Official Camp Orchestras in Auschwitz

[...] and for the first time, since I entered the camp the reveille catches me in a deep sleep and its ringing is a return from nothingness. As the bread is distributed, one can hear, far from the windows, in the dark air, the band beginning to play; the healthy comrades are leaving in squads for work. One cannot hear the music well from Ka-Be [Krankenbau or inmate infirmary].  The beating of the big drums and the cymbals reach us continuously and monotonously, but on this weft the musical phrases weave a pattern only intermittently, according to the caprices of the wind. We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal. The tunes are few, a dozen, the same ones every day, morning and evening: marches and popular songs dear to every German. They lie engraven on our minds and will be the last thing in Lager that we shall forget; they are the voice of the Lager, the perceptible expression of its geometrical madness, of the resolution of others to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards. When this music plays, we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills [...]

Primo Levi’s words emphatically remind us that music was deliberately exploited as part of the terror of the Nazi camps.  Yet besides singing on command, which dominated everyday life in the camps, official camp orchestras became a kind of unmistakable musical sign of some camps.  Sometimes there were several ensembles in one place, such as in Auschwitz.

Official Camp Orchestras

Official camp orchestras included amateur as well as professional musicians, and were ordered or tolerated by the camp administration. The first band in Auschwitz was created on SS orders in December 1940.  As a result, seven musicians had their instruments (violin, percussion, double-bass, accordion, trumpet, saxophone) forwarded from their homes to the camp and began rehearsals on 6 January 1941 in Block 24 of the main camp.  This ensemble grew rapidly with the permission of the camp authorities, and was divided into a symphony orchestra with up to 80 players and a brass band with about 120 musicians.  Following the model of the main camp, bands were subsequently formed in the Birkenau women‘s camp, the men’s camp, the 'Gypsy' camp and the Theresienstadt family camp as well as in Monowitz and in some sub-camps. These were usually medium-sized brass bands with strings and existed for several months and even years.  The orchestra in the women’s camp at Birkenau –- the only women’s camp orchestra –- has become known to a broader public through Fania Fenelon’s controversial memoirs and the related film Playing for Time

The repertoire of prisoner bands throughout the Auschwitz camp complex included –- in addition to special camp compositions –- all forms of contemporary musical life: marches, songs, parlour music, light music, dance music, hit-tunes, film and operetta melodies, classical music and excerpts from opera, as for example, the hit tune 'The best times of my life', Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony, or Henryk Krol’s 'Arbeitslagermarsch' (Concentration Camp Labour March), which was composed in Auschwitz.  Each respective programme was determined above all by the interest of the camp authorities and the function allotted to each orchestra, as well as to the level of the orchestra, its personnel and its rehearsal possibilities. On the one hand, camp commandants officially created prisoner orchestras because they had seen one in another concentration camp, and thus also wanted to have their 'own' prisoner band, for the sake of prestige as well as enthusiasm for culture.  On the other hand, camp administrations could employ an ensemble in numerous ways in daily camp operations.  To be sure, the support of a camp band required substantial organisational outlay, since scores, instruments and other assistance had to be obtained, rehearsal rooms provided and talented musicians and conductors identified among the prisoners.  Since musicians from a camp band were usually concentrated in a special labour crew with common quarters, they enjoyed certain ‘privileges’ with respect to housing, forced labour, and rations, in comparison with other inmates.  They thus were situated in the upper echelons of the prisoner hierarchy.

The Purpose of These Bands

One of the most important uses of official camp orchestras was as evident in Primo Levi’s quote the coordination of the marching labour commandos to the inexorable rhythm of the music, which many inmates sensed only subliminally because of exhaustion and apathy. Krystyna Zywulska explained:

we often returned from the field with a comrade‘s corpse in our arms and had to march to the beat of the music with our left leg.

In contrast to this, Franz Danimann described how the Leonore overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio, performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive:

I was aware of the similarity of our situation to Florestan’s in the last act. He should have died as witness to Pizarro’s misdeeds, just as the SS pursued the destruction of the prisoners.  But the music warned us not to despair and lose hope.

The use of incidental and background music for public punishments and executions was a demonstration of unlimited SS power. The trumpeter Herman Sachnowitz, among others, described his duties in Monowitz as follows:

Every morning we played as the inmate work crews departed; the same in the evening, when they returned to the camp [...].  We also played on other occasions, especially during executions, which usually occurred on Sunday afternoons or evenings [...]. Perhaps they intended to drown out the last protests and final curses with music.  A grotesque spectacle that had been ordered at the highest level.  And the SS men surrounded us with loaded weapons.

Additional assignments for camp bands included appearances for ceremonial obligations, such as Nazi holidays or inspections tours.  In the main camp, the band performed for the entertainment of camp commandant SS-Obersturmführer Rudolf Höss, but on some Sundays also for the inmates, if the prisoners were not using these few work-free hours for physical recovery or did not reject this imposed cultural entertainment.  In addition to such public concerts, some prisoners participated at band rehearsals and other semi-official offerings.  This example reveals that official bands provided important stimuli to the self-initiated musical life in the camps, especially for instrumental music, since additional and sometimes clandestine music groups could be created near official bands, simplifying the multiple use of musical instruments.

Members of the camp bands were also required to play unofficial private performances for the guards. Helena Dunicz-Niwinska, for example, often received the command, in the evening, that the Birkenau women’s orchestra assemble for a performance in the SS barrack overseer’s guardhouse. Then 'the connoisseurs among the SS-ranks, arriving after the selection, listened to works by Grieg, Schumann, and Mozart, in order to relax.'  Although the upper ranks of Auschwitz personnel were musically literate and especially interested in classical music, the lower ranks organised musical entertainment from small ensembles picked from the official orchestras or chose individual inmates as compliant musical slaves, to supplement their drinking-bouts, orgies and parties. The other prisoners often looked on inmate musicians with envy and contempt.  But in the extreme camp situation, musical knowledge was useful for obtaining extra food rations as appreciation for performing for the SS, 'VIPs' and influential prisoner functionaries. Members of the camp band in Auschwitz I, for example, formed a small jazz combo of Dutch jazz and dance musicians around the trumpeter Lex van Weren, as he recalled in a letter.  They performed spontaneously in many prisoner barracks from September 1944 until the camp was evacuated on 18 January 1945:

We went to various barracks and then played for the other prisoners. We received bread, wurst, and jam from the prominent prisoners and sometimes we also got cigarettes, which we could exchange for other items.

In Birkenau, inmate musicians were compelled to fulfil repulsive tasks, which left an indelible sense of guilt and depression among many surviving musicians. Camp bands were sometimes required to play adjacent to the railway platform during selections in order to deceive new arrivals. Erika Rothschild recalled being

driven from the cattle cars and lined up [...]. In addition, a band, consisting of the best inmate musicians, played, and depending on the origins of the transport, they performed Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music.  The band played, the SS tormented, and there was no time to think [...] one person was driven into camp, the other to the crematorium.

Helena Dunicz-Niwinska, a member of the Birkenau women‘s orchestra, described the reactions of newly arrived prisoners: 'Frequently someone listened avidly to the sounds of music, someone often reached their hand across [...].' However, not all the newly-arriving prisoners were deceived by this musical 'welcome greeting'. It also remains clear that the arrival of new transports, the selections or the walk into the gas chamber were not as a matter of principle accompanied by music, but only occasionally.


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