The fact that Theresienstadt (Terezín) has become almost synonymous with the 'music of the Shoah' is justified by the qualitative and quantitative level of the musical life there, which constitutes a special case in the Nazi camp system as a whole. A large proportion of Jewish artists and intellectuals were amongst those imprisoned there due to the camp’s function as an 'old age ghetto' and 'show camp'. In addition, the camp leadership, after a short initial prohibition, officially allowed prisoners to possess musical instruments, thereby enabling a broad spectrum of musical as well as other cultural and artistic activities. Though in the final analysis this occurred for the purpose of propaganda, it created the essential conditions for the extraordinary possibility of cultural production for prisoners by prisoners.
Theresienstadt’s Musical Life
Commenting on the diversity of cultural life there, the former inmate Ruth Klüger observed that, 'In Theresienstadt, culture was valued'. In this former provincial town, a musical life developed that might have equalled that of a larger town both in terms of the level and breadth of its offerings. Alongside the existence of numerous choirs, cabaret groups, classical and popular orchestras, musical criticism was written, music instruction was given, and a 'Studio for Modern Music' was created and led by Viktor Ulmann. One could hear the symphonic and chamber works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Janácek or Suk, in addition to oratorios, religious and national songs, and operas like Carmen, Tosca, or The Bartered Bride. If one was in possession of a rarely-given authorization slip, one could spend two hours in the coffee house which was opened on December 8, 1942, and hear popular music and swing. Further, new pieces of music in the most varied styles were composed and premiered in Theresienstadt. In part, these directly confronted camp reality through their music or lyrics. For such performances, composers had an amazingly large pool of potential performers. This was due to the fact that many imprisoned artists sought to retain their musical identity through continuation of their earlier activities. The stars amongst them were freed from physically strenuous work assignments as part of the 'Division for Recreation' (Freizeitgestaltung). Furthermore, because of their respected position, they received some small benefits (better lodgings, extra provisions) and until the autumn of 1944 they were to some extent even protected from deportation to Auschwitz. Yet musical life in Theresienstadt was not only defined by professionals; non-professionals, too, made important contributions.
Such moments of culture stood in sharp contrast to the daily attempt to survive. However, because it was useful for propaganda purposes, the SS camp leadership not only tolerated, but welcomed the cultural life of the prisoners. In December 1943 the so-called “beautification of the city” (Stadtverschönerung) was ordered. Its goal was supposed to be the presentation of Theresienstadt to the world as a model example of a Jewish settlement. The great time and effort put into this diversionary tactic eventually succeeded when in the summer of 1944, a visiting commission of the Red Cross was presented with a Potemkinesque village. The inmates played them Verdi’s Requiem and the children’s opera Brundibár by Krása. The commission could even overhear sounds of the outlawed jazz coming from the 'Ghetto Swingers'.
The propaganda film Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem Jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Settlement Area), made there in August and September 1944, served a similar propaganda purpose. However, in the so-called liquidation transports from September 28 to October 28, 1944 around 18,400 people were deported to Auschwitz, among them the composers Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Viktor Ullmann. Afterwards and for the same propagandistic reasons, cultural life was once again rebuilt in Theresienstadt, through the help of the remaining inmates and newly-arrived prisoners.
Yet even some artists fell victim to the illusion of the 'model ghetto' and dedicated themselves solely to questions of music aesthetics. The separate world they created through art hindered them from becoming aware of their role as instruments of propaganda. As the jazz musician Eric Vogel stresses:
We musicians did not think that our oppressors saw us only as tools in their hands. We were obsessed with music and were happy that we could play our beloved jazz. We contented ourselves with this dream world that the Germans were producing for their propaganda.
Nevertheless, the artistic activities in Theresienstadt did not only serve propaganda or as ends in themselves. In the musicians’ appearances at old age homes and at hospices, in their mentoring of newly arrived artists, and especially in their performance of Brundibár, one gets a sense not only of the solidarity of the musicians with their fellow prisoners, but also of the educational, cultural-political, and psychological mission of music at Theresienstadt. Just by refusing to accept their current situation, the musicians were giving a sign to the others. Music thus became a means of retaining the identities of both musician and listener. Music simultaneously served to promote survival and signified hope for a better world. The interest in music at the camp is revealed in the fact that performances were frequently repeated and that tickets needed to be issued. Precisely because of the extreme situation of the camp and the possibility of death, the interest in music at Theresienstadt underscores the metaphysical content of art.
Ultimately, however, Theresienstadt was no oasis of Jewish culture, despite its musical diversity. Though it was easier here than in other camps to round up paper, sheet music and instruments or to set up rehearsals or performances because music making was officially allowed, there were limitations even in this 'model camp'. Like their fellow prisoners, the musicians suffered from hunger, were endangered by the outbreaks of disease, and threatened by deportation. Further, organizational considerations precluded many prisoners from taking part in the artistic offerings, while still others were no longer physically capable of doing so.
For this reason, one must always keep in mind the assessment of Miroslav Kárný, historian and survivor of Theresienstadt. He wrote that the enormous musical and cultural life 'affected the internal life of the camp only minimally and only temporarily'. Alongside its political and propagandistic task, Theresienstadt also served as a collection point at which approximately 33,500 humans died of hunger, disease, and physical as well as psychological exhaustion. It served further as a temporary stop on the way to the death camps, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where about 84,000 men, women, and children who had been dragged there from Theresienstadt were killed.
This should highlight the danger represented in reducing Theresienstadt and the music produced and played there to anything but a symbol of humanity under inhumane conditions. According to the historian Wolfgang Benz, there is a long-standing 'myth of Theresienstadt' that has been built up through the many memorial concerts and performances of 'Music from Theresienstadt'. This myth carries with it a tremendous danger of 'fictionalizing the historical place' and fictionalizing the predominant living conditions. For this reason, it is important to take into account that in comparison with the concentration camps, Theresienstadt – precisely because of its special function and history – possessed inherently more favorable conditions for cultural production.
A hundred-person unit of the protectorate police acted as an external guard. In contrast to the members of the SS, most of the Czech policemen behaved respectably toward the prisoners. Sometimes there was even contact with Prague, which also came to include the exchange of sheet music, for example. The internal activities of the camp were overseen by a 'Ghetto Police' that was staffed by prisoners. For this reason, the SS was less well represented within the camp. As a result, the freedom for music making was much greater there than in most other camps, and the resort to illegality hardly necessary. This does not mean, however, that one could always play music without external coercion or limitation or that it always happened legally.
The prisoner community consisted almost exclusively of Jews or persons classified as Jewish. In addition, despite the fact that males and females were generally housed separately, they were relatively free to move around within the camp’s borders, especially in comparison to a concentration camp. It was this that made it comparatively easier to get into contact with someone or to make the necessary preparations for a music performance. The majority of cultural activities were centrally coordinated by prisoners either primarily or secondarily associated with some sort of bureaucratic work assignment. This occurred under the auspices of the so-called 'Division for Recreation', a subdivision of the Jüdischen Selbstverwaltung ('Jewish Self-Government' – a type of Jewish Council) that the camp leadership had officially authorized in autumn 1942.
Alongside other divisions for theatre, lectures, a central library, and sporting events, the 'Jewish Self-Government' contained a 'music division'. This, in turn, was subdivided into branches for 'Opera and Vocal Music', 'Instrumental Music', 'Coffeehouse Music' and 'Instrument Administration'. This created an organizational framework for the permitted and/or tolerated musical life in Theresienstadt to take place. Summaries listing public performances were even hung up for general consumption. As the pianist Alice Sommer recalled:
The so-called Division for Recreation organized the concerts. Every Monday we went to a barracks and on a board there was the program for the entire week.
Apart from this, there were performances organized by proactive prisoners, specific work details, organizations of entire homes, 'celebrities' and other various groupings.
Ghetto, not Concentration Camp
With regards to the above factors, Theresienstadt is comparable to the other ghettos of the Nazi regime. In their original historical sense, ghettos could refer to residential areas, city neighbourhoods, or city sections that were demarcated from the rest of the city and inhabited exclusively by Jews. By contrast, the ghettos set up by the Nazi regime during World War II were sealed-off and controlled areas that acted as transition points on the way to the 'Final Solution'. Theresienstadt was the only ghetto in the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia'. This, in addition to its special position within the camp system, explains its deviations from the ghettos of Poland as well as those in the occupied and annexed territories of the Soviet Union. These deviations include, for example, the fact that it was never in danger of complete dissolution or destruction, and that the area on which it rested was not one historically populated by Jews. Nonetheless, Theresienstadt should be classified within the Nazi camp system as a ghetto and not a concentration camp. Theresienstadt was set up in an already existing city and was led by a Jewish Council, dependent for its existence upon the camp commandant. The Council had greater freedom to shape camp life than the so-called Häftlingsselbstverwaltung ('Prisoner Self-Governments') of the concentration camps. The 'Prisoner Self-Governments' were restricted by the barracks structure of the usually recently-constructed concentration camps, and further were staffed by prisoner functionaries, all appointed by the SS.
Theresienstadt distinguished itself additionally through its makeup, structure, external appearance, method of oversight, as well as its administrative and formal mandate. This notwithstanding, life in Theresienstadt, like other Nazi internment centres, was characterized by entirely inhumane living conditions: hunger, epidemic disease, sickness and death were omnipresent. The medical and hygienic conditions were entirely inadequate. The living quarters were overcrowded. The atmosphere was filled with anxiety and the prisoners’ impending fate remained entirely uncertain. From a total of 141,000 prisoners in Theresienstadt only about 23,000 lived to see the end of the war.
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