No single word evokes the horrors of the Holocaust like the name Auschwitz. The largest of the Nazi concentration camps, this sprawling complex was the site of the murder of millions, through gas, beatings and shootings, illness, medical experimentation, exhaustion and starvation. Prisoners from all over Western, Central and Eastern Europe were forced on cattle-car rides to the labour and death camp located just 35 miles from the Polish city of Krakow; the vast majority would never return.
In the spring of 1940, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered that a group of prisoners begin construction of a camp at Oswiecim, a small town in upper Silesia. Auschwitz, as it was named in German, was planned as a sprawling and multi-purpose construction: it consisted of three main camps and dozens of smaller sub-camps, and in total around 1.25 million people were killed here, more than ninety percent of whom were Jewish.
The first camp to be completed, in June 1940, was the main camp, known as Auschwitz I. It was followed by Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which was intended explicitly as a death camp. Next came Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz, the largest forced labour camp of the Auschwitz complex. Over the years that followed, dozens of smaller camps, labour camps and factories sprang up around these main centres. Trainloads of crowded cattle-cars pulled into Auschwitz on a daily basis, bringing Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners from all over occupied Europe. New arrivals were subjected to the infamous selection process, during which the majority — including all children, pregnant women, the elderly and the ‘unfit’ — were sent to Birkenau to be gassed and cremated. Those who survived the selections were divided up amongst the Auschwitz camps, where they too would in most cases die of starvation, overwork or disease. By the time the Red Army reached the camp on 27 January 1945, they found only 7,500 sickly survivors, the remainder of the tens of thousands of inmates who had been forced on death marches to Germany through the dead of winter.
The main camp, with the infamous gate slogan ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ (Work makes you free), was not officially a death camp. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of prisoners were killed here, mainly members of the Polish resistance and intelligentsia, and especially Soviet POWs. The first inmates imprisoned here were Polish political prisoners, and numbers increased continually as the prisoner population grew to include Jews, Soviets, German criminals and homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Auschwitz I also housed a camp brothel, as well as a prison and separate execution area.
Amidst these harsh conditions the camp housed an elaborate and multifaceted musical scene. The first prisoner orchestra was set up in the winter of 1941, with Franz Nierychlo as conductor. (The advantages of a prisoner, rather than SS, band — primarily the ability to control musicians as slave labour — led to the decision to gather inmates together to play at camp functions.) The original group of seven musicians, playing first with instruments seized from neighbouring towns, included a violin, contrabass, accordion, trumpet, saxophone and percussion. These were later replaced with better quality instruments sent to the musicians by family members. Their first formal rehearsal was held in Block 24, the basement under the camp brothel, where there was a small podium and a grand piano. This room became known as the concert hall, where the band gave shows for prisoners as well as guards and officials. The audience would stand along the walls; the musicians were scattered throughout the room, sitting wherever they could find a space. The group rapidly expanded to over 100 members. As an increasing number of professional Polish musicians were arrested, the quality of performance improved. (Until the last months of the orchestra, Jews were not allowed to join.)
The orchestra’s primary task was to accompany prisoners marching to and from work, so that the marching rhythm would allow ease of control over the prisoners. The musicians were originally required to play outside regardless of the weather, although in later years, they were allowed to play indoors during rain and snow. The orchestra was also required to play for the SS guards on Saturdays, and to perform long Sunday concerts for the pleasure of camp commander Hoess and his family and friends.
The orchestra had a high turnover rate. In addition to the generally high death rate in Auschwitz -- musicians were not freed from their daily labour assignments -- there was also a high suicide rate, due perhaps to the emotional pressure of the context. Over the years, the orchestra acquired more instruments and sheet music. In 1942, Nierychlo was released in order to serve in the German army, and he was replaced with the far more popular Polish musician Adam Kopyciński, who held the post until the orchestra was dissolved.
In October 1944 mass transports removed large numbers of Czech, Russian and Polish prisoners from the camp, including many musicians (though Kopyciński remained behind). These were replaced by professional Jewish musicians. Nonetheless, the size of the orchestra was diminished, and it was finally entirely dissolved in November 1944, when many of the new Jewish members were deported to Bergen-Belsen. The majority of those who participated in the orchestra did not survive to see the end of the war.
In addition to the orchestra, there was a variety of other SS-sponsored music at Auschwitz. Some SS officers employed individual ‘musical slaves’, who were required to play or sing whenever commanded to. One such prisoner was the Italian tenor Emilio Jani, whose memoirs are titled My Voice Saved Me. Another was Coco Schumann, who recalled years later that
the music could save you: if not your life, then at least the day. The images that I saw every day were impossible to live with, and yet we held on. We played music to them, for our basic survival. We made music in hell.
The SS also tolerated a swing band, as it provided an opportunity for them to hear music that was banned. At these clandestine concerts, officers would reward musicians with liquor or cigarettes. There are also reports of a separate jazz band that played exclusively at SS orgies and drinking parties.
Most voluntary music in Auschwitz was vocal rather than instrumental. There was much group singing in various barracks, and even a camp choir made up primarily of Polish inmates.
Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.
Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jani, E., 1961. My Voice Saved Me: Auschwitz 180046, Milan: Centauro Editrice.
Schumann, C., 1997. Der Ghetto-Swinger: Eine Jazzlegende Erzählt 2nd ed., Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.