The quarry in the Flossenbuerg concentration camp. USHMM (37268), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

The Flossenbürg concentration camp was built in May 1938 to house 'asocials' and political prisoners.  Located close to the Czech border, the camp was named after a nearby village. The first prisoners were forced to slave under brutal conditions in a granite quarry; as the camp expanded, inmates also worked on military production in surrounding ammunitions and brick factories.

When war broke out in 1939, prisoner numbers increased dramatically, as did the demand for forced labour to satisfy ammunitions demands.  Living in harsh conditions, and forced to do hard physical labour with little food, many prisoners died; in addition, thousands of political prisoners, Soviet POWs and opponents of the regime were executed there.  In the spring of 1945, Flossenbürg was closed down, and thousands of surviving prisoners were sent on a death march.  American troops reached the camp on 23 April 1945.

The international make-up of the camp prisoner population contributed to a rich and diverse musical scene.  Early in 1940, a small group of Czech men began to perform for fellow prisoners.  The prisoners were soon allowed to form an official band, and as the Nazi net expanded across Europe, the band kept expanding.  In 1941 it had 13 stringed instruments, 12 horns, a drum, an accordion and a piano, and included in its ranks several professional musicians and even singers.  Despite this increase in size, the band was constantly limited by the lack of instruments available; this made playing certain repertoire difficult.  It played on Sundays on the main square, in barracks and in the washrooms.  In the summer it played outdoors, and in winter was brought into the laundry, where it gave private concerts for the SS.  Occasionally, the orchestra managed to save the lives of doomed prisoners by claiming that they were much-needed musicians.  These men performed, by orders of the SS, until the last days of the camp’s existence, with regular concerts continuing until March 1945.

From the ranks of the orchestra, several smaller ensembles were also created.  There was a salon orchestra and a brass band, and in 1944 a string quartet was formed.  The star of the quartet was the professional Czech violinist Zdenek Kolarsky; along with two other musicians, a Pole and a Frenchman, he also played for the sick in the infirmary.

A section of the barbed-wire fence and barracks in the Flossenbuerg concentration camp. [Photograph #85898]

Sources

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

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.  

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