Known for his biting satires and cabarets, the writer Jura Soyfer continued to criticise the Nazi regime throughout his imprisonment in Dachau and Buchenwald, until his untimely death in Buchenwald at the age of 26. Born on 8 December 1912 in Kharkow, the Ukraine, Soyfer enjoyed a comfortable and privileged childhood. After the Revolution, his family decided to emigrate to Austria. In Vienna, Soyfer became increasingly interested in politics, deciding at a young age to join a youths’ socialist association. He divided his time between his two main interests: theatre and political journalism, frequently combining them in political comedy pieces. Whereas his early material explicitly celebrated socialism, by the early 1930s he was forced to conceal his political agenda. Audiences understood the political implications, however, and his anti-fascist cabarets became extremely popular.
As a socialist and a Jew, Soyfer’s arrest seemed inevitable. He was first arrested accidentally in 1937; the police, however, quickly decided he was worthy of imprisonment, and he was jailed for three months. Less than a month after being released, he tried to flee over the border to Switzerland by posing as a tourist on a skiing vacation. The border guards caught him, and he was later deported to Dachau.
Upon arriving at the camp, Soyfer was assigned, together with the composer Herbert Zipper, to the physically demanding work commando of ‘pack horses’. As he and Zipper slaved together, dragging the cement cart through the camp, they discussed the importance of recording their experiences in order to preserve them. Zipper suggested to Soyfer that the Nazi slogan 'Arbeit macht Frei' (Work will set you free) would make a good basis for a song. A few days later Soyfer recited a poem to him, and Zipper set the poem to music. This became the well-known ‘Dachaulied’ (Dachau song).
In the autumn of 1938, Soyfer was transferred, together with Zipper and some other inmates, to Buchenwald. Here he was active as a cabaret performer, and many former inmates remembered him and his jokes vividly. A former Buchenwald inmate reported:
Jura was soon well known in camp ... he had ideas that he never wrote down, but that, when performed by a few actors, made up a sort of camp cabaret ... although it was strictly forbidden, Jura, along with the famous Viennese songwriter Hermann Leopoldi and some others, put together a few programmes in which they brought our homeland closer to us, or that in a general way mocked fascism.
Soyfer did not survive more than a few months at Buchenwald. The large shipments of Jews brought to the camp after Kristallnacht crowded the already cramped quarters, and living conditions became unbearable. In the winter of 1938-39 a typhus epidemic broke out, killing hundreds of starving and weak Jews. Soyfer was assigned the unenviable job of corpse-bearer, wrapping corpses in blankets and then transporting them to the gates of the camp. Like almost everyone who was assigned this job, he contracted typhus, and was brought to the infirmary. He was due to be released from camp in only a few weeks, but died in February 1939.
Cummins, P., 1992. Dachau Song: The Twentieth Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper, New York: Peter Lang.
Hippen, R., 1988. Es Liegt in der Luft: Kabarett im Dritten Reich, Zürich: Pendo-Verlag.
Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europäisches Zentrum für Jüdische Musik.