The camp at Bergen-Belsen underwent many changes during its years of operation. Established in 1940 as a camp for POWs, it claimed the lives of tens of thousands of mostly Soviet soldiers, in addition to thousands of Jews, Gypsies (Sinti and Roma), homosexuals and ‘political enemies’. In 1943, a section of the camp was reserved for Jewish inmates. Here, Jews from many nations, including Anne Frank, were imprisoned under harsh conditions. In 1944, the camp was officially reclassified as a ‘recovery camp’, which meant that countless prisoners who were too ill or weak to work were sent here. When the camp was finally liberated by the British in April 1945, such was the devastation that the Nazis had inflicted upon their prisoners that over 10,000 died in the following months. The camp's barracks were burned down due to the threat of a typhus epidemic, but the largest Displaced Persons camp in post-war Germany was erected nearby. Many of the DPs, particularly Eastern European Jews, were to stay there for years, unable to rebuild a life for themselves in their native homelands, and lacking the support they needed to move away.
The camp was located on a small site approximately sixty kilometres north-east of Hannover. Between 1940 and 1943, it served as a prisoner-of-war camp for French, Belgian and later Soviet POWs. A small proportion of inmates survived the harsh conditions of the camp in these early years, but tens of thousands died through shooting, typhus or starvation. Such were the conditions for these POWs that little information exists about their daily lives, let alone about any sort of musical activities in which they might have engaged. The situation was very different, however, for the thousands of Jewish men, women and children brought there between 1943 and 1945.
In 1943, a section of the camp was enclosed for the arrival of several thousand Jewish prisoners, who were purportedly to be exchanged for German nationals held by the western Allies. This branch of the camp originally held mainly Dutch, French, Belgian and Norwegian Jews. Because they were intended to be exchanged or used for propaganda purposes, the conditions for some of these Jewish inmates was initially better than at other camps: they were often imprisoned as entire families, and some were allowed to keep their civilian clothing. Few of the Jewish detainees were ever actually exchanged. Nonetheless, the social composition of Bergen-Belsen differed dramatically from that of other concentration camps. At least initially, it was relatively homogeneous, in that most prisoners had arrived with their families and were housed with people who spoke the same language. Sometimes people were even put together with pre-war acquaintances. Most functionaries were Jewish, rather than, as was more typical of other camps, non-Jewish criminals. The Jewish leaders were more lenient and allowed more freedom of activity within the communities. Thus, although opportunities for music-making were still restricted compared with those of non-Jewish inmates in other camps, Jewish inmates here could participate in a wider range of activities than they could elsewhere.
Few documents survive to tell us about musical life in the camp. Scattered witness testimonies and diaries testify to the fact that informal music-making did occur, either in the form of singing, or performing on instruments when inmates were able to keep these with them. The composition of the camp population ensured as well a rich cultural life: the SS had selected a higher percentage of educated families to set aside for possible exchange; in addition, the large number of rabbis meant that religious activity was kept up, and this almost always included music. On the Sabbath or holy days
often we would burst out into the traditional Sabbath Zemirot (table songs). Though our voices were subdued because of the guards, yet we sang with trembling, and how happy we were!
Occasionally, a large international group of Jews gathered from the different sections of the camp would get together and sing in their various languages. For these Jewish inmates, it was only hope for the end of the Third Reich that strengthened their resolve.
And anyone who wants to know how that manifests itself should go into Hut 12 on Sunday evenings when the French, Albanian and Serbian Jews are the guests of the Greeks, and there is singing. Then there is excitement and life in the group. A freedom song, and the rhythm is accompanied by hand clapping and stamping of feet ... the song wells up and the full vitality is felt. The stubborn power of the Jewish nation breaks through. French and Greek, Serbian and Russian songs are sung, most are incomprehensible, but everyone knows their meaning: 'Il faut se tenir' (They are not going to beat us). Then at the end the Greek national anthem is sung, and after that ... Hebrew, Hatikvah (The hope).
The German Jewess Zielinger [first name unknown] included some snippets in her camp diary about some fellow inmates interned in another barracks:
A Hungarian violinist played ‘Sarasate’ and later Viennese songs. A Dutch woman sang ‘Halleluja’ and ‘Bohème’, a male singer likewise sang ‘Bohème’. This all in a dirty barracks with the elite of the camp that at one time — wearing the appropriate attire — was the audience of Mengelberg or Furtwängler. Starved, broken exiles who thankfully are able to enjoy the hour, and on the other hand human beings who take along on their deportation their violins.
The Dutch prisoner Clara Asscher-Pinkhof described the importance for her and her fellow prisoners of simply humming the themes of Mozart and the other composers they loved. Another former inmate, Albert Joachimsthal, recalled a five-year-old Dutch boy who had arrived with his parents at the beginning of 1944 and who played the mouth organ. There are also several accounts that testify to informal singing amongst groups of friends or fellow countrymen, and even clandestine cultural activities organised for children. Although it was forbidden, Clara Asscher-Pinkhof organised an informal education programme for the children. In addition to more traditional lessons, she wrote songs for an early morning dance class. In particular, children and youth remembered the importance of music; in their memoirs, no other art form is mentioned by them as frequently.
As was the case in most other Nazi camps, in Bergen-Belsen music was also used to serve the purposes of the SS. Josef Kramer, the former commander of Birkenau, took over control of Bergen-Belsen in December 1944. Just a few months earlier, in October 1944, the Birkenau women’s orchestra had been sent to Bergen-Belsen. From his arrival until the camp’s liberation in the spring of 1945, Kramer ordered two of the musicians — Hungarian violinist Lily Mathé and Dutch accordionist Fiora Schrijver — to perform at private gatherings at his house. There they were forced to offer ‘light entertainment’; in exchange, they received extra food or cigarettes.
As Allied forces advanced into Germany in late 1944 and early 1945, Bergen-Belsen became a collection camp for thousands of prisoners evacuated from camps closer to the front, many of them survivors of death marches. In the camp's final days, prisoners were ordered to drag thousands of corpses to mass graves from early morning to late in the evening. This task was accompanied by two prisoners’ bands playing on Kramer’s orders. A former inmate remembers the confusion of emotions that ran through these days and nights, as
co-existing with the deepest misery was a new hopefulness. Two bands played dance music all day long while 2,000 men were dragging corpses to the burial pits. There had always been violins and guitars in the camp and the gypsies had often practised fragments of music in the evenings, but in the last few days there was a complete band. The SS encouraged them, giving them cigarettes, and so they played, in the open air, from dawn to dusk, and the corpses jolted over the stones and the SS men and kapos clubbed and lashed the stumbling prisoners to the melodies of Lehar and Johann Strauss.
On 15 April 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. As they approached the camp, some French women burst into a rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’. As soon as the camp had been officially liberated, a group of prisoners brought a record player and piano in from a nearby city and organised an impromptu cultural programme. At a Jewish Sabbath service, surviving Jewish inmates gave an emotional rendition of the anthem 'Hatikvah'.
After evacuating the camp, British forces burned it down to prevent the spread of disease. The Displaced Persons camp established near the original camp site became a model for DP camps. A cultural department was formed in September 1945, which organised the activities of two theatre groups. The first performance was held that September, offering a collection of short skits. There had been informal activities even earlier, in particular in the spheres of education and childcare. Because of the huge boom in marriages and births, the child population of the camp grew rapidly; children were a priority for the Jewish community. As was the trend in other Jewish DP camps, the school system was strong, including a kindergarten, high school and several religious schools and Zionist organisations. There were also extensive vocational training programmes.
Once the camp officially became solely for Jewish inmates, it was organised by the Central Jewish Committee in Bergen-Belsen. This committee represented all Jews in all DP camps, as well as the Jewish-German community of the British zone. In addition to producing the first Jewish newspaper in post-war Germany, one of its first actions was to publish a songbook, released in 1946, entitled Concentration Camp and Ghetto Songs. The editor, actor and musician Zami Feder, recognised the importance of music in the history of the Holocaust, and wrote in his introduction to the collection:
While still in the concentration camps I began collecting camp and ghetto songs by known and unknown poets … after the liberation I re-commenced the same task. I prepared a brochure of some of the songs … which will enable future historians to illustrate this tragic period in our lives. Thus had 'someone' written, and thus had it been sung.
Bergen-Belsen was also a frequent stop for actors and musicians touring post-war Germany, and several artists from Europe and the United States put on shows to packed houses. In June 1946 the Hannover symphony orchestra brought 55 members to play for a crowd of over 1,000. Herman Yablokoff, a Polish Jew who had emigrated to the USA in 1924, gave several shows in August of that year. Performing for an audience made up of a large number of Polish Jews, he sang traditional Yiddish folk songs, as well as songs and poems from the ghettos. On 10 July 1950 the last DPs left Bergen-Belsen and the camp finally shut its gates. The handful of survivors still without a place to go were transferred to other camps in Germany, where some waited up to a year for the paperwork, or the financial assistance, necessary to leave. Finally, by August 1951, the very last of the Bergen-Belsen survivors had found a home.
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