After supper the orchestra plays music in the tailor shop … The sky over and around the camp is red from the fire burning in the tremendous oven that was built lately, and the wind brings the smell of flesh and charred bones … The girls and our 'cavaliers' dance to the wonderful sounds of Gold's orchestra … later, when it grows warmer, the orchestra plays outdoors, near the closed gate. On the other side of the gate, groups of Ukrainians gather and perform their dances. This is a daily event in Treblinka.
This is a recollection of music being played at the death camp Treblinka, specifically the sounds of the orchestra under the leadership of the well-known Warsaw musician Artur Gold.
Gold had been at the peak of a promising career when the Nazis invaded Poland. Born in 1897 to Michal and Helena Melodist, he established a popular jazz band in the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had established a name for himself as a composer of popular songs, and was in great demand in the clubs of Warsaw. In 1940, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews in the area, he was forced into the newly-established Warsaw ghetto, where he continued to make music. Unpleasant as this internment might have been, it was no preparation for the horrors that followed his 1942 deportation to Treblinka.
By the time Gold arrived at Treblinka, the camp commander had already organised a small band of amateur Jewish musicians to play for the pleasure of the SS and the torment of the victims. When he heard that Gold had arrived, however, he pressed him into service as a conductor of a ‘proper’ camp orchestra. The hundreds of thousands of Jews who passed through the camp had left many valuable goods in the camp warehouses, and finding instruments was not difficult.
Gold managed to get his musicians excused from work detail in order to rehearse; they also received extra rations. The orchestra expanded to include a dancer and several singers, as well as some actresses and theatre artists from Warsaw. Eventually he developed a small jazz band, as well as a mixed chorus that performed songs composed by himself and an anonymous lyricist. According to some sources, Gold also composed the melody of the camp song, called the ‘Treblinka song’. One former inmate remembered his playing as follows:
As we stood at roll call, Gold entranced us with the old melodies he produced with his violin – amidst the sweet, nauseating stench of decomposing bodies which clung to us as if never wanting to part. The smell had become part of our very being; it was all that remained of our families and loved ones, a last remembrance of the Jewish people, exterminated in the gas chambers.
In the latter part of 1943, the remaining prisoners at Treblinka were forced to take part in so-called Freizeitveranstaltungen (leisure time events). As the Soviet Army was marching west in the direction of the camp, amusing music and sketches were being performed. Gold's 'privileged' status as orchestra conductor had no impact on his fate as a Jew caught up in the Nazi racial vision, however: he and his musicians were murdered during the camp’s final weeks.