The overall aim of Music in the Nazi Camps is to make this aspect of Holocaust history accessible to as wide a public as possible, for example through the display of material evidence. Nearly 300 objects and documents are on display, including music scores, secret drawings and paintings, clothing, instruments made and used by prisoners, and administrative documents from the perpetrators. In addition, descriptive texts help to contextualise the specific places in the camps where music was present: at the gate, in the roll call square, between and inside the prisoners' barracks, in the SS garrisons.
Throughout the exhibition, Petit describes how prisoner orchestras were organised as early as 1933 and how music accompanied the daily life of the victims in the camps.
Prisoner orchestras were used to set the pace of marches, as a means of coercion and discipline, both under the ubiquitous and menacing camp gate with the infamous motto "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) and in the roll call square, where prisoners were forced to stand for hours, morning and night, in all weathers. Music was also played in the SS garrisons for entertainment and to maintain military cohesion. Most importantly, it remained present among the prisoners as part of their psychological survival and spiritual resistance, shared (sometimes necessarily whispered from ear to ear) to boost morale. Although such acts had to remain hidden, music helped them to resist, if not defy, the camp system, which constantly violated their fundamental freedoms.
In the exhibition's five rooms, visitors can listen to camp songs and resistance anthems, as well as contemporary popular tunes that were well known to the Nazis and were often played over loudspeakers in the camps and forced on the prisoners. Songs such as Belleville-Ménilmontant by Aristide Bruant, which parodies lyrics written and performed by prisoners in an annex of Buchenwald, are also included. Listening to this music, with its melodies and rhythms, is a very rich experience that connects us directly to that time and place.
It is heartening to learn that some of the conductors of camp orchestras, for example at Auschwitz, were also able to expand their group and thus save lives. Under the guise of being able to perform a particular piece of music, some would suggest increasing the size of the orchestra to accommodate such a request.
The viewer also gains an understanding of how the instruments came to be in the camps, either arriving with the prisoners, sent by family members on the outside, or found in nearby villages and requisitioned by the Nazis. Seeing some of these instruments, found after the camps were liberated, brings home the fact that many of these camps were prisons, not just killing centres. So too does the relentlessness of the SS's cruel and humiliating practices, such as making victims walk for miles in shoes designed for the German army, accompanied by German nationalist marching songs, or being forced to sing psalms or anti-Semitic texts while being physically beaten. Prisoners could be forced to play all night to entertain the SS men for the meagre benefit of extra food rations, only to end up exhausted.