An aerial photograph of the Dachau concentration camp. USHMM (06737), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
USHMM Photo Archives
Prisoners' barracks in the Dachau concentration camp. USHMM (37255), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
USHMM Photo Archives

On 20 March 1933, just weeks after Hitler came to power in Germany, Himmler announced in the national press:

On Wednesday 22 March 1933 the first concentration camp will be opened in the vicinity of Dachau.  It can accommodate 5,000 people.  Here will be gathered together the entire Communist and, as much as necessary, the [left wing] Reichsbanner and Social Democratic Party functionaries who threaten the security of the state, since in the long term it is impossible and draining for the state to house them in government prisons.  It has become clear that it is not viable to leave these people free, as they continue to make trouble and disturb the peace.  We have adopted this measure, undeterred by paltry scruples, in the conviction that our action will help to restore calm to our country and is in the best interests of our people.

Thus was announced the formation of one of the most infamous concentration camps on German soil, one that was to hold the dubious distinction of being the longest running camp under Nazi authority, functioning for the duration of the Nazi reign from 1933 to 1945.

Established only eleven miles northwest of the Bavarian city of Munich, the town of Dachau had been famous since the late nineteenth century as a cultural centre and an artists’ colony.  With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, a gunpowder factory was built on the outskirts of the town; it was shut down after the war.  The abandoned factory housed the main camp, though it was expanded and modified frequently throughout the twelve years of its operation.  From the outset, Nazi leaders assigned to Dachau the role of primary training centre for SS concentration camp staff.  The camp's organisation and routine were intended to serve as the model for all Nazi concentration camps.

http://tholocaustmusic.ort.org/?id=999Those interned in the camp in the pre-war years for ‘re-education’ in ‘protective custody’ (Schutzhaft) were mainly members of anti-Nazi organisations, religious groups and resistance movements, or outspoken individuals.  The first Jewish prisoners were sent there on account of their political affiliations, not their religion or ‘race’.  However, after Kristallnacht and the annexation of Austria, thousands of Jews were sent there.  With the influx of different categories of inmates, particularly after the outbreak of war, political prisoners continued to dominate, and they held the key positions in the internal prisoner hierarchy throughout the camp’s twelve-year existence.  The prominence of political prisoners in the hierarchy had important implications for leisure activities in Dachau.  Political prisoners were more likely to maintain an active opposition to the regime during their imprisonment, and their relative power in the hierarchy meant that they could organise events amongst themselves and assist other prisoners in arranging their own clandestine gatherings.

The nature of daily life in Dachau changed markedly over the years, according to the demands of the Central Administration for Camps, the seasons and the whims of camp commanders and personnel.  Free time in Dachau was always limited, but there were periods of relaxation.  For example, games were permitted during the short rest periods, up to 1938.  From 1941, permission was once again granted for cultural activities and amusements: theatrical entertainments, concerts, revues and lectures were arranged, and a substantial library was built up.  As the Reich suffered military setbacks in 1943, it relied increasingly on slave labour, and conditions in the camps were subsequently slightly improved with a view to increasing output: supplementary food was provided, parcels could be received by certain categories of prisoners and a few sporting and cultural activities were authorised.  Conditions worsened rapidly in the autumn of 1944 with the imminence of German defeat.  Apart from these periods of shifting levels of tolerance displayed by the authorities, Dachau inmates also engaged in clandestine music-making throughout the camp’s existence.

As the war progressed, Dachau’s population became remarkably diverse.  Until 1938 it was made up almost exclusively of Germans, and later of Austrians, but the camp gradually acquired more prisoners as the Nazi net widened across Europe. Communists and Social Democrats were joined by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, and homosexuals of various nationalities.  Dachau also incarcerated the largest group of clergymen of any camp: almost 3,000, most of whom were Poles.  Thousands of Jewish prisoners were interned after Kristallnacht in November 1938, although many were released soon after – at this time the Nazi authorities encouraged mass Jewish emigration as the solution to Germany’s ‘Jewish Question’.  Especially during the later war years, the social composition of Dachau – political, religious, international – fed the diversity of the camp’s musical life.

A wide range of musical activities took place in Dachau, both forced and voluntary.  Testimonies include descriptions of orchestral concerts, cabaret performances, communal singing, choirs, church music and forced singing. There were also, of course, inmates who did not encounter cultural activities at all. One prisoner remembered that

camp music belonged to the tradition of the KZ Dachau.  It was a part of every deception put on by the commission, the inspections and the delegations.  When some high level visitor gave the camp the honour of a visit, because he had nothing better to do at the time, and was feeling a little loosened up by a meal and visit, the band stood upright in front of the canteen block and played cheerful marches, smiled upon with good will.  Or it was a string orchestra, playing Sunday afternoons in the bathroom for the other comrades.

As was the case in other Nazi camps, forced singing was a regular part of the daily marches and roll-call.  Former inmates like Karl Röder recounted having to sing uninterruptedly after returning to the camp from the day’s heavy labour:

I don’t know how many hours I sang for in the camp.  It must have been thousands.  We sang when we went out to work, and sang when we came back to the camp.  We sang for hours on the roll-call square, in order to drown out the screams of the ill-treated, but we also sang when the camp commander felt like having us sing … They set great store on rhythm.  We had to sing in a brisk military manner, and above all loudly … After hours of singing we could often no longer produce a sound.  They knew that we saw this singing as punishment, and for that reason they always had us sing at military drills.

The camp authorities often demanded that the prisoners sing German marches and nostalgic songs.  Other inmates described the torture of Dachau’s ‘Moor Express’: while pulling heavy lorries like cattle – attached to the vehicle by ropes and beams – they were forced to sing in order to ‘keep the SS amused’.  Escaped prisoners who had been caught were forced to march through the camp holding the sign ‘I’m here again’, while being followed by a small orchestra.  Karl Röder remembered:

Every one of these songs we sang so constantly, it was always the same.  I never could manage to simply sing them mechanically. Hate and anger always choked me, and I felt like I was suffocating.  I would have preferred physical abuse.

Private concerts for SS officers were also reasonably common.  Prisoners would be asked or forced to provide entertainment at events ranging from birthday parties to quiet dinners.  They would generally be remunerated for their work with extra food or cigarettes, which were valuable bartering items, but many were nonetheless disturbed by such experiences.

Dachau’s use of music as a form of torture had another, more unusual aspect as well. Of all the camps under Nazi rule, it was Dachau that made the most extensive use of radio to indoctrinate and explicitly to torture prisoners.  The camp commander blasted Nazi radio through loudspeakers, at night and during meals. Inmates were thus forced to listen to Hitler’s speeches, news of the ‘inevitable victory’ of the German army, and to songs that mocked prisoners’ political, religious, and communal value systems.  Radio was often played while prisoners were being beaten, and 'the music from the radio speakers set up in the camp mixed with the groans and screams of the tortured'.

In addition to these coerced musical activities, voluntary music-making was also widespread and varied in Dachau.  Compared with camps such as Mauthausen and Auschwitz, Dachau afforded inmates a relatively large amount of flexibility in their daily activities.  Musical performances not sanctioned by the authorities were ultimately secret and risky, but the situation was helped by the tolerance of influential political prisoners, and the willingness of some SS officers to accept bribes.

The distinction between voluntary and forced music-making was blurred when it came to the camp song, composed in 1938 by Herbert Zipper and Jura Soyfer.  This song, as was frequently the case with official camp songs, lived a sort of double life.  Loved by the Nazis for its martial quality and marching rhythm, prisoners also loved it for its message of resistance and perseverance.  It was thus one of the few songs sung both by command of the SS and voluntarily by the inmates.

Informal singing made up a great deal of the prisoner-organised music life in camp. There were also, however, secret choirs and musical groups, string quartets and orchestras and cabaret shows.  Although it is doubtful whether a large number of inmates was ever able to enjoy these shows, for those lucky enough to attend them they were clearly a powerful experience:

In an incarceration without foreseeable end, whose sole purpose is the mental and physical destruction of thousands of human beings, the flight into unconsciousness becomes the greatest danger … seen in this light the performances were a valuable component of inner resistance.

Communal singing was one of the most popular and widely practised activities amongst Dachau inmates.  Political prisoners sang well-known German folk songs, songs common to the international revolutionary movement, and camp songs common to political prisoners across the Nazi system such as the ‘Moorsoldatenlied’.  In fact, in the early years of the camp, most records of musical activity by prisoners are of singing the songs of youth or radical movements.  In the context of a camp like Dachau, national folk songs proved especially important for creating and expressing prisoner solidarity, and for sharing memories of what had been lost or left behind.  Often it was at night in the barracks, after an exhausting day of forced labour, that the singing would take place, sometimes lasting for several hours. As one survivor recalled:

somebody raised himself; then quietly, then a little louder, a church hymn rang out.  The singer – a cantor from a large church in Poland – had an excellent lyrical tenor voice.  Attentively we listened.  After this church song came some Yiddish ones, these being more solemn, even tragic.  After a half hour, or an hour, it became quiet. The singer was silent.  The block elder spoke again, but this time sounding quieter and more human; 'Who else wants to sing?'  The new voice sounded sharper, stronger.  It sang ‘Valentine’s Prayer’. 'An opera singer from Prague', someone whispered near me.  After a passage from Faust came other opera arias … the last song, 'my little city Beltz' was choked off in sobs.  The singer wept, and also the block elder.  They wept for their destroyed homes and their murdered relatives: 'a happy song' demanded the block elder.  The singer from Prague was quiet.  An entertainer from the seven mountains region stood up.  He began to sing a hit song, stopped almost immediately, however.  Instead he sang again the song of home, of the city Beltz, and then he also grew quiet.  It became still.

In addition to such pre-existing repertoire, many prisoner groups composed new songs.  As was typical for concentration camps, most songs composed there were topical, telling about the suffering of daily life, or communicating practical information or advice. Many of the songs were based on existing melodies; the composers of the remaining melodies remain for the most part unknown.  Along with informal group singing, there was also a variety of choirs, both officially sanctioned and clandestine. 

As previously mentioned, one of the things that set Dachau apart from other camps was its large and well-established population of priests.  Their contribution to camp cultural life was primarily in the form of choral music.  The Polish choir was particularly active on Christmas entertainments: they sang koledy (carols) and music from szopki (nativity plays).  German and Austrian priests organised regular services that quickly developed into a special form of block performance revolving around the chorus.

In May 1938, Herbert Zipper put together a small orchestra that held secret concerts for prisoners, performing at night or on Sundays for small groups of inmates.  Basing his research on the testimonies of former Czech prisoners, historian Milan Kuna documents the existence of three instrumental ensembles in the camp during the war years: an officially-sanctioned orchestra, established in 1941 and made up primarily of Czech musicians; a separate wind band, equipped with uniforms, set up in September 1941 from the ranks of the main orchestra, playing primarily marches for the prisoners leaving and returning to camp for work; and a third orchestra led by a prisoner called Von Hurk. This orchestra included several professional musicians in its ranks, and played a variety of classical pieces, including prohibited non-Aryan composers.  The composition and functions of Dachau’s orchestras were much the same as those of ensembles in other camps.  Musicians made use of the combination of instruments available in the camp or those they were allowed to receive from home, and generally wrote their own scores and arrangements.  They had the privilege of receiving additional bread rations for their playing and worked almost exclusively inside the camp.  Performances were mostly for the SS or important visitors; repertoire consisted mainly of German marches and popular melodies.  Although many prisoners did not have access to the orchestra’s concerts, efforts were made to put on clandestine performances exclusively for inmates.

Satirical cabaret performances became a regular feature of Dachau life in 1938 with the arrival of the first Viennese victims of the Anschluß.  Well-known artists including Hermann Leopoldi, Fritz Grünbaum, Paul Morgan, and Fritz Löhner-Beda gave regular Sunday concerts, which were popular and well-attended.  This is how former inmate Bruno Heilig described their performances:

Every Sunday a cabaret performance was given by the artists in the camp, Fritz Grünbaum, Paul Morgan, Hermann Leopoldi, and the Berlin singer Kurt Fuss. At first the idea of starting a cabaret in a concentration camp seemed to us absurd; but it proved a success. Crowds of prisoners attended the performances.  Grünbaum and Morgan gave their old sketches, which were uproariously applauded by their comrades.  Leopoldi made a great hit with Viennese lieder. Kurt Fuss sang sophisticated ballads about women and love.  'From early youth the cunning band has had me on the string' – this song had not been absolutely the latest thing even when I was still a schoolboy, but in a concentration camp it is of no importance to hear only the latest popular favourites.  These cabaret matinees gave us the illusion of a scrap of freedom.  For an hour or two one almost had a sense of being at home.

Most of the cabaret musicians were transported to Buchenwald in late 1938, where they also organised performances.

Dachau was liberated by American troops on 29 April 1945.

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