Opened in August 1940 as a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen, located near a stone quarry in lower Silesia, the concentration camp Gross-Rosen was to expand into a large camp complex with a vast network of its own sub-camps. The approximately 26,000 women kept here made it a labour camp with one of the highest concentrations of female prisoners. While conditions in the women’s camps were marginally better than those in the men’s camps, women were also forced to carry out difficult physical labour, in factories, construction and agriculture. In total, approximately 40,000 people died here, the majority of them Jews. Of those who did survive, the most famous were those saved by Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman who saved the lives of many of those he hired to work at his munitions factory, and who were eventually deported to a Gross-Rosen sub-camp. The SS began evacuating Gross-Rosen in the winter of 1944, and many thousands died during the death marches. The camp was liberated by the Soviets in February 1945.
Music was part of daily life in Gross-Rosen. Frequently on Sundays there were performances incorporating theatrical skits and music. These variety shows were often accompanied by a three-piece band and a singer. Despite the context, these concerts were enormously popular with the prisoner audience. There is also evidence that the SS ordered cultural events for the purpose of distracting the camp population. One forced concert took place on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1943, when
all the prisoners had to come in off the street into their barracks. In our room the block elder ordered us to cover the windows and to sing loudly ... as it became dark and we were allowed to stop singing, we opened the curtains and saw tongues of flame rising from the crematorium chimney. One could smell the odour of burnt flesh. The next morning the rumour spread throughout camp that two truckloads of Polish partisans had been brought to the camp and liquidated.
This use of music to conceal the horrors of the camp continued until the war’s end.