Little potato, little potato, how everybody loves you! / When I see you, at once I must smile / Monday, Tuesday they lie in our bowls / seven times a week they are available / One man, he swallows them with a wild rage / Another, he nibbles them under his blanket / Oh little potato, little potato …. potatoes are the saviour of the camp.

This ditty was created by the Czech musician and entertainer Jan Vala, whose ability to laugh at the horrors and deprivation of camp life endeared him to his fellow prisoners in Sachsenhausen.  Years after the war, as he remembered his years in the camp, he was struck by the way in which the inmates

placed our faith and our desire for freedom into our singing. These little songs, they were our prayer, they strengthened and invigorated everyone whose heads were hanging and who had lost all hope.

Vala was a self-taught guitarist, singer and composer.  He had been the owner of a popular bar in Ostravia, where he had entertained his patrons with comedy sketches and musical performances.  Well known throughout the region for his skill, it was not until the German occupation of his homeland that Vala’s work became explicitly political.  At that point, disregarding the warnings of his many friends, he developed an extensive repertoire of aggressively anti-fascist songs and jokes.  Many of his pieces pointedly mocked Hitler, mentioning him by name.

In the tense atmosphere of occupied Czechoslovakia, Vala was doomed to be caught.  He was arrested on 4 September 1939, at the age of 41, and placed in a local jail.  This was the beginning of 2,060 days spent in German prisons and camps.   During his early imprisonment he was subjected to numerous interrogations regarding his leftist politics and his anti-fascist friends.  He refused to divulge any names, however, and as punishment for his lack of co-operation was sent to Sachsenhausen.

When he arrived at the camp, he was assigned to Block 26, along with 130 other prisoners from Ostravia; with them were many German Communists.  Vala had already developed the sense for political musical comedy that was to be his trademark throughout his years of imprisonment. One of his many stops on the way to Sachsenhausen had been a detention in a 60-person cell in Vienna, where prisoners kept up their spirits by singing patriotic songs and staging political sketches for one another.  Vala had found the ideal context for his entertaining skills, and developed his famous parody piece, ‘When I Get Out of My Arrest’, which was to become a hit in Sachsenhausen as well.

Vala was convinced of music’s ability to restore morale amongst the prisoners, and to remind them that there was a world outside the camp. He would frequently burst into songs of solidarity, or perform a parody of Hitler or the SS.  He later recalled:

We sang so emotionally that the old German professional criminals laid their heads in their hands and tears ran over their cheeks; then they gave us cigarettes, bread, money, and served us from their ample supplies, won through their connections to the SS men.

Vala took his guitar with him even when he was sent on a death march to Pomerania at the end of April 1945.  Remarkably, he survived.

Sources

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