Born on 5 August 1907, the Polish musician Adam Kopyciński held the post of conductor of the men’s orchestra in Auschwitz. Kopyciński joined the orchestra in 1942 when it was still being led by Franz Nierychlo. After Nierychlo left to join the German army, the leaderless orchestra held a competition between three Poles who had 'applied' for the prestigious position. Kopyciński had previously led several performances and rehearsals in place of the unpopular Nierychlo, and was well-liked by the other members. He was awarded the position, which he held until the orchestra's dissolution.
The change in leadership worked to the advantage of the musicians, as Kopyciński did his best to improve their situation. One of his greatest successes was obtaining permission to release them from their external work assignments, which allowed them to concentrate on their music-making. During his first year as conductor, the orchestra grew to include 120 members, mostly Poles, Czechs and Soviets. In the autumn of 1944, most of the non-Jewish Polish prisoners were transferred to Germany, but the conductor stayed behind. This deportation left a huge gap in the band, and, under pressure to satisfy the musical demands of the SS, Kopyciński was allowed for the first time to admit Jews. This pared-down orchestra was mainly occupied with playing marching music at the camp gates.
Kopyciński struggled with the moral dilemma of running an orchestra in a death camp. As the man in charge of auditions, he was haunted by the fact that there were always more applicants than there were positions; he knew that rejecting a musician could well mean his death. Moreover, not only selecting members, but also the very playing of music in Auschwitz, was a challenging task. The music itself sometimes offered a sort of temporary comfort to the musicians, and Kopyciński indeed felt that, as the orchestra expanded and improved, it developed a musical dynamic that exceeded the control of the SS. Once, consumed with despair after having been forced to play at an inmate’s execution, he sat down at a piano and pounded out Chopin’s revolutionary etude. However, dangerous as such gestures were, they were of course limited in their impact.
After the war, Kopyciński became a founder and conductor of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Until his death on 3 October 1982, he remembered the men who had played in his orchestra, and the fact that
with those who left us for their eternal rest, you could have built a giant symphony orchestra. And thus we musicians should never forget those who fell at their posts.
Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.
Fackler, G., 2003. “We all feel this Music is infernal ...”: Music on Command in Auschwitz. In D. Mickenberg, C. Granof, & P. Hayes, eds. The Last Expression. Art and Auschwitz. Chicago: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University., pp. 114-125.
Knapp, G., 1996. Das Frauenorchester in Auschwitz, Hamburg: von Bockel.