Among the many Czech student artists, poets, and musicians who arrived at Sachsenhausen in November 1939 was the young Karel Štancl. A violinist and amateur composer, Štancl became a member of the popular musical group the ‘Sing Sing Boys’ (the name was a pun on the German verb ‘to sing’ and the infamous American prison, Sing Sing). Although composed entirely of amateurs, the group became an important cultural force in Sachsenhausen. For the singers as much as for the listeners,
it was unbelievable how much power lay in our singing, how it helped to make things a bit more humane in these inhuman conditions and in this inhuman time. Our songs were like a balm on our wounded souls.
When Štancl arrived in Sachsenhausen, he came equipped with a large repertoire of theatre and art songs, which he performed with a fellow Czech student. He was also a violinist, and played second violin alongside Bohumír Červinka in a string quartet in the camp. His involvement with the ‘Sing Sing Boys’ began in 1941. Štancl arranged melodies for the group, usually composing them for four voices; since the prisoners had no access to instruments, they imitated them through their singing. The texts were satirical and entertaining, and included many newly-composed songs about daily life in the camp. As the ensemble’s quality rose, so did its popularity, and it became well loved, especially amongst the younger inmates. The original repertoire of popular Czech dance songs and art songs was gradually expanded to include songs in French, English, German, Polish and Spanish, which increased the group’s popularity amongst non-Czech prisoners as well. The group also performed songs that directly mocked and criticized the Nazi regime. Although these
critical anti-fascist songs and parodies made up no more than 10% of the repertoire of the Sing Sing Boys ... their significance and effectiveness were extraordinarily large. We felt that they were the ideal core of the repertoire. Although it was very dangerous for us, we sang those songs frequently, and with the most enthusiasm – all of the Czech prisoners knew these songs. They were our strongest protest songs.
During these performances, the Sing Sing Boys relied on the support of functionaries and the ignorance of the SS guards.
Karel Štancl survived his years under Nazi internment and published his memoirs in Czech in 1993. His book describes his conviction in the power of music: 'We sang because we ourselves needed it, and because the others needed us'.
Kuna, M. (1993). Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen. Frankfurt am Main, Zweitausendeins.
Fackler, G. (2000). "Des Lagers Stimme" - Music im KZ: Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936. Bremen, Temmen.