Exhibition Review - Music in Nazi Camps

Curated by Elise Petit

Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris, April 20, 2023 - February 25, 2024

Few exhibitions have been devoted exclusively to the little-known aspect of the presence, role, meaning and value of music in the Nazi camp system. In the recently opened exhibition Music in Nazi Camps, which will be on show at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris from 20 April 2023 to 25 February 2024, curator Elise Petit takes us through the emotional, heartbreaking and uplifting variations of this reality in camps in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and France.

Throughout the exhibition, Petit brings us her deeply researched insights into the value of music in the camps, ranging from notions of abuse and destruction to forms of resilience and cathartic cohesion. She shows how music functioned in the camps as a means of community, resistance, creativity and escape, but also as a means of torture, humiliation and coercion.

More broadly, the beneficial effects of music on human beings are well known. Listening to music improves well-being, can be uplifting, and can provide a form of release or an outlet for the expression of emotions. When performed together, it can help build resilience, and in the context of the Holocaust, experts say music became essential to the formation and survival of groups. Music has the emotional capacity to create bonds and social cohesion, bringing people together through social and ritual activities. At the same time, as this exhibition shows, music in extremis can also have harmful effects on people, such as overstimulation and anxiety.

The exhibition Music in Nazi Camps highlights the obsession with efficiency in the processes of mass murder in the Nazi killing centres and concentration camps. While some orchestras were forced to play for the arrival of convoys to ensure order during the selection of deportees, the exhibition is an important reminder to visitors that there were no orchestras to accompany the victims who were forced into the gas chambers: a preconceived notion that many have about how music was used by camp authorities and where prisoners were forced to play.  For example, in a recorded interview with Violette Jacquet-Silberstein, one of the few survivors of the women's orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she affirms that

"never, never, never did an orchestra play to accompany the victims to the gas chambers, nor in the gas chambers".

Hans Bonarewitz (on the wagon), an alleged criminal recaptured after an escape, is led to the Mauthausen gallows in a macabre SS spectacle on July 30, 1942. (BMI/Fotoarchiv der KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen)

The overall aim of Music in the Nazi Camps is to make this aspect of Holocaust history accessible to as wide a public as possible, for example through the display of material evidence. Nearly 300 objects and documents are on display, including music scores, secret drawings and paintings, clothing, instruments made and used by prisoners, and administrative documents from the perpetrators. In addition, descriptive texts help to contextualise the specific places in the camps where music was present: at the gate, in the roll call square, between and inside the prisoners' barracks, in the SS garrisons.

Throughout the exhibition, Petit describes how prisoner orchestras were organised as early as 1933 and how music accompanied the daily life of the victims in the camps.

Prisoner orchestras were used to set the pace of marches, as a means of coercion and discipline, both under the ubiquitous and menacing camp gate with the infamous motto "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) and in the roll call square, where prisoners were forced to stand for hours, morning and night, in all weathers. Music was also played in the SS garrisons for entertainment and to maintain military cohesion. Most importantly, it remained present among the prisoners as part of their psychological survival and spiritual resistance, shared (sometimes necessarily whispered from ear to ear) to boost morale. Although such acts had to remain hidden, music helped them to resist, if not defy, the camp system, which constantly violated their fundamental freedoms.

In the exhibition's five rooms, visitors can listen to camp songs and resistance anthems, as well as contemporary popular tunes that were well known to the Nazis and were often played over loudspeakers in the camps and forced on the prisoners. Songs such as Belleville-Ménilmontant by Aristide Bruant, which parodies lyrics written and performed by prisoners in an annex of Buchenwald, are also included. Listening to this music, with its melodies and rhythms, is a very rich experience that connects us directly to that time and place.

It is heartening to learn that some of the conductors of camp orchestras, for example at Auschwitz, were also able to expand their group and thus save lives. Under the guise of being able to perform a particular piece of music, some would suggest increasing the size of the orchestra to accommodate such a request.

The viewer also gains an understanding of how the instruments came to be in the camps, either arriving with the prisoners, sent by family members on the outside, or found in nearby villages and requisitioned by the Nazis.  Seeing some of these instruments, found after the camps were liberated, brings home the fact that many of these camps were prisons, not just killing centres. So too does the relentlessness of the SS's cruel and humiliating practices, such as making victims walk for miles in shoes designed for the German army, accompanied by German nationalist marching songs, or being forced to sing psalms or anti-Semitic texts while being physically beaten. Prisoners could be forced to play all night to entertain the SS men for the meagre benefit of extra food rations, only to end up exhausted.

A music book containing scores. 'Jeszcze Pokke niezgynyła' (Pokke isn't dead yet). An artefact that can be seen at the exhibit.

Accompanying these instruments are elaborate songbooks and musical partitions, often small in size and created in secret. These objects are powerful reminders of the value individuals placed on such moments of respite from the horrors of the places they found themselves, highlighting the resistance found in creativity and the harmony they could find in the chaos around them.

The exhibition is designed to provide a full and qualified appreciation of the use and value of music in the Nazi camp complex. Importantly, it is also accompanied by a bilingual catalogue in French and English.

Reviewed By Monique Gross