Buna-Monowitz, otherwise known as Auschwitz III, was the largest slave labour camp in the Auschwitz complex. Here, hundreds of thousands of prisoners spent weeks or even years working under murderous conditions. Thousands died in the camp itself from the results of forced labour and the inhospitable conditions; thousands more were sent to their deaths in Birkenau. The idea of a large, central work camp to aid the Nazi battle against the Soviet Union had existed since the early months of the war, and Buna-Monowitz opened its gates in the autumn of 1942.
The German company IG Farben had established a large rubber factory near the Polish town Monowice (Monowitz), and the Buna-Monowitz camp was built as a housing facility for the slave labourers of the factory. The prisoners here included Jews and non-Jews from all over Europe.
A camp orchestra was created at Buna during the first months of its operation. The original core of the band was a group of Polish musicians, but inmates of many other nationalities passed through. Initially the musicians were freed from their work assignments and allowed to practise full days, but this soon ended and they were placed back in their regular work assignments. Despite the physical strain of a full work week, often with 12-hour days in addition to daily rehearsals and concerts, the quality of their playing improved. In addition to being forced to play marches at the camp gates during the daily entry and exit of the workers, the musicians were required to give private concerts for the SS. Although they were not applauded by their audience, they would occasionally be rewarded with extra soup or cigarettes.
The musicians were also required to play at camp executions. These would usually be for prisoners who had attempted to escape but had been caught. These men would be draped with signs proclaiming 'Hurray! Hurray! I'm back again,' a slogan they were also forced to shout throughout the camp while beating on a drum. They would be hanged to the accompaniment of the band’s parade music. In his memoirs about his time in the Buna orchestra, the trumpeter Hermann Sachnowitz remembered vividly this
macabre piece of theatre, ordered from the highest level. All around us stood SS soldiers with loaded guns. For us [musicians and prisoners], the cries of the man sentenced to death were the sounds of victory cries.
In addition to the activities of the official orchestra, there was also a range of informal and spontaneous music-making. For example, a group of Jewish inmates organised clandestine concerts of Jewish poetry and music. Participants included writers, actors, teachers and journalists from across Europe. Reflecting on the hope that such cultural activity could provide for the performers, one participant believed that 'since we lived through it all to sing in the camp, we will live to see the Messiah come'.
All musical activity came to an end with the evacuation of the camp in the winter of 1944-45. As was the case with the other Auschwitz camps, many members of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen before the final death marches in late January. It was there that the Buna orchestra's most memorable concert was to take place. Having barely managed to survive those final weeks, the few remaining musicians gathered together after their liberation:
A dramatically decimated number of members of the former Buna orchestra sat gathered in our block … Only a few instruments had made the long journey from Buna to Bergen-Belsen … One last time we were to play together, us comrades from Buna. Could we play at all? The misery in which we were wallowing had stolen all strength and energy from us … Many of us were gone … then we stood on the main plaza and played a last time together: the American national hymn, the English, the French, the Russian. I don’t remember everything, also not how it sounded – an excellent musical performance it could not have been. Too much had happened in the past hours. We stood there and wept.
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.
Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.
Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.
Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.
Turkov, Y., 1999. Latvia and Auschwitz. In Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs. ed. Rovit, R. and A. Goldfarb. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.