Music in the Nazi ghettos and camps

After coming to power, the Nazi regime began constructing an extensive network of internment centres of various categories.  In the twelve years of Nazi rule, millions of men, women, and children of the most divergent ancestries and nationalities were locked up in various camps for political, religious, ethnic, social, and ideological reasons.  Places of incarceration ranged from jails to work camps and relocation camps, from internment camps to forced labour camps and penal camps, from special camps to ghettos and concentration camps (Haftanstalten, Arbeits-, Polizeihaft-, Durchgangs-, Internierungs-, Zwangsarbeits-, Strafgefangenen-, Sonder-, Ghetto- or Konzentrationslager).  For children and youth, so-called foreign children’s foster homes, Germanization camps, and youth detention camps were built (Ausländerkinderpflegestätten, Germanisierungs- or Jugendschutzlager).  Captured enemy troops were interned in P.O.W. camps.  Still other places and camps, like the death camps, had the sole purpose of the mass killing of human beings.

It is likely that there was some form of music in most of the approximately 10,000 Nazi camps.  Distinguishing between them does not trivialize them, but is, rather, a necessary historical differentiation and one that is often emphasized by survivors.  In his memoir Schreiben oder Leben (Literature or Life), Jorge Semprún points out that 'the essential component' of all Nazi camps was 'the same.'  This was

the daily routine, the rhythm of work, hunger, sleep deprivation, incessant harassment and sadism on the part of the SS, the insanity of the older prisoners, the bloody battles over control of the smallest pieces of internal power.

Yet he also writes that 'the deportees were subject to the specific conditions of their respective camp.'  In sum, the category of the camp and its individual history was decisive not only for the prisoners’ chance of survival, but also for their freedom to participate in cultural activities.

Public awareness of music in the camps is associated most prominently with Yiddish ghetto songs and music from Theresienstadt.  Theresienstadt is not, as is often thought to be the case, to be classified as a concentration camp.  Instead, its formal incorporation places it within the category of eastern European Nazi ghetto.  These were constructed in (Jewish) living quarters rather than created as barracks camps, and were internally regulated by ghetto police and Judenräte (Jewish Councils).  Though subordinate to the SS, the Judenräte possessed relatively more influence than the prisoner self-governments (Häftlingsselbstverwaltung) in the concentration camps.  Music-making in the concentration camps took place under the extreme conditions of imprisonment, whereas on the whole, the ghettos offered more 'favourable' surroundings.  Indeed, the SS’s use of Theresienstadt as a 'show camp' for the world further improved the situation for music.  Both quantitatively and qualitatively, music in Theresienstadt occupied a special position within the Nazi camp system.

One sees evidence of this not only in witness testimonies, but also in the many concert programmes, posters, tickets, prisoner drawings, and compositions that have survived.   From Theresienstadt came Viktor Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder der Tod dankt ab (The Emperor of Atlantis or Death Resigns) and Hans Krása's children’s opera Brundibár, performed 55 times in Theresienstadt.  These works have been performed across the globe and have come to represent an almost ideal type for the music persecuted and hated by the Nazis.  Out of their success has grown greater demand for other compositions and composers from the camps.  All this has invested music from Theresienstadt with considerable mystique.  This not only threatens to cover up the real conditions of music-making in Theresienstadt, but also the conditions under which music was produced in other types of Nazi camps.

A prolific cultural life was also organized by prisoners in other parts of the Nazi camp system.  In the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France, for example, soloists, chamber music ensembles, choirs, and a small orchestra appeared at concerts, cabaret performances, entertainment evenings, and other events.   Similarly, in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork there were numerous choirs, a kamporkest (camp orchestra) with 30 to 40 musicians, a café with entertainment music, as well as performances by soloists, chamber music groups, concerts, and cabaret performances.  Many ironic and insolent German cabaret songs were written for the performances of the so-called Bühne Lager Westerbork (Weterbork Camp Theatre).  Such critique was possible because the camp commandant sat regularly in the audience and enjoyed such frivolity like an almighty patron of the arts, for whom these imprisoned stars of cabarets and revues had to perform. 

In Poland's Warsaw ghetto concerts were given by a symphony orchestra of up to 80 musicians.  There were also chamber music evenings, entertainment and variety shows, choir performances, performances in cafés, Jewish Singspiele (musical comedies), and religious concerts in synagogues.  Similar performances could be found in the Łódź(Poland) and Vilna (Lithuania) ghettos.  In Łódź, the symphonic concerts and the revues were to be counted amongst the most outstanding events, while in Vilna it was the performances of the ghetto theatre.  Because all three of these east European ghettos had previously been centres of Jewish culture, they were already well-known for their writers, poets, and song writers.  The prisoners could draw on these traditions in order to retain their cultural identity.  In terms of song-writing, some of the most prominent figures were Shmerke Kaczerginski in Vilna, Mordechai Gebirtig, who was murdered in Krakow, and Hirsh Glick, who was originally from Vilna but was transported to different camps.  The songs written in these Nazi ghettos became a unique form of Jewish song, many of which were transferred out of the region to other ghettos and camps.  Some became resistance songs that remain popular today, such as Glik’s 'Zog nit keynmol' (Never Say) which became popular as the anthem of Jewish partisans.     

Whether out of personal desire or by command of their overseers, prisoners performed music in other camps and other camp categories, e.g., in penal camps and work camps.  Yet there exists hardly any research on the subject.  Even in the death camps, where prisoners only lived as long as the SS needed them, concerts and camp bands were not unheard of.  But without taking into account the historical context and the particular camp category, it is impossible to understand the variable amount of freedom the prisoners had and, thus, to understand the development of musical activities in each specific camp.  Seen as a whole, music could be found in the extreme situation of concentration and death camps, as well as in other camps where the conditions for a differentiated cultural life were more favourable.  The decisive difference lies in the use of the music.  In Theresienstadt and the Nazi ghettos, for example, music-making was primarily self-determined, rarely occurring as a result of a direct command of the perpetrators.  On the other hand, music in the concentration and death camps always occupied an ambivalent position.  There, music acted as a means of survival for the prisoners and as an instrument of terror used by the SS.  There, it was common for the camp personnel to use prisoner musicians for their own purposes and to consciously use music to further break the wills of the prisoners, bringing about deculturation and dehumanization through forced music making.  This is a fact often forgotten.  For in concentration and death camps, music oscillated between its use as legitimate survival strategy and necessary diversion of the victims and its misappropriation and misuse by the perpetrators.

By Guido Fackler


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