routinely ordered detainees to sing while marching or exercising or during punishment actions. This was done to mock, humiliate and discipline the prisoners. As Eberhard Schmidt experienced in Sachsenhausen, inmates who disobeyed the rules or who incorrectly carried them out ('In even steps! March! Sing!') gave the SS an excuse for arbitrary beatings:
Those who didn’t know the song were beaten. Those who sang too softly were beaten. Those who sang too loudly were beaten. The SS men inflicted savage beatings.
Mostly the prisoners were forced to perform Nazi group- and soldiers’ songs, as well as SS folk songs and marches. In addition, they had to sing songs of symbolic value to individual detainee groups in order to humiliate them. For example, communists and social democrats were ordered to sing labour movement songs; those who were religious were ordered to sing religious songs relating to their denomination.
Music from radio broadcasts or record players was played over loudspeakers Sonic torture at Dachauinstalled in some camps. In addition to propaganda speeches, military marches and 'German' music, in 1933-1934 the guards at Dachau played Richard Wagner’s music in order to 're-educate' political opponents. At Buchenwald, established in 1937, loudspeakers broadcast nightly concerts from German radio, depriving prisoners of sleep. Additionally, march music was played to drown out the sounds of executions.
At the camp command’s direction, musical ensembles were formed of imprisoned professional and amateur musicians. Prisoner choirs were prevalent particularly during the early years of the camp system, while after the war’s outbreak inmate bands shaped the musical life of the larger concentration camps. The first of these official camp orchestras already existed in 1933, for example in the early concentration camps of Duerrgoy, Oranienburg, Sonnenburg, and probably also in Hohnstein. After the reorganization of the camp system – when the first generation of concentration camps was dissolved (with the exception of Dachau) and after 1936 replaced by new, larger ones – there were prisoner orchestras (still before the war) in Sachsenhausen (as a continuation of the band at Esterwegen), Buchenwald and Dachau. With the expansion of the camp system and the founding of a satellite system of subcamps, official orchestras existed in almost all of the main concentration camps, larger subcamps and in some death camps. Sometimes there were several ensembles in one place, such as in Auschwitz, among them a brass band comprising 120 musicians and a symphony orchestra with 80 musicians. Their repertoire included marches, camp anthems, salon music, easy-listening and dance music, popular songs, film and operetta melodies, opera excerpts, and classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. On various occasions new compositions and original arrangements were created, such as, in Auschwitz, Mieczyslaw Krzynski’s and Henryk Krol’s 'Arbeitslagermarsch' (Concentration camp labour march). And while, according to Benedikt Kautsky, German military marches were prohibited, 'one was not nitpicky in the Buchenwald KZ, Auschwitz, where you could hear several old Prussian formal marches.'
The repertoire of the official camp orchestras depended on the preferences of the SS, on their musical sophistication, and on the occasions when the ensembles would perform. Inmate bands performed not only Sunday concerts for culturally-minded SS officers, but also – with the officers’ approval – for fellow inmates. During camp inspections, proud commanders showed off the ensembles as 'special attractions' and as proof of 'their' camp’s exemplary performance. The musicians’ main duties, however, were to provide background music for incoming and outgoing work commandos at the camp gates, and to perform music to accompany executions that were staged, as a deterrent, before the entire camp population. In the death camps, particularly Birkenau, the prisoner orchestras performed under the most inhuman of circumstances, something that caused some surviving musicians to experience feelings of guilt and depression for the rest of their lives. Some bands had to play in connection with the so-called selection process: this was supposed to deceive the newly-arriving prisoners into thinking that they did not face immediate death. A few orchestra members even had to play near the crematorium at the command of the SS. It remains clear, however, that the arrival of new transports, the selections or the walk into the gas chamber were not as a matter of principle accompanied by music, but only occasionally.
Finally camp bands and other inmate musicians were summoned to play for the guards’ private entertainment. On the one hand, the musicians were granted a special status that offered them some protection against arbitrary acts, as well as privileges essential for survival: 'milder' work assignments, better clothing or additional food rations. In this sense, making music served as a survival strategy. On the other hand, the closeness between the musicians and the perpetrators led to self-accusations, to the envy of fellow inmates, and to a dangerously dependent relationship with the SS.
Music Initiated by the Prisoners
In contrast to the previously mentioned examples of forced music-making, the detainees also played and composed music on their own initiative, for themselves and their fellow inmates. Here, music served as a cultural survival technique and as a means of psychological resistance: it helped overcome the life-threatening situation at the camp and assisted in alleviating the terror. Simple humming or whistling could combat fear and loneliness in solitary confinement. Music helped inmates retain their identity and traditions, counteracting the SS’s destructive intention, which was directed not only towards the prisoners’ physical existence, but also towards their culture.
Prisoners played music for themselves even in the early concentration camps. However, there were only a few instrumental groups at that time. Group, solo and unaccompanied singing of various songs the inmates brought into the camps was predominant. The first camp songs Lagerlieder (camp songs) and KZ-Hymnen (concentration camp anthems), like the well-known 'Moorsoldatenlied' (Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers) were written by the inmates. These songs could be sung at any time and required little practice or preparation. Group singing sessions produced a sense of companionship and belonging. In the initial phases of the camp system, the dominant styles were amateur music from the youth and blue-collar movements, because most of the prisoners at that time were political opponents of the Nazis. During these initial years, professional musicians were the exception. Starting in 1939, after the beginning of World War II, the level of musical skills and diversity expanded. From that point on, more and more prisoners from various countries and social classes were deported to the camps, among them a higher percentage of professional musicians, artists and intellects. The increase in the number of prisoners also expanded the scope of musical events, and the different national traditions reflected by the inmates began to enhance musical life at the camps.
Musical activities were at their most widespread from 1942-43 onwards. During this period, prison labor was used in the arms industry, and on 15 May 1943 the SS granted a Prämiensystem (bonus system). At the same time, the concentration camp system expanded with the building of satellite camps. In connection with the Prämiensystem this brought the prisoners certain 'privileges' from the SS. These concessions, of course, were designed primarily to increase the work output and to forestall disturbances – and in any case affected predominantly German inmates, prisoner functionaries, and 'prominents.' However, as a result of such concessions, it became easier to procure instruments and sheet music from outside, create camp songs or other compositions, set up a few musical groups, give concerts, and organize such other cultural events as theatre or cabaret performances.
Contrary to widespread opinion, these activities were illegal only in some instances, not all. When the music was linked to political or other forbidden content, it was illegal: in these instances one could only play secretly and under fear of discovery. For instance, on 7 November 1933 at Börgemoor, inmates secretly commemorated the 16th anniversary of the October Revolution. Larger musical events (block or camp performances) could only be organized with the approval of the camp director and the support of functionaries. One of the first camp performances was organized by the prisoners on 27 August 1933 at Börgermoor. 'Circus Konzentrazani', planned by the actor Wolfgang Langhoff, was produced in reaction to nightly beatings by the SS. This event encompassed music, humour and artistry as a means of 'general encouragement' to the inmates. The camp guards were also amused by this form of entertainment. During that event the 'Moorsoldatenlied' received its debut performance. In some camps such events were held regularly. At a block in Buchenwald where a cinema had been installed, between August 1943 and December 1944, a total of 27 so-called 'concerts' were held, comprising exhibits, sketches, and artistic performances, as well as cabaret and theatre excerpts performed by various inmate groups. As long as 'normal' camp operations were not affected, other musical activities were either implicitly tolerated by the SS or took place in a semi-legal way.
Within the limited freedom granted by the camp guards and the functionaries, prisoners assembled a wide array of musical shows. Music could only be made during restricted 'leisure time:' that is, after the evening roll-call or on Sundays, which were mostly labour-free. At the main camp in Auschwitz, for example, there were music activities by two vocal quartets and a smaller vocal group, as well as by three choirs. Music was also played by instrumentalists. This occurred in an inhumane atmosphere, unsympathetic to artistic activity and marked by constant hunger, psychological and physical abuse, illness, epidemics, terror, and the fear of death. In contrast to music-making on command, which the inmates had to do almost daily, musical activities carried out on the prisoners’ own initiative formed a highlight of camp life. However, the larger the social differences between the prisoner groups in a camp, the more music played a role in separating the privileged prisoners (i.e. prisoner functionaries, 'prominent' detainees and their closest entourage) from the less privileged. Then most inmates struggled for sheer survival.
Musical life in the concentration and death camps was of a distinctly two-faced nature. On the one hand, music acted as a means of survival for the inmates; on the other hand, it served as an instrument of terror for the SS. Prison personnel abused inmate musicians for their own purposes. With forced daily musical performances they furthered the process of breaking the prisoners’ willpower and of human degradation. Thus music in Nazi camps served as a necessary distraction and method of cultural survival for the victims, and simultaneously as a means of domination for the perpetrators.
Aleksander Kulisiewicz: Musik aus der Hölle. Ed. by Guido Fackler. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007 (in preparation).
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Fackler, Guido: „Des Lagers Stimme” – Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936. Mit einer Darstellung der weiteren Entwicklung bis 1945 und einer Biblio-/Mediographie (DIZ-Schriften, Bd. 11). Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2000.
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Kautsky, Benedikt: Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern. Zürich 1946, quote on 222.
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KZ Musik. Music composed in concentration camps (1933–1945). Dir. by Francesco Lotoro. Rome: Musikstrasse, starting 2006 with 4 CDs (http://www.musikstrasse.it). – This cd-collection tries to record all compositions and songs created in the different nazi camps.
Langhoff, Wolfgang: Die Moorsoldaten. Mit einem Vorwort von Werner Heiduczek. Köln 1988, see 165-186, quote on 165.
Schmidt, Eberhard: Ein Lied – ein Atemzug. Erinnerungen und Dokumente. Gesprächspartner und Hg. Manfred Machlitt. Berlin 1987, quote on 130.
Staar, Sonja: Kunst, Widerstand und Lagerkultur. Eine Dokumentation (Buchenwaldheft 27). Weimar-Buchenwald 1987.