When the order came to the Birkenau women’s camp, in the spring of 1943, that a women’s orchestra was to be assembled, Zofia Czajkowska decided to volunteer.  The Polish music teacher had arrived in Auschwitz on 27 April 1942 with a transport from her home town of Tarnow, and had spent her first year at the camp in misery.  Assigned to the most exhausting physical labour, she was in a weak physical and mental state. Although she lacked formal training as a conductor, she was to become the original organiser and conductor of the Birkenau women’s orchestra – the only official all-female musical ensemble to be formed by the Nazis in their vast system of camps, ghettos and prisons.

In addition to her musical background, there were rumours that Czajkowska claimed to be related to Tchaikovsky.  In any case, she won the position of leader of the orchestra.  She was overwhelmed and exhausted by the job, but it also brought with it some privileges.  Faced with the task of assembling an orchestra from nothing, she immediately brought in two women who had arrived in her transport.  In those early weeks, they had only guitar, mandolin and percussion with which to make music, acquiring their limited instruments and sheet music from the men's orchestra of the main Auschwitz camp.  In these early days, the musicians were all assigned to different barracks and work commandos; thus, they all had diverging schedules and could rarely all come together for a complete rehearsal.

The camp functionaries began sending to the conductor all new arrivals who had a musical education, or who could play an instrument.  Nonetheless, the band remained small until, in May, Jews were allowed to be admitted.  The members came from many countries, including Greece, Poland, Germany, the Ukraine and Belgium.  By then, they had a more wide-ranging set of instruments.  The repertoire of the orchestra was fairly limited, in terms of the available sheet music, the knowledge of the conductor and the wishes of the SS.  The orchestra played mostly German marching songs, as well as the Polish folk and military songs that Czajkowska knew by heart.

In June 1943 the orchestra began their primary assignment of playing at the camp gate for the arrival and departure of the female work commandos.  The musicians had to arrive at their positions at the entrance of camp early, in order to set up, and stayed late.  They were also not freed from normal work assignments, nor were they released from musical duty in rain or bad weather.  As they had a very small number of pieces which they were equipped to play, they would simply repeat them over and over as the rows of women prisoners marched by, sometimes playing for several hours.  They also played for sick prisoners in the infirmary, and were sometimes assigned to play when new transports arrived, or during selections.

Czajkowska was clearly dedicated to her orchestra.  She occasionally tried to save women’s lives by accepting them into the orchestra, even if they had inadequate musical ability.   She also did her best to improve the situation of her players, gaining permission for them all to be assigned to Barrack 4, and to easier work assignments.  Despite this, her reputation has been diminished by comparison with her remarkable successor, the violinist and conductor Alma Rosé, who replaced her in August 1943.  At this point, Czajkowska was appointed to being block elder, and helped Rosé to communicate problems with the Polish players, as Rosé did not speak their language.  Certainly, under Czajkowska the orchestra did not reach the level of musical excellence achieved under Rosé.  Nonetheless, after her transfer Czajkowska was remembered by several musicians as a committed leader who did her best to create a musical community in what were practically impossible conditions.

Sources

Knapp, G. (1996). Das Frauenorchester in Auschwitz. Hamburg, von Bockel.

Lasker-Wallfisch, A. (1996). Inherit the Truth 1939-1945. London, Giles de la Mare.

Newman, R. and K. Kirtley (2000). Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz. London, Amadeus Press.