At the end of April 1945, it was clear to the Nazis that the war was lost. The camps were being liquidated and their inmates either killed or sent on death marches without food, water or adequate clothing. In the concentration camp Neuengamme, as in other Nazi camps, the chaos of these final days led to the deaths of many additional thousands of prisoners. Emil Burian, the Czech leftist composer, writer and musician, was among several thousand weak and sickly inmates in the main camp that the Nazis ‘removed’. Some were forced onto the converted ocean-liner ‘Cap Alcona’. The ship, set loose on the water, was intended to serve as an ideal target for Allied air strikes. Stuck with the other prisoners in tiny cabins without food or water, Burian did what he had done in many camps and prisons over the past four years: he wrote, composing a lengthy poem about Prague and the glories of socialism and the Red Army. As the Allied ships were circling overhead, he recited it to the men in his cabin. On 3 May, British and American planes attacked the ship, not knowing who was on board. Those who managed to swim to shore were shot by waiting SS officers. Among the few hundred that survived was Burian.
This escape was one of countless brushes with death that the Czech artist had over the course of his difficult life. He was born on 11 June 1904 in the city of Pilsen to a musical family: his father was a famous baritone, his mother a soprano and his uncle a well-known tenor. From his youth he was exposed to classical and avant-garde music and jazz, and he studied composition in Prague. During the 1920s, he became increasingly interested in theatre, and also joined the Communist Party. Convinced of the power of theatre as an opportunity for political commentary, he founded the experimental performance group ‘Tam-Tam’. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, his writings became increasingly nationalistic and anti-fascist. After the occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was an outspoken critic, encouraging his fellow countrymen to resist the Nazis.
On 12 March 1941 Burian was arrested by the Gestapo, who destroyed many of his writings and compositions. Tried for ‘conspiracy against the German Reich’, he and the other workers of his theatre were deported. He spent the next year moving from prison to prison, where he was consistently assigned tiny cells, little food and the hardest work details. Already weak at the time of his arrest, he would quickly have died had it not been for the interventions of various prisoner organisations and individuals. In the prison cells and barracks, he organised political education programmes, teaching revolutionary songs and sharing his faith in the power of the Red Army.
In June 1941, Burian was transferred to Dachau, where he was assigned to a particularly harsh work commando. Burian managed to survive by developing a relationship with the group's German Kapo, a great music lover who had Burian accompany him on the harmonica. In return for these performances, he received just enough extra food to survive. Burian also frequently recited, sang and wrote texts for his fellow prisoners. However, although he was in Dachau for over a year and maintained contact with many musicians, he was never able to get himself into the category of musical ‘prominents’, and was not brought into the camp orchestra. He did, however, sing with the jazz band.
In early August 1942, Burian was transferred from Dachau to Neuengamme. His circumstances initially improved: he got a job in an armaments factory and had the support of other Czech prisoners there. Good at what he did, and with people willing to cover for him, he had some free time to learn French and write poetry. He also joined a group of Czech conspirators who were involved in cultural activities and acts of resistance. On weekends, the camp prominents organised parties for which the camp band was made to play; Burian was pressured to participate as a pianist, a job he regarded as prostitution. In addition to these mandatory performances for the guards and the elites, Burian frequently entertained in the barracks. He performed material that included songs from the leftist The Threepenny Opera, which was especially popular with German anti-fascists. In 1944, he composed a piece for the Christmas festival, which included a large choir and a 20-piece string orchestra. It was a hit, opening with the lines:
Our daily bread is a hard bread, tastes like blood, tastes like sweat, tastes like tears. When we are surrounded by labour, then we eat silently, then we quickly grind with our teeth our daily bread! Our piece of bread.
Burian also accompanied himself on the piano, sang chansons and composed songs that he performed with other musicians in the camp. Unfortunately, all of these texts were lost with the sinking of the ‘Cap Alcona’.
After the war, Burian went on to work as a successful director, actor, musician, composer and publisher. He died in Prague on 9 August 1959.
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