Music amongst Displaced Persons

The Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps of occupied post-war Europe were home to a diverse range of musical activities. In the American and British zones of occupation in Germany in particular, where several camps were established exclusively for Jewish refugees, surviving victims of the Nazi genocide used music as a means to chronicle what they had experienced, to raise morale, and to imagine possible futures after the catastrophe.

A number of high-profile Jewish visiting artists travelled to the DP camps, among them the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the British composer and pianist Benjamin Britten, the American singer Emma Schaver, and the American conductor Leonard Bernstein. Many additional concerts were given by visiting musicians from the United States, Europe, and Palestine. A nurse present at one of Menuhin and Britten’s concerts at Bergen-Belsen recalled that

it was inspiring to see these two compassionate men, clad simply in shirt and shorts, creating glorious melody and moving amongst the people in the crowded hut who were difficult to rouse from a deadly mental lethargy as a result of the horrors and privations they had suffered.  They were successful in some cases in wooing them back to life and hope and commence [sic] the healing of the mind and body.

In her book Mir Zaynen Do!, written after her visit to the DP camps, the singer Emma Schaver described the sense of responsibility she felt towards her people:

I wanted at least to pay my debt to the people, to give these unfortunate people joy, pleasure, spiritual enjoyment. To bring to life for them again the almost forgotten Yiddish and Hebrew songs, to bring to them through sound the fragrance of Eretz-Yisrael to which they aspired with all their being. To refresh for them the songs that they heard in their childhood from their mothers […] And the more I sang and saw the light in their eyes, and heard their drawn breath, the more I felt that I owed it to them.

The DPs themselves also organized a wide range of musical activities in the camps, including several performing groups that travelled to various camps and refugee centres. An orchestra was established by Michael Hofmekler together with eight other former members of the Kovno ghetto orchestra at St. Ottilien, a monastery that was used as a Jewish hospital and DP camp from April 1945 until November 1948. Originally named the ‘St. Ottilien orchestra’, later the ‘Ex-Concentration Camp orchestra’, and finally the ‘Representative orchestra of the She’erit Hapletah’, the group performed at the Liberation Concert, the first official gathering of Jewish survivors held on 27 May 1945 at St Ottilien. In Bergen-Belsen, the former inmate Samy Feder organized a 30-member theatre troupe named the Kazet-Teater (Concentration Camp Theatre), which performed Yiddish plays and songs, first in Belsen and later travelling to other camps and hospitals in Germany, as well as to France and Belgium. A popular band led by Chaim (Henry) Baigelman called The Happy Boys, made up of eight surviving musicians from Lodz, travelled to DP camps across the American zone between 1945 and 1949, performing a variety of instrumental and vocal music from Jewish folk songs to operetta and jazz.

A small but substantial repertoire of new songs also began to be created by Jewish DPs at this time. These tackled a range of topical issues, from loss, displacement, and loneliness to the longing for Palestine and the perils of illegal immigration. They  offered defiant affirmations of Jewish existence, as well as satirical jabs at aid agencies like the Joint, the Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT), and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Apart from the performance activities themselves, music also featured prominently in several initiatives that were launched amongst DPs to document the Nazi era and to preserve the memory of the victims. Although those involved in these collection initiatives placed their primary emphasis on testimonies, many also consistently expressed their interest in songs, stories, jokes, and other cultural remnants of the communities they sought to memorialize. Songs were seen to play a valuable role, both as historical sources that would enable future researchers to reconstruct what had happened, and as artefacts that could perhaps preserve the voices, and thereby the memory, of the victims. Three of the most important of these collection initiatives were the work of Shmerke Kaczerginski primarily in Lithuania and Poland, that of the Central Historical Commission in Munich, and the interview project carried out by the psychologist David Boder in Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland. In all three cases, music was conceived as an integral part of the larger mission to document and preserve, rather than as an initiative on its own terms. Many of the collectors commented explicitly on how they felt the songs they had collected might help in the larger project of recording and remembering what had happened. Kaczerginski, for example, felt strongly that songs revealed not how the victims were acted upon as passive objects, but rather the ways in which they had actively lived under the Nazi occupation and responded to what was happening:

Few documents were preserved that would allow even a partial picture of the practical, official existence and the way of life of Jews in the occupied territories. Therefore, I think that the songs that Jews from ghettos, death camps and partisans sang from their sad hearts, will be a great contribution to the history of Jewish martyrdom and struggle. […] The daily Jewish life in the ghetto with all its accompanying phenomena, like arrests, death, work, Gestapo, Jewish power-mongers, internal way of life, etc.—are reflected in precisely this bloody folklore. It will help future history-writers and researchers as well as readers to fathom the soul of our people.


Fetthauer, S. et al., 2005. Musik in DP-Camps: Bericht über ein laufendes Projekt der Arbeitsgruppe Exilmusik. In T. Knipper et al., eds. Form Follows Function: Zwischen Musik, Form und Funktion: Beiträge zum 18. internationalen studentischen Symposium des DVSM (Dachverband der Studierenden der Musikwissenschaft) in Hamburg 2003. Hamburg: von Bockel Verlag.  

Gay, R., 2002. Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.  

Gilbert, S., 2008. Buried Monuments: Yiddish Songs and Holocaust Memory. History Workshop Journal, 66, 107-128.  

Gilbert, S., “Es benkt zikh nokh a haym”: Songs and Survival amongst Jewish DPs. In A. J. Patt & M. Berkowitz, eds. "We Are Here": New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.  

Katsherginski, S. & Leivick, H. eds., Lider fun di Getos un Lagern, New York: Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres.  

Schaver, E., 1948. Mir zaynen do! Ayndrukn un batrakhtungen fun a bazukh bay der sha'arit ha-peletah, New York.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive: 1996.A.0403 (concert programs and other ephemera relating to Happy Boys); photo archive #N03182, #NO3183, #N03184.

Voices of the Holocaust Project (David Boder),