Dicke Luft! The Foxtrot of Sachsenhausen

The gates of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Source: Hannah Wilson

Under pre-existing Nazi legislation known as Paragraph 175, “homosexual acts” were criminalised. Within days of Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor, LGBTQ+ people began to be persecuted. Many gay people fled abroad, formed heterosexual marriages or conformed to Nazi ideals. Germany’s thriving gay culture was destroyed, and many of these victims were sent to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, established in 1936 north of Berlin. Polish singer and songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen in 1940 because of his anti-fascist writings. He composed a number of songs there before being liberated from a death march in 1945. After his release, he compiled written documentation of his compositions, as well as those he had learned from fellow prisoners and other survivors whom he met later in life. He was committed to preserving cultural life in the camps, and the role of song as a form of resistance and perseverance among internees.

Although not personally part of the LGBT+ community, Kulisiewicz was approached by a “green badge” prisoner (classified as a “professional criminal”), and was asked to compose an energetic “camp foxtrot”, suggesting the title "Dicke Luft”. Es gibt dicke Luft! ("thick air coming!") was the byword at Sachenshausen when the authorities threatened to break up a liaison between homosexual prisoners. Kulisiewicz would later realise that his composition had featured at a secret social gathering of gay prisoners: an act of defiance that would have been punished by the Nazi guards. Dicke Luft! can thus be considered as a musical legacy and protest song of the “homosexual” prisoners in Sachsenhausen, whose basic human rights were threatened by homophobic fascism, and who refused to let their imprisonment oppress their sexual expression.

Sachsenhausen and Inmate “Categories”

Prisoners wearing pink triangles on their uniforms are marched outdoors by Nazi guards at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany on Dec. 19, 1938. National Archives and Records Service at College Park.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built in the summer of 1936: the first to be established after the appointment of Reich Leader (Reichsführer) SS Heinrich Himmler as the Chief of the German Police in July 1936. It was conceived as an ‘ideal’ concentration camp, and was intended to subject the internees to the absolute power of the SS, both physically and symbolically. More than 200,000 people were interned in Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945, with an estimated 30,000-50,000 deaths prior to the end of the war. Prisoners included political opponents of the Nazi regime, members of groups declared by the Nazis to be racially or biologically inferior, such as Jews, Sinti and Roma, people persecuted as homosexuals, and so-called “professional criminals” and “antisocials”.

Under the Nazi regime in Germany, people were persecuted if they did not conform to social norms, and this was particularly true for homosexual men who were strongly repressed. Although homosexual women were not usually “legally” prosecuted, in some cases they could also be imprisoned as “antisocial” individuals. Researchers Esther Cuerda-Galindo, Francisco Lopez-Muñoz, Matthis Krischel and Astrid Ley identify discrimination against the LGBTQ+ population on three different levels: institutional, social and personal. In Sachsenhausen, approximately 1,200 prisoners were classified as homosexuals. From 1871 onwards, male homosexuality was illegal in Germany under paragraph 175 of Penal Code and, during the Nazi period, the severity of this law increased. The Nazis believed that homosexuality was a contagious disease and that homosexual persons were a threat not only to the ideal of Aryan race, but also to the social policy which needed them as reproductive elements and to serve in the armed forces. Between the 1930 and 1940s, the fascist government presented homosexuality as legally, socially and morally deviant. These prisoners were marked with a pink triangle in concentration camps and were treated as the lowest of the low, along with Jewish prisoners. According to Kulisiewicz, they earned the nickname “warme Bruder” (warm brother) and were subjected to the most brutal and crass words of abuse. They were given the worst labour assignments, were punished, tortured and often rejected by their fellow prisoners. On an individual level, these men continued to be persecuted and isolated in the social life of the camp, often without family support. Amongst the prisoners themselves, few wanted to associate with them for fear of also being considered homosexual themselves, and because of the widespread homophobia at the time. In Sachsenhausen, a number of homosexual victims ultimately took their own lives as a way to escape the constant alienation and persecution, if they were not murdered as part of the violent camp regime.

Initially, the population of Sachsenhausen was comprised predominantly of German citizens, but after the outbreak of the Second World War, tens of thousands of people were deported to the camp from occupied territories, including political opponents of National Socialism or of the collaborating governments, foreign forced labourers and Allied prisoners of war. In 1944, about 90% of the internees were foreigners, the largest groups being citizens of the Soviet Union and Poland. Sanitary conditions in the camp were primitive from the start, but worsened with the outbreak of war. In the final months before the end of the war the death rate increased at an incredible rate. Many prisoners would die in Sachsenhausen due to exhaustion, starvation, exposure, abuse, and lack of medical care. The camp administration expanded to include more than 40 subcamps mainly concentrated around armaments industries in the greater Berlin area in northern Germany. The evacuation of Sachsenhausen concentration camp began in the early hours of 21 April 1945. More than 30,000 remaining internees were marched off in groups towards the north-west. Thousands of internees died on these death marches.

Aleksander Kulisiewicz in Sachsenhausen

Portrait of Polish musician, Aleksander Kulisiewicz. Circa 1965, Krakow. Photograph Number: 43571, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Born in 1918 in Krakow, Poland, Aleksander Kulisiewicz grew up in Cieszyn, near the Czech border. His interest in music developed at an early age, and he became a talented singer and songwriter, with a strong passion for performing. He led a colourful and exciting life, and in the summer before the outbreak of the war, Kulisiewicz joined a travelling circus and worked as a clown's assistant.

After the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, Kulisiewicz became a person of interest to the Nazis due to his anti-fascist writings which had appeared in the Cieszyn press. As a result, he was arrested by the gestapo and, after numerous prison transfers, was sent to Sachsenhausen in the spring of 1940, aged 22. As Bret Werb and Barbara Milewiski note, Kulisiewicz became something of a “camp troubadour”, finding solace in poetry, composition and song writing. He favoured broadsides — songs of “attack” whose aggressive language and macabre imagery reflected the horrors of camp life. He earned the intrigue of the guards who were “charmed” by his fearless and eccentric persona, portraying himself as something of a mystic story-teller and distracting them with tales of war and romance. He also provided spiritual and psychological morale amongst the prisoners, performing at clandestine gatherings and sustaining hope for survival through his music and singing style. In turn, Kulisiewicz considered the camp song to be a form of documentation, stating: 'In the camp, I tried under all circumstances to create verses that would serve as direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs.' Indeed, this would become his post-war legacy, having spent a total of five years in Sachsenhausen.

Composing “Dicke Luft!”: The LGBT Foxtrot of Sachsenhausen

The persecution of gay prisoners peaked in 1942, when the Gestapo systematically transferred "registered homosexuals"—those marked with a pink triangle—to the Strafkompanie (punishment unit), an often fatal assignment in Sachsenhausen. Nevertheless, homosexual activity remained an integral part of camp life, notably among the so-called "asocial" (black triangle) and "criminal" (green triangle) prisoners. Some of these, Prominents, the name given to more privileged and protected inmates, managed to organise get-togethers at their cell-blocks, complete with music and dancing. Kulisiewicz reports that in early November, 1943, he was approached by a "green badge" prisoner who was also a camp Prominent:

“He ordered me to write some sort of "real" camp foxtrot, rousing and full of energy. He even proposed the title, "Dicke Luft." My honorarium: one-and-a-half portions of bread. I came up with a melody overnight—a friend transcribed it into notation the next day to give me the polish of a real composer—and the following evening I presented myself to my employer. [...] He requested only that I introduce short pauses to the rhythm to give the tune some "bounce." I wasn't quite sure what he wanted, so he corrected it himself”.

Es gibt dicke Luft! ("thick air coming!") was the byword at Sachenshausen when the authorities threatened to break up a liaison between homosexual inmates. The prisoner who had approached Kulisiewicz was named Paul Gefreiter. Gefreiter was a German prisoner who had been assigned by the SS to recruit fellow non-Jewish German inmates to join a special “military unit”, intended to combat uprisings and partisan activities in the occupied territories under the command of General Oskar Dirlewanger. In his “fortunate” position, he had access to the SS kitchen and could therefore secure more food rations, and presented himself with an assured sovereignty in the camp that Kulisiewicz felt he must respect.

Dicke Luft!

Miał, miał Ober-hau-hau
Wybite zęby dwa;
Wył, wył-ł, obżarty był,
Z pyska mu ślina szła…
I był sobie Kiciu mały,

Taki mały, mały Kić….
Spał, spał, robił "miau-miau!"—
I nie chciał wcale wyć.
I nie chciał wcale wyć.

Dididi didi didi,
Dididi… di-cke Luft!
Dididi didi didi,
Dididi dicke Lu-uft!...

Uwaga! Achtzehn! Attention!
Wniemanje! Pozor! Pst!
Verboten ist zu schieben,
Verboten "miau-miau" wird!

Dididi didi didi,
Dididi dicke Luft,
Dididi didi didi,
Dididi dicke Lu-uft!

Thick Air!

Commandant Woof-Woof
With two teeth knocked-out,
Howled, howled, stuffed like a pig—
Saliva dribbled from his mug.
And then there was Little Kitty,

Such a bitty, Little Kitty,
He napped, napped and yapped "meow-meow"
He didn’t want to howl at all.
He didn’t want to howl at all.

Di-didi didi didi,
Di-didi di-cke Luft!
Di-didi didi didi,
Di-didi dicke Lu-uft!

Caution! Achtung! Attention!
Vnimanie! Pozor! Psst!
Funny business not allowed!
No "meow-meowing" either!

Di-didi didi didi,
Di-didi dicke Luft!
Di-didi didi didi,
Di-didi dicke Lu-uft!

(Translation by Barbara Milewiski)

The musical notation of “Dicke Luft!” was beautifully handwritten on an artful card, the front page of which presented an ornate, kitschy family crest, with the initials P. G., ordered by Paul Gefreiter (the author of the drawing had been a W. Siminski). Kulisiewicz recalled Gefreiter’s jubilant response to his melody, observing that the man must have been musical. Originally, the work was simply a dance melody, and only later were words added. Similarly, only later would Kulisiewicz learn of the song’s purpose, and the reason why Gefreiter had placed his commission. The homosexual prisoners used it to dance to a degraded so-called “Warme-Bruder-Fox” (Warm brothers’ foxtrot), rhythmically embracing one another with abdomens touching, then repelling, then repeating the steps again. Kulisiewicz testified that homosexuality had grown in practice in the Prominents’ blocks, especially among the “greens”(green triangles) and “blacks” (black triangles). In wider practice at Sachsenhasen, there was a fear being involved in so-called homosexual “dances,” which were vulgarly referred to as “buzerantbal.” Nevertheless, such balls occurred as an act of spiritual resistance and sexual expression, despite the severe penalties they would face if discovered.

On New Year's Eve, 1943, Kulisiewicz himself performed “Dicke Luft!” for the first time. In preparation, he added words to the melody, transforming the the song’s narrative into a cartoonish vignette about two dubious characters: a rabid, gluttonous Kommandant Woof-Woof and the insolent Little Kitty, nicknamed “Kic” (Kicio Bimbus—devil-may-care tomcat), who shrugged everything off.

Legacy

Kulisiewicz composed a total of 54 songs during his imprisonment in Sachsenhausen. He was liberated from a death march from Sachsenhausen on 2nd May 1945. After his liberation, he began to dictate hundreds of pages of both his own compositions, as well as those he had heard around him, to his nurse in a Polish infirmary. During the post-war, he married, had children and took a job as Prague correspondent for a Warsaw newspaper. But, life in Sachsenhausen was never far from his thoughts and he began to communicate with other survivors, collecting original materials and compiling an extensive library of literature concerning artistic expression in Nazi concentration camps. Before his death in 1982, he toured Europe performing at anti-fascist rallies, and to countries as remote as the Soviet Union and the US. He also released albums in Poland, Germany, Italy, France and the United States. His life became dedicated to recording and preserving the cultural, social and musical life of the Holocaust, and of those persecuted under Nazi rule. Kulisiewicz's near-finished 3,000-page typescript of song texts, musical notation and extensive annotations is held in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; 500 songs that represent the musical activity of 36 different camps are included in the collection. 

“Dicke Luft!” is just one example of how music allowed prisoners of concentration camps to retain some joy and normality in the most horrific, violent and extreme circumstances. As Kulisiewicz concluded, the camp atmosphere deterred any thoughts of affectionate moments between prisoners, and there was plenty of vileness to go around. He considered that this is perhaps why certain prisoners groups, such as registered “homosexuals” did not object to the entire camp calling them by some sort of “fairy-tale” children’s nickname which, under normal circumstances, would have rightfully been intolerable. The story of the song’s composition not only testifies to prisoner hierarchies and social structures in the camp, but also the need for intimacy and caring human interaction.

In the face of brutal homophobia, then, this piece can be considered as a “protest” song of resistance for the LGBT community in Sachsenhausen who, despite constant harassment and elimination of their basic human rights, managed to maintain their sexuality through the form of dance and romantic engagement. Furthermore, Kulisiewicz’s “Dicke Luft!” can also help to commemorate those prisoners who lost their lives as a result of their sexual orientation, either at the hands of the Nazis or through suicide.

As part of LGBTQ+ history month, World ORT Music and the Holocaust remembers these individuals, and seeks to contribute to keeping their memory alive.

By Hannah Wilson

This article is based on the research of Bret Werb and Barbara Milewiski into the collection of Aleksander Kulisiewicz

Sources:

Cuerda-Galindo E, Lo´pez-Muñoz F, Krischel M, Ley A (2017) “Study of deaths by suicide of homosexual prisoners in Nazi Sachsenhausen concentration camp”, PLoS ONE, 12(4): e0176007

“Dicke Luft!” Sachsenhausen, 1943 Lyrics and music: Aleksander Kulisiewicz, Bret Werb and Barbara Milewiski, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Aleksander Kulisiewicz collection, 1939-1986, Accession Number: 1992.A.0034.1 | RG Number: RG-55, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, LGBT History Month: www.hmd.org.uk/resource/lgbt-history-month/