On 6 September 1939, Nazis seized control of a major ammunitions factory located in the south-eastern Polish town of Skarzysko-Kamienna. Originally, ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles were employed to provide much-needed ammunition for the German army. By 1941, however, major labour shortages in the Reich led those running the camp increasingly to integrate Jewish slave labour. The number of Jewish workers grew rapidly, and in August 1942 the factory officially became a labour camp in order to cope with the influx. Assignment to Skarzysko-Kamienna was almost always a slow path to death, as labourers worked in extremely harsh conditions. As one of the Jewish survivors explained, he
had some very hard times during the war, but none left as deep an impression on me as my first moments at the Hasag plant [in Skarzysko-Kamienna] — enormous production halls, the ear-splitting noise of the presses and huge machines, red-hot shells caught in the air by the prisoners who looked like dwarves beside the gigantic furnaces.
Such were the miseries of the camp that several songs were created warning workers away from it. One began: 'Werk C — the worst of all! Thousands have already found their deaths here.' Another pleaded for mercy from God, working 'in Skarzysko camp, a bitter world, in Skarzysko camp'.
As in many other Nazi camps, the inmates’ suffering was augmented through the use of musical torture. The frequent selections, for example, often had musical accompaniment. On one occasion, having shot a group of sickly prisoners in a nearby forest, some guards ordered those who had been selected as grave diggers to grab a body and dance around the pit they had dug, while singing in Yiddish. When a signal was given, they were all made to throw the bodies into the pit in unison. Such perverted scenes were part of daily life at the camp.
Both more frequent and more powerful for the prisoners, however, was the extensive underground cultural and musical world that thrived at Skarzysko-Kamienna. Unusually, religious activity was tolerated as long as it did not interfere with productivity. On the eve of the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews would gather at the barracks of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, who had arrived in March 1943, to listen to his stories and sing Sabbath hymns. Former prisoner Jeszajahu Rechter remembered the Passover seder of 1944, when
we baked matzos on the stove in the barracks … and used coffee for wine … potatoes and beets served in place of all the holiday dishes … thirty prisoners were seated around the table … there was utter silence and then my son got up and began to sing 'how is this night different from all other nights’ … we never heard the rest. After those words, everyone burst out crying. That was the haggadah we Jews recited at that Seder in the camp.
Inmates would sing folk songs together, usually in Yiddish but also in Polish. Occasionally in the women's barracks there would be solo performances, the singer rewarded with an extra potato or slice of bread. In addition, there was communal singing related to resistance movements and the Bund. A unique genre also developed in the camp of ‘couplets’, short verses that were set to familiar melodies. Often vulgar and pragmatic rather than poetic, they served as an important way of passing on gossip, current events and war news between prisoners, a sort of ‘daily newspaper’. The inmate Heisi Reisler was much loved as a composer of countless of these little couplets, writing funny and critical mini-songs about the guards, administration and other prisoners. In addition to these clandestine activities, the police barracks were known as the site of frequent parties and music-making, where camp musicians would be brought in to entertain the camp ‘elites’.
There was at least one attempt, in late autumn 1943, to organise a public concert for the prisoners. The show, planned by the underground rescue committee, was intended to raise extra food and clothing for the prisoners in particularly bad condition. It was not until the spring of 1944, however, that formal shows of this kind became a part of camp life. At that time, a large group of women arrived from Majdanek; among them were some performers who wanted to set up a performing troupe. They organised shows in the barracks, and also received permission to stage concerts on Sundays on a ‘stage’ constructed near the camp fence. They sang in Yiddish and Polish and performed recitations.
At the end of May 1944, the Nazis began slowly to liquidate the camp, cracking down on the underground and any ‘unnecessary’ Jews. Bodies were dragged to the forest and burned in mass graves. Amidst this carnage the camp commander ordered the construction of a dance area, where he ordered a band to play and the Jewish ‘elite’ to dance. The group was also forced to sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs.
In July 1944, large-scale selections began. A small group planned an escape, but hundreds of other prisoners saw the hole that they had cut in the camp fence and stormed it. The scene ended as a gruesome mass slaughter in the forest. The few survivors were deported to Buchenwald and several smaller camps.
Karay, F., 1996. Death Comes in Yellow: Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labour Camp, Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers.