View of the Ebensee concentration camp, May 1946. USHMM (19426), courtesy of Gisela Wortman.

The labour camp Ebensee has a short but grim history.  One of the sub-camps of Mauthausen, it was opened on 18 November 1943. Of the approximately 27,000 prisoners brought here, more than 8,000 died before the camp’s liberation on 6 May 1945.  The death toll would have been higher, but many mortally ill prisoners were transported to Mauthausen, where 'superior' facilities could 'process' them more efficiently.

The camp was made up of two annexes. The easterly Annexe A was an oil refinery, and the westerly Annexe B was used for the production of tank parts.  The primary labour task of the prisoners, however, was digging out massive tunnels in the surrounding mountains, which were intended to be the underground home for a rocket research centre.  As the blitzkrieg strategy of the early war years lost effectiveness, Nazi military leaders turned to focus on special weapons and secret technology like rockets.  The early prisoners were skilled men between the ages of 20 and 40.  Originally they were mainly Italian and French; later came shipments of Hungarian Jews and Soviet POWs.  Toward the end of the war, prisoners were frequently evacuated here from the east; the camp was continuously being enlarged, right up until the spring of 1945.

Ebensee was home to a strong underground resistance movement, led by an international camp committee founded in the summer of 1944.  Thanks to the group's contacts among the camp staff, the members knew that the Allies were approaching, and collectively resisted an SS plan to send the prisoners into the tunnels and blow them up.  The camp commander and most of the staff fled, leaving the prisoners to be liberated days later.  As was the case at Gusen, liberation brought about a violent prisoners' revolt: former inmates formed revenge groups, lynching dozens of the camp functionaries.

Due to the high mortality rates and inhumane living conditions, there is very limited information about music in Ebensee. We do know, however, that there was some sort of official camp band.  Its members are not known; nor is there much information about spontaneous music-making in the camp.  It seems clear, however, that Jews and Roma and Sinti were treated particularly poorly, and would have had little involvement in these musical activities.  One former inmate remembered the fate of a Jewish musician at the hands of the brutal commander Granz, who randomly

smashed the hand of a violinist from Budapest with a shovel.  When the prisoner pointed out that he needed his hands to play the violin, I heard Granz say: 'You won't need your hands any more, anyway'.

One of the few positive musical scenes to have taken place at Ebensee was at the moment of liberation.  A former prisoner remembered vividly the emotion and the spontaneous singing that accompanied the arrival of the Americans:

We are waiting, the entire camp is waiting for the liberation ... 6 May 1945: finally!  It is exactly 2:45 pm, and a roaring jubilation rings out: the Americans are here ... the different nations have formed small groups now.  From that side we hear the Marseillaise, and over there prisoners of all nations start to sing the international hymn, each in his own language.  The roll call square is filled with people; people who are happy to be free.

Sources

Freund, F., 1990. Konzentrationslager Ebensee: ein Aussenlager des KZ Mauthausen, Vienna: Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes.  

Weinreich, R. ed., 2002. Verachtet, verfolgt, vergessen:Leiden und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas in der Grenzregion am Hochrhein im "Dritten Reich", Hausern: Signum Design.

Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.