The Holocaust - Lest we Forget - Orchestras

Prisoners' orchestra in Buchenwald concentration camp

       The question why the Nazis used orchestras in concentration and extermination camps, and why the life of some musicians was spared and others not is difficult to answer. Some Nazis realized the advantage of having music dupe the unsuspecting and weary prisoners on arrival or when sending them on their way to the gas chambers. Then there were those in the Nazi hierarchy who believed that music would enhance their own entertainment. For instance, when victims were cruelly treated during long roll-calls on parade grounds, counting prisoners in marching columns to and from work detail, or during executions. However, the most logical answer still seems to be that many of the cruel Nazi hangman officials had a taste for good music. One such example was the sadistic SS Oberaufseherin - SS Chief Overseer, Maria Mandel. She was Chief of all the female Nazi Wardens in Birkenau. Since 1942 she held the position of Schutzhaftlagerführerin - Chief Warden for the women's barracks. As a lover of classical music she was an encouragement to and protector of the musicians who played in the women's orchestra of Birkenau. These female prisoner musicians were treated better than other inmates, such as those who were incarcerated in the political section or those who were employed in the kitchen. Their barracks were kept tidy and they usually received sufficient food and of better quality than the other inmates.

       However, much was demanded of these musicians. They had to perform for hours at roll-call regardless of weather conditions. After roll-call the other inmates, who were assigned to slave labor detail, marched out to work to the beat of music. Then in the evening, when these work details returned totally exhausted, they were again welcomed by the musicians as they marched back to their barracks. Again to the beat of music in order to be counted. Music was ordered for all official events such as the announcing of a speech by the Lagerführer - commandant. Or, to meet the daily incoming transports delivering its cargo of human flesh to the camps. Jews arriving at these camps to be killed were given the impression that their "new home" was not all that bad. The orchestras had to play when new arrivals, selected to be gassed, were sent directly to the gas chambers. They also had to play during the dreaded Selectionen - selections when the less healthy and sick were separated from the healthier ones who were still capable to work yet another day. And they had to play when executions were ordered such as the hanging of prisoners who had attempted escape. Last but not least, they had to perform to satisfy the pleasures of their tormentors, the men and women of the SS.

Hans Bonarewitz, the prisoner escaped from camp Mauthausen, is brought "in Nazi circus style" to the gallows on a makeshift cart pulled by fellow inmates; The camp orchestra had to continuously play the song J'attendrai ton retour - I shall wait for your return. Another song, the traditional German children's song "Alle Vögel sind schon da - All the birds are back again," was played immediately before execution. Information supplied by Mr. Aitor Fernandádez-Pacheco, Paris, maker of the documentary film "Mauthausen, una mirada Española," who interviewed the former Spanish prisoner Mario Constante for his documentary.

       Authoress Krystyna Henke who interviewed Louis Bannet, the trumpeter of Birkenau, writes in her report: "Unusual as it may seem, and contradictory for an environment whose function was to eradicate lower forms of human life, as defined by the Nazis, including all forms of their cultural expression, music was indeed played in many, though not all, camps. There is an important body of literature, based primarily on survivor testimonies, that illustrates musical life in the camps. There is, for example, 'The Terezin Requiem' by Josef Bor, or 'Music in Terezin 1941-1945' by Joza Karas, both of which describe the rich musical life in Theresienstadt, a ghetto that through subterfuge and propaganda was held up as a model camp by the Nazis in order to successfully assuage any doubts the Red Cross or other visiting international authorities may have had regarding the humanitarian treatment of prisoners."

 Prisoners' orchestra entertaining the SS in Auschwitz I

       In five of the extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras using prisoner-musicians, forcing them to play while their fellow prisoners marched to the gas chambers. The suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other camp workers with the exception of the Sondercommandos - death details. Many musicians were forced to watch helplessly as friends, family and fellow Jews systematically were destroyed. Auschwitz/Birkenau alone featured six different orchestras, one of which contained no less than 100-120 musicians.

       Fania Fenelon describes her experience as a member of a women's orchestra in Birkenau from January 1944 to liberation in her book 'Playing for Time.' Fenelon states in her book that even though she had clean clothes, daily showers, and a reasonable food supply she had to play light-hearted, cheerful music as well as marching music for hours on end while her eyes witnessed the marching of thousands of people to the gas chambers and crematoria."

The orchestra of the Janowska Camp in Lvov, Poland in 1943

       Other rich memoirs in which music was at the foreground in Nazi camps include 'Music of Another World' by Szymon Laks, 'Het meisje met de accordeon: De overleving van Flora Schrijver in Auschwitz/Birkenau en Bergen Belsen - The girl with the accordion: The survival of Flora Schrijver in Auschwitz/Birkenau and Bergen Belsen' by Mirjam Verheijen, 'Trompettist in Auschwitz I: Herinneringen van Lex van Weren - Trumpeter in Auschwitz I: Memories of Lex van Weren' by the author Dick Walda and 'Louis Bannet: Virtuoso of Birkenau' by Krystyna Henke. These five sources concentrate on the musical activities within Auschwitz or more correctly its extension, Birkenau.

       Many excellent musicians never were chosen to play. They were either not recognized or the Nazis already had enough musicians for their respective orchestras. For anyone who entered one of Hitler's horror camps, survival was foremost on the minds of the hapless inmates. Survival by means of playing a musical instrument was one such way. However, for all survival attempts a price had to be paid. These musicians literally played to stay alive, a day at a time because one just never knew what mood an SS guard might be in. On the other hand, by playing their instruments they sent hundreds of thousands of their fellow Jews to their death and there was nothing they could do to prevent it. Although the musicians more than likely did not see it that way, after all survival was the main object, nevertheless their function as musicians in an orchestra or otherwise much looked like the roll the Pied Piper of Hamelin played. He was the legendary 13th-century figure who rid Hamelin, Germany, of its rats by charming them away with his flute playing. When he was refused payment, he charmed away the town's children in revenge.

Violinist Benny Behr entertains children in Camp Westerbork

The orchestra of Transit Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands