Amidst even the horrors of the Holocaust, there are events that stand out for their scale and cruelty. One such event took place on 3 November 1943, code-named (with typical Nazi cynicism) the 'Harvest festival', or Aktion Erntefest. At the concentration and death camp Majdanek and the Trawniki and Poniatowa labour camps in eastern Poland, this day began with a mass roll-call, as usual. Once the prisoners had been counted, however, the SS officers commanded the Jewish inmates to form a separate group and to strip. In the preceding days, prisoners had been forced to dig large ditches on the outskirts of the camps; now they were led on the short walk to these freshly dug graves. Before the killing began, however, one final part of the plan needed to be completed: two large sets of loudspeakers were wired up, and march music began to play. At this point the shooting began. This went on for hours. As one witness recalled:
After the first rounds the noise from the loudspeakers drowned out the further shots. The speakers that had been attached to the watchtowers broadcast in full volume cheerful dance music ... the music flooded the entire camp. Only in the short pauses necessary to change records did the shots echo through the air ... around 4pm the music was silenced. Now [we] heard only occasional single shots that echoed to us from the crematoria.
The massacre, which claimed more than 40,000 lives, was apparently a reaction to Nazi war defeats, as well as to Jewish uprisings in the Warsaw ghetto, Treblinka and Sobibor. The victims of Aktion Erntefest were only some of the tens of thousands who were killed or died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion at this camp in eastern Poland.
Unlike the vast majority of Nazi camps, Majdanek was built in immediate proximity to a large and densely populated city, Lublin. Neither camouflaged nor hidden by natural barriers, it was plainly visible to the city’s inhabitants. Constructed in 1941, it functioned (like Auschwitz) as both a concentration and a death camp. Initially it housed Soviet prisoners of war captured by the German army. These soldiers were subjected to harsh treatment and were worked to death in their thousands; in addition many, already weakened by starvation and exhaustion, died during a typhus epidemic in the winter of 1941-42. At Majdanek, the ‘natural’ death rate was one of the highest in the Nazi camps. Large numbers of Jews, as well as Polish political prisoners and members of the underground, were also interned and killed in the camp.
Mass murder operations in gas chambers began at Majdanek in the fall of 1942 and continued until the end of 1943. The camp was liberated by the Soviets in July 1944, and although the fleeing Nazis burned all records, they did not manage to destroy the camp itself, making it the best preserved major Nazi concentration camp today.
Majdanek’s prisoner population was diverse, including Jews from many countries, Soviet soldiers and political prisoners of all sorts. During the early years of the camp, it was the Soviet prisoners and the community of Slovakian Jews that were best known for their musical activity. There is evidence that both of these groups frequently sang the songs of their homeland in their bunkers at night and while working, although this was forbidden. In addition, after the evening roll call, religious Jews would secretly gather together to sing. In the spring of 1942, an unknown prisoner composed the ‘Jews’ Song of the KZ Lublin’ (an alternative name used for Majdanek.)
These limited forms of clandestine music-making expanded in 1943, when the prohibition on cultural entertainment was lifted. The camp administration allowed for singing and music groups, but prisoners were only allowed to pursue these activities before and after roll-calls and work, so they had limited time and energy for them. Several choruses were established in the camp: Greek Jews and Byelorussians formed a choir, and a Polish women’s choir sang on Sundays in the women’s camp. Amongst the female prisoners, political prisoners sometimes put on concerts and variety shows.
In addition to evidence of organised choruses, there are records of individual and group singing in barracks, on the way to work, or simply at random moments of quiet or freedom from guards. An operetta singer from Warsaw gave mini-concerts of lighthearted songs in the barracks. Zofia Karpinska wrote poems and lyrics. There were also several other camp songs, written by prisoners to commemorate the suffering and deaths of their families and communities. In February 1943, an unknown prisoner wrote ‘O Majdanek our Life and Death,’ describing the mass murders of Polish Jews in the camp. Another song, with the refrain 'There never has been, nor will there ever be, anywhere on earth, a sun like that which shines upon our Majdanek,' was popular. A former prisoner remembered that
we sang it everywhere we went, all day long, at work, at mealtime, before going to sleep, and even when we were kicked and beaten by our jailers. At night, when we lay on our bunks, our stomachs hollow, our spirits despairing, we would hum the Majdanek song and see visions of fields and forests, towns and villages, visions of peace and contentment. And for a little while the heavy burden pressing on our hearts dissolved into healing tears of hope and yearning.
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Silverman, J., 2002. The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust, Syracuse University Press.
Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.
Weinreich, R. ed., 2002. Verachtet, verfolgt, vergessen:Leiden und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas in der Grenzregion am Hochrhein im "Dritten Reich", Hausern: Signum Design.