By the end of April 1945, Allied forces were drawing closer to Neuengamme concentration camp. By this point, German defeat was certain, and SS energies were focused on destroying camp records and evacuating or killing all surviving prisoners. Supplies were almost non-existent, typhus was raging and Allied air strikes constantly threatened overhead. In the midst of these final weeks, the SS insisted on keeping their camp orchestra with them. The members of the band were among the very last prisoners to leave the camp, finally going on 29 and 30 April and playing for their Nazi guards up to the moment of their departure. Gathered together and under armed guard, they marched to nearby Hamburg; their musical instruments were transported in a hearse. When they arrived at the main station in Hamburg, the musicians were yet again forced to play. They nonetheless avoided the fate of thousands of other prisoners from Neuengamme and its sub-camps.
Originally established in December 1938 as a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme was located in an abandoned brick factory near Hamburg. The prisoners were used to widen the nearby canal and to provide SS-owned factories in northern Germany with bricks, stone, and construction material. From the outset, life in the camp was marked by hard physical labour. Despite the high death rate from disease, SS brutality, medical experimentation and the combination of labour and almost non-existent rations, prisoner numbers grew quickly and the camp expanded to include dozens of smaller sub-camps. In 1940, Neuengamme was declared an independent concentration camp.
The Neuengamme orchestra came about as a result not of prisoner initiative, but rather the demands of the camp commander, who on a previous visit to Auschwitz had been impressed by the prisoner band that he had heard. The SS provided scores and instruments for the players.
The orchestra, with around 25 members from France, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany, performed here from 1940 until the camp’s final days. Its duties were many. Like most camp orchestras, it stood at the main gate every morning and evening, playing march music as the prisoners marched to and from forced labour assignments.
It was also forced to play during public punishments and executions. One former prisoner remembered that the orchestra played the marching song ‘Alte Kameraden’ (Old Comrades) when fellow prisoners carried the bodies of those who had died the night before to the crematoria. In addition to these daily assignments, the band was frequently required to play for the birthdays and parties of the SS; there were also concerts given exclusively for the enjoyment of the SS and the camp elite. The ordinary prisoners, however, did have opportunities to hear the band perform ‘real’ music. During the only official camp free time, on Sunday afternoons, there were concerts that were open to all prisoners, where the band performed mainly operettas and salon music. On at least one occasion, Christmas 1941, the orchestra performed for the inmates in the infirmary. Between 1942 and 1944 there was also a second camp band, this one much larger. Another former inmate recalled the musicians wearing special blue and white suits. There were between 60 and 80 members, including Frenchmen, Poles, Russians, Germans, Danes, Dutchmen and Czechs. There is evidence of several conductors leading the two bands of Neuengamme, including the Czech musician Emil F. Burian.
In addition to the orchestras, there were other musical activities. One of those best remembered was an SS-organised song competition in 1942. An epidemic of typhus had broken out in the camp, causing hundreds of deaths. Prisoners were prohibited from leaving their barracks and going to work; as a result, they had more time to engage in leisure activity. From at least 30 entries, the song ‘Konzentrationäre’ -- probably written by Hans Alf Dortmann and set to the melody of a well-known soldiers’ song -- was the winner. The optimistic song was popular with both prisoners and guards, and it quickly became mandatory singing during the evening roll call.
There was also a fair amount of spontaneous, clandestine music-making in the barracks of Neuengamme. A former prisoner recalled the conditions that enabled composing and performing without official support:
Cultural activities in a more formal sense were not possible in the more difficult work divisions ... but rather only in the station, at the cafeteria workshop, and in the potato-peeling kitchen; here creative energy consolidated itself, so that a comrade memorised cabaret or song texts in order to perform them in the sleeping hall before lights out to great applause, something that occurred now and again.
Many prisoners composed songs for themselves and their bunk-mates. Some of these were political. For example, in honour of the German freedom fighter Ernst Thaelmann, Josef Biemuller rewrote a fighting song with new verses. Other individual musicians would give casual concerts in the evenings or on weekends. Heinz Dörmer, a musically gifted amateur who had been in the camp since October 1940, was frequently asked to perform in various blocks throughout the camp. He recited or sang ballads, poems or couplets, sometimes accompanied by members of the orchestra.
Neuengamme also had musical theatre that was at least unofficially supported by certain guards. In particular, the Czech prisoners, led by Burian, were known for their performance and composing skills. Their revues -- usually a mixture of jokes, short skits and song-and-dance numbers reflecting on life in the camp -- were popular among both prisoners and guards. These sorts of clandestine group activities were only possible in the last year or so of the camp’s existence, when prisoners were needed to work in munitions factories and thus were relatively better treated.
By the end of 1944, revues and performances ceased, as Allied air raids and SS attempts to crack down on the political resistance within the camp increased. By this point the growing influx of prisoners from other camps being evacuated had made living conditions unbearable. The camp was liberated by the British on 4 May 1945.
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