The concentration camp Sachsenhausen, located 35 kilometres north of Berlin, was established in April 1936. Its first prisoners were brought in from the early Emsland camps. It was not a death camp, but thousands died there from illness, cold, starvation and abuse; in addition, thousands –- including large groups of Soviet POWs –- were executed there. In an attempt to flee the approaching Soviets in April 1945, the camp’s guards forced more than 30,000 prisoners on death marches, causing the deaths of many thousands more. When the Soviets reached the camp on 22 April, only 3,000 sick and weak prisoners remained to be liberated. In 1946, the Soviets transformed the former camp into one of the largest holding and prison camps in occupied Germany.  Later, it was transformed into an extensive memorial and educational space.


Inmates in Sachsenhausen worked exhausting hours, with inadequate nourishment, clothing and housing. The majority worked for German armaments factories, but there were also agricultural, construction and textile work assignments.  One of the unique aspects of Sachsenhausen was its well-established counterfeiting operation: inmates were forcibly employed to reproduce American and British currency. The camp was continually expanded, eventually including dozens of sub-camps.


In the early years, Sachsenhausen housed mainly German political prisoners; Jewish inmates at this time had frequently been arrested because they were socialists or communists, not directly because they were Jewish.  Gradually, as the Nazi web expanded, so too did prisoner numbers: a population of 2,500 prisoners in 1937 more than trebled after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, when thousands of Jews were brought in.  Eventually the camp included sizeable numbers of homosexual men, Jews, Roma and Sinti, the handicapped and numerous priests and religious prisoners.  After the outbreak of war in 1939, the population became more international, as thousands more prisoners were taken from the occupied lands. One of the most important developments as far as cultural life in the camp was concerned came with the arrest, in late 1939, of 1,200 Czech students, many of whom were artists or musicians, and who were politically conscious, nationalist, and anti-fascist.

Forced Music-Making

One of the most prominent and tormenting elements of life in Sachsenhausen was forced music-making. One former inmate recalled:

The SS made singing, like everything else they did, a mockery, a torment for the prisoners ... those who sang too softly or too loudly were beaten.  The SS men always found a reason ... when in the evening we had to drag our dead and murdered comrades back into the camp, we had to sing.  Hour after hour we had to, whether in the burning sun, freezing cold, or in snow or rain storms, on the roll call plaza we had to stand and sing of ... the girl with the dark brown eyes, the forest or the wood grouse.  Meanwhile the dead and dying comrades lay next to us on a ripped up wool blanket or on the frozen or soggy ground.

Prisoners were often forced to sing while doing harsh physical labour. There was also a work assignment called ‘singing horses’, common to several other camps: a group of men was tied to wagons that they pulled through the camp, all the while singing at the top of their lungs.  In addition to the traditional roll-call and work assignment singing, on Sundays the SS would frequently order the inmates to sing German songs, usually popular contemporary songs, German folk songs or Nazi hymns.  This was particularly difficult for the foreign inmates, who often did not speak the language. Forced singing was not only demoralising and exhausting, but also dangerous.  Former prisoner and musician Eberhard Schmidt remembered that the unlucky prisoner 'who didn't know the song was beaten.  Whoever sang too softly was beaten; whoever sang too loudly was beaten'.


The SS also commissioned camp songs that at certain times were mandatory singing for the inmates.  The ‘Sachsenhausenlied’ (Sachsenhausen Song) was created in the winter of 1936 by the German political prisoner Karl Wloch along with his communist friends Bernhard Bästlein and Karl Fischer.  They based the song on the well-known workers’ melody ‘Die Bauern Wollten Freie Sein’ (The Peasants Want to be Free), and agreed that it should be used as a means of strengthening the prisoners’ unity and to reflect an anti-fascist spirit.  As was the case with many commissioned camp songs, it was originally approved by the SS and prisoners were frequently ordered to sing it. Later, however, the song was forbidden, although it made the transition from forced to voluntary music and continued to be sung in secret.


Voluntary Music

Prisoner-initiated music began very early in Sachsenhausen.  One of the first musical events took place on Christmas Eve of 1936, when a group of communist prisoners from Hamburg was reunited in the camp, and got together to sing the songs of old leftist youth groups.  Participants included the camp elder Harry Naujoks and the co-composer of the camp song, Bernhard Bästlein.  For this group of committed communists, the first few months at Sachsenhausen had been brutal and depressing, and there was a desire to solidify the bonds of the camp community and organise resistance where possible. Attendance was high, and because it was a religious holiday, the prisoners hoped that the SS would be more tolerant.  One former inmate recalled that

on this evening every single person there was filled with the strength of community, which gave him the power to resist even the worst terror.  Whoever participated in this evening passed on the spirit of this experience to the comrades who had not been there.  Our songs resounded far and wide, so that the walls hummed.

Such was the success of this first gathering that these sing-songs, or Schallerabende, became regular events, eventually expanding to include non-German prisoners.  Prisoners from Sachsenhausen took this tradition with them to other camps.  The events grew to include recitations and poetry, as well as political speeches; the central feature, however, was communal singing, and several songs were written to be sung there. The more frequently the Schallerabende occurred, the harder they were to keep secret; occasionally the SS would order that only certain, officially-permitted songs be sung, and occasionally events would be temporarily forbidden.  In general, however, they were discouraged but permitted, perceived as entertainment rather than politics.


As was the case at other camps, individual musicians in Sachsenhausen, like Aleksander Kulisiewicz and Jan Vala, often gave clandestine performances for fellow inmates in their barracks during free time in the evenings or on weekends. There was also a range of more formal choral groups.  There were several Czech choirs, a Polish choir, several German choirs, a Jewish choir led by Rosebery D'Arguto (aka Martin Rosenberg), as well as other singing groups.  The group that was most musically active was probably the group of 1,200 Czech students deported to Sachsenhausen in 1939.  During their first days in camp they spent time singing at the encouragement of older, more experienced German anti-fascists.  Having experienced themselves the power of Schallerabende, the German political prisoners encouraged the young Czechs to sing in order to improve their spirits and consolidate their strength.  Two important singing groups emerged: a formally trained chorus founded and conducted by František Marušan, and a group of students who sang political and satirical songs, calling themselves the ‘Sing Sing Boys’.


Marušan’s group was originally composed of five or six educated music students, and quickly grew to include more than forty members.  Though they had no paper, sheet music, instruments or even a tuning fork, the singers managed to build up an impressive repertoire, including works by Smetana, Janacek and Dvořák.  The ‘Sing Sing Boys’ was made up almost entirely of amateur musicians, and was more political in inclination. Under the guidance of Karel Štancl, the students saw an opportunity to resist the Nazis while supporting and entertaining one another:

None of us had studied music.  We were bound by the same fate and the common love of music and singing … daily we counted hundreds of dead.  We froze and starved - yet evenings we sang and made music … we did not want to be martyrs.  We wanted to survive, and bring fascist Germany to its knees, to somehow play a part in this.

Another important contribution that the Czech students made to the Sachsenhausen musical world was their creation of songbooks.  In 1940 there was an outbreak of scarlet fever in the Czech barracks, and they were quarantined.  Ironically, this turned out to be a positive development, as they were freed from their work assignments and left to themselves.  Restricted to their barracks, the students organised debates, political discussions, poetry recitations and satirical skits. They also received a commission from the communist prisoner Harry Naujoks to produce a songbook. The beautifully illustrated booklet was so admired that more requests poured in, and soon a regular production system was established.  Eventually, German prisoners also began crafting songbooks, a series of which survived the war.


Instrumental music was also performed at Sachsenhausen, although it was more difficult to organise than singing. One of the first ensembles was a string quartet, which was established in 1941. It consisted of three Czech musicians -- Bohumír Červinka (violin), Karel Štancl (violin), Jan Škorpík (viola) -- and the German prisoner Eberhard Schmidt (cello). Initially pieces were arranged for performance by František Marušan, and, later, scores were obtained for works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Borodin, Grieg, and Dvořák. In 1940, on the orders of the SS, a second band was formed, consisting primarily of Polish prisoners.  In 1942, a symphony orchestra came into being, conducted by military conductor Peter Adam.


Despite the many musical events that took place at Sachsenhausen, however, the performances reached only a minority of the prisoners.  Caught up in a relentless struggle for survival, many inmates simply had no exposure to the Sachsenhausen musical world and many were simply too weak or sick to attend a concert.


Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.  

Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.  

Lammel, I., 1995. Das Sachsenhausen-Liederbuch. In G. Morsch, ed. Sachsenhausen-Liederbuch: Originalwiedergabe eines illegalen Häftlingsliederbuches aus dem Konzentrationslager Sachsenhausen. Berlin: Hentrich, pp. 14-31.  

Langbein, H., 1994. Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-45, New York: Paragon House.  

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.  

1998. Zeugen Jehovas: Vergessene Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. , Vienna.  


Sachsenhausen prisoners, wearing uniforms with triangular badges, stand in columns under the supervision of a camp guard. USHMM (76278), courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

Articles associés