Between March 1943 and July 1944, the Nazis gathered the last survivors of the Riga, Dvinsk and Liepaja ghettos in the small labour camp of Kaiserwald, along with the remaining inmates of the Vilna ghetto and many Hungarian and Polish Jews. By the time the Soviet Army liberated the camp in late 1944, the inmates had almost all been evacuated to the Stutthof camp or executed.  At the war’s end, all that was left of the formerly thriving Latvian Jewish community were a few hundred Jewish former inmates of Kaiserwald, along with another thousand survivors of the Nazi camps and several thousand who had successfully fled to the USSR.

Because Kaiserwald received the survivors of earlier ghetto liquidations, its population comprised primarily young and relatively healthy men and women, although periodic selections were conducted there. Set up close to the capital city of Riga, the camp initially housed a small number of German criminals, though it soon acquired an almost exclusively Eastern European and Jewish population.  They lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with inadequate nourishment, and were used as slave labourers in the many surrounding factories, as well as in agriculture or domestic work.

There are some surviving records of musical activity in Kaiserwald.  As in most camps, prisoners would often sing together in their barracks after work.  A popular gesture of defiance was the singing of Hirsh Glik's popular partisan hymn 'Zog nit keynmol’ (Never Say).  Spontaneous concerts also took place in the warmer weather, in spring and summer, in the evenings or on weekends.  In one of the several sub-camps of Kaiserwald, in the spring of 1944, a recent arrival from the Vilna ghetto remembered entertaining her fellow prisoners. The women

sometimes sat in a circle and sang quietly.  The men stood at the wall of their camp and listened.  They asked me to sing, and I liked to sing, 'May you remind me of freedom/ and evoke desire for all that is gone'.  That was a song from the Vilna ghetto.  At least that's where I heard it for the first time.  I sang Russian songs that had been translated into Yiddish.  Whoever knew the songs sang along.  The singing awoke hope in the hearts of the women.

There is also some evidence of organised shows for the prisoners.  At least one show was put on by a group of female internees in honour of their camp elder.  They managed to construct puppets from scraps of wood and cloth, and staged a puppet show complete with traditional Latvian songs sung a capella.  The show was a success both with the prisoners and the camp elites.  In the latter part of the camp’s existence, the commander also allowed regular Sunday concerts.  Held in a large hall in a nearby factory, these evening performances featured a makeshift band -- an out-of-tune piano along with several violins and an accordion -- made up of former professional musicians, who would entertain the audience with works by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, as well as some Russian composers.  According to a survivor’s account,

these events are always overflowing, everyone applauds loudly, and the worries of the past week seem forgotten.  At the end the whole orchestra plays 'Moscow my beloved’, and other Russian songs.  Everyone sings along, a light in the eyes of the people, for these were the songs of the forward-storming Russian army, that perhaps one day would be our liberator.  Occasionally the camp elder would protest the loud singing, but he was drowned out by the powerful sounds of the Russian melodies, that swept one up and made the heart beat faster.

Sources

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.  

Rovit, R. & Goldfarb, A., 1999. Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.