The prisoners' orchestra in Buchenwald concentration camp, 1941 – Apr 11, 1945. USHMM (85881), courtesy of Gedenkstaette Buchenwald.

Buchenwald, one of the largest and oldest Nazi camps, held tens of thousands of prisoners from dozens of nations by the time it was liberated by the Americans on 11 April 1945.  Originally built as a place to house German political prisoners, it eventually expanded to be a vast labour camp complex, with many satellite camps and extension units.  The first group of prisoners was brought there in July 1937, and by the war's end, over 50,000 people had died in Buchenwald and its sub-camps, the victims of starvation, overwork, SS executions and medical experiments.  Buchenwald was also one of the first camps to hold thousands arrested solely for being Jewish: many of the Jewish men rounded up during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom were sent here.  Despite the horrors associated with the name, for some former prisoners it is the remarkable variety of music that they remember best. One survivor recalled

the music of the songs of Zarah Leander, whom the SS put on the camp loudspeakers at every opportunity.  The infectious and martial music that the Buchenwald orchestra played morning and evenings on the central roll call plaza, and during the departure and arrival of the work commandos.  And also the illegal music, by means of which our world was brought into contact with freedom: the classical music, that would sound some evenings in a basement of the Effektenkammer from a string quartet led by Maurice Hewitt; jazz music by a orchestra founded by Jiri Zak.

Over the course of its existence the camp held many well-known figures of the German entertainment world, including Jura Soyfer, Hermann Leopoldi, Fritz Löhner-Beda and Paul Morgan.  

Although the vast majority of Buchenwald inmates were not exposed to much of this music, daily life at the camp over its eight years of existence saw an unusual amount of cultural activity.  There is an odd sort of appropriateness to this, as the camp was constructed only five miles north of the city of Weimar, the cultural centre of Germany and symbol of that nation’s long tradition of literary and musical excellence.

The most common musical experience at Buchenwald was SS-organised musical torture, which was a part of every inmate’s daily life.  The most ubiquitous form was forced mass singing. As thousands of exhausted inmates gathered for evening roll call, the camp commander would insist that they all sing in unison, on key and loudly.  One former inmate recalled,

how could [this] singing ever go right?  We were a chorus of ten thousand men.  Even in normal conditions, and if all singers had really known how to sing, it would have required several weeks of training.  And how were we to get over the laws of acoustics?  The mustering-ground measured three hundred paces or more across.  Hence the voices of the men on the far side of the ground were bound to reach [camp commander] Rödl’s ear almost a second later than those of the men near the gate.

This singing was also an opportunity for the guards to humiliate and arbitrarily punish prisoners.

Early on, the camp leadership organised a competition for the best camp song.  Ironically, the winning song, which became the official camp song the ‘Buchenwaldlied’ (Buchenwald song), was as much loved by the prisoners as by the guards who forced them to sing it.  Set to an energetic march, its rousing chorus focused on the inevitable freedom that awaited them beyond the camp walls.  For many of the prisoners, singing the song felt like an act of resistance:

the camp leader walked through the camp and whoever wasn’t singing loudly enough or at least didn’t open his mouth wide enough while singing was beaten ... But the Buchenwald song also brought us a little pleasure, for it was our song.  When we sang “then once will come the day when we are free” that was itself a demonstration, that sometimes even the SS officers noticed and then it could cost us a meal (as punishment).

As was the case in most Nazi camps, the prisoners were treated differently according to their status in Nazism's racial hierarchy.  Jews were always at the bottom of the pile, and treated accordingly.  A unique aspect of this abuse at Buchenwald was the institution of the ‘Judenlied’ (Jew Song).  This grotesque paean to antisemitism was written by a German prisoner who wanted to gain favour with the SS.  After roll call the Jewish prisoners were occasionally told to remain behind and sing the song over and over again, for hours on end.  When Buchenwald hosted important visitors, the camp prisoners were often required to sing, and the Jews in particular were commanded to perform songs about Jewish conspiracy and hooked noses.  There were many other examples of punishments meted out to the Jewish prisoners. In December 1938, for example, several Jewish men were gathered in the main square.  The band was forced to play music until the men fell; they were then forced to waltz on their knees, and when they were no longer able to move, they were whipped in time to the music.

Not only Jews experienced these sorts of horrors.  Camp commander Rödl stationed a singer next to his various torture devices, and forced him to sing as people were being whipped.  When the mass murder of Soviet POWs was going on, the camp administration often used music to mask the event.  On one occasion, the entire camp was forced to sing while the POWs were being shot.  The camp guards also made frequent use of the radio and loudspeaker system of the camp, whether to broadcast their arbitrary orders, Nazi propaganda or ‘Germanic’ music.

Particularly in the early years of the camp’s existence, the only music permitted was that of the roll call singing, and the various other forms of musical torture.  Nonetheless, from the camp’s inception the prisoners there engaged in a wide variety of clandestine musical activities. One of the first bands was formed by Jewish prisoners, as the former inmate Carlebach recalled:

one evening, exhausted, filthy, some of us covered in blood, dragged in from labour, we stood frozen in shock.  On two shoved-together tables, between the bare barracks walls, sat four of our comrades playing Mozart.  Only someone who has experienced the horrors of Buchenwald can understand what an impact that had.  And this impact was unbelievable; people who had stood on the edge of suicide found themselves again, discovered some courage and confidence.

The group was discovered, however, and duly punished for its illegal activity.  Soviet POWs also managed to organise musical entertainment for themselves and fellow inmates.  They held cultural evenings to celebrate special holidays, and sang folk songs.  The many political prisoners in Buchenwald also sang together the songs of communist youth and labour movements.  One particularly memorable musical program was the 18 September 1944 memorial concert for Ernst Thaelmann, who had been the leader of the German Communist Party before the Nazi rise to power.  Thaelmann had been killed in Buchenwald in August. A month after his death, Communist and political prisoners organised a secret performance with lectures, music, poems, and songs about him and his cause.

Soon after opening the camp, the SS at Buchenwald organised the establishment of a camp orchestra.  The original band was made up of a group of Roma and Sinti together with a Czech clarinetist.  As was the case at other camps, the orchestra played at the camp gates in the mornings and evenings as inmates marched to and from their forced labour assignments.  The musicians were eventually granted freedom from other work commandos, and a designated room to practise in. However, the SS liked to spend their leisure time there, and would often barrage them with requests.  When visitors came, the band sometimes had to play in order to cover up the punishment of prisoners, or to serve as an advertisement for the good treatment of the Buchenwald inmates.  The most important change for the Buchenwald orchestra was the appointment of Vlastimil Louda as central bandmaster.  Under his leadership, the band increased in size, its repertoire expanded, and the quality of performance improved dramatically.  In addition to the main camp orchestra, there were several smaller ensembles that played in Buchenwald, including a jazz orchestra and several string quartets.

In the camp's later years, variety show performances were also staged for the prisoners.  These concerts, usually made up of singing, music, skits and jokes, took place on Sundays.  There were over 25 such concerts, and the hall was always packed; not only the prisoners, but the guards and the camp commander attended.  Members of the bands and string quartets participated, as did many other musicians and singers.

Buchenwald was liberated by American troops on 11 April 1945.  By this point, many thousands of prisoners had already been evacuated on death marches.   Until the last inmates left the camp, it was temporarily designated a Displaced Person’s Camp.  During that time the US Army withdrew from the area, and at the beginning of July 1945 the camp was evacuated and given over to the Soviet troops.

Inside page of the January 1946, no. 1 issue of the Yiddish DP newspaper, 'Buchenwald: Bulletin of the Buchenwald Youth in France.' The column on the left is entitled, 'Our Lives'. At the bottom is a poem called 'The Song of Buchenwald' (translated into Yiddish), sung by all the Buchenwald internees. [Photograph #44247]

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