Leon Kaczmarek (1903-1973)

The composer Leon Kaczmarek was imprisoned in Dachau from 1940 to 1945. During his incarceration, he assumed the role of conductor of the 45-member German men's choir, despite being Polish. Kaczmarek was able to save part of his musical heritage in three camp notebooks and various additional works that he had written in Dachau. After the war, he continued to work as an artistic director of a choir and was awarded a silver cross of merit from the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art. Little is currently known about Kaczmarek although his notebooks establish him as a recognised composer from the concentration camps. Thus, after years of obscurity, his story will be included among the growing list of artists and musicians remembered from the Holocaust period, ultimately advancing his memory, and giving him deserved recognition.

Early life

Born in Poland on June 1, 1903, Kaczmarek completed his music studies several years before the outbreak of WW2. For his diploma, he composed songs and fugues for piano and received a good grade on his certificate.[1] Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was arrested in March 1940 by the Gestapo in Kolmar, the German name for Chodzież, a small Polish town in the northwest of the country, and subsequently charged as being a political prisoner [2] in Fort VII in Poznan.

Experiences during the War

From there, Kaczmarek was sent to the Dachau concentration camp on April 4, 1940, and registered as Schutzhäftling (protective custody prisoner) with the number 11495. Though the available research materials do not mention the exact reason for his arrest, the category of prisoners to which he belonged may help to formulate a hypothesis. Schutzhaft was a Nazi euphemism for the extra-legal incarceration of political or other opponents, especially Jews, as being allegedly necessary to protect them from the "righteous wrath of the German population". After the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nazis also started persecuting Poles who had connections to political groups, as well as communists and those who were either antifascists or were involved in scouting movements. However, it is most likely that Kaczmarek was a victim of the Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion (AB-Aktion), during which National Socialists exterminated the Polish intelligentsia, professors, artists, musicians and intellectuals between the spring and summer of 1940. Most of them were either murdered or sent to the concentration camps in Germany for forced labour. Therefore, the number of prisoners in Dachau increased dramatically compared to the pre-war period, when only people within the Reich were being interned.

Kaczmarek remained in Dachau for five years and survived until his liberation together with 30,000 other prisoners on April 29, 1945, despite being the subject of two medical experiments (the first ‘pseudoscientific’[3] injection in 1943 and the second one in early 1945). Soon thereafter, due to the critical hygienic conditions of the camp during which several diseases had developed, he contracted severe typhus, from which he recovered following medical care in the American hospital established on the site.

Throughout his internment, Kaczmarek worked as conductor of the 45-member German men's choir, established by communist prisoners before 1939. When he was appointed choir director in October 1940, it initially caused backlash among the German nationalists, who deemed it was inappropriate for a Polish man to be selected as director of the German choir. Yet, this small hostile faction had to bow to the majority, including the elite of the choir formed by Kapos of work commandos, who had great influence within the prisoners’ hierarchy in the camp. It is unusual that the Nazis allowed Kaczmarek, a Pole, to conduct the German choir. As far as it is known, Poles had limited opportunities to participate in the musical activities of the concentration camps compared to the German prisoners.[4]

This privileged position, which he was able to occupy because of his extensive knowledge of German, gave him the opportunity to hire singers of other nationalities, provided they could sing the strictly German-language repertoire. In this way, the choir acquired a more international profile, even though Germans, Poles, and Czechs remained the majority. At first, Kaczmarek drew the choir's repertoire from a German songbook that was already circulating in the camp; later, he also began composing his own pieces. With his arrival, Polish songs were also included in the repertoire, however the lyrics of these had to be translated into German. Indeed, all textual elements of his compositions had to be written in German, the official language of the camp.

Kaczmarek composed original songs, works for solo piano, several pieces for violin and piano, as well as a huge number of arrangements and transcriptions of pre-existing popular melodies and opera arias. He also wrote Lieder with lyrics provided either by fellow prisoners or romantic German poets, such as Ferdinand Freiligrath, Otto Roquette, Johann Georg Jacobi, Friedrich Hebbel, Karl Busse. One of the most emotive songs, which Kaczmarek himself described as ‘the most authentic one in terms of content and atmosphere’,[5] was set to the text of Karl Molter, a German prisoner deported to the camp in 1938 due to his communist beliefs. Through his lyrics, Der Herbst ist Da! (The Autumn is here!), Molter poignantly depicts the stark reality of his inner condition as prisoner, describing how his life was slowly fading away.[6]

Additionally, Kaczmarek also composed music for a new operetta based on a camp libretto, the manuscript of which has unfortunately not survived, as he testifies in one of his letters to Alexander Kulisiewicz. Ultimately, he managed to save only a small part of his musical heritage, including three camp notebooks and a selection of additional works.

Post-war Life

After the war, Kaczmarek settled in the western Polish town of Ostrow Wielkopolski, where he became artistic director of the men’s choir Echo from April 1965 until his death in 1973. In May 1968, during the celebrations for the 45th anniversary of the choir’s foundation, Kaczmarek was awarded a silver cross of merit from the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art in recognition of all his artistic and social activities, as well as his commitment in the cultural development of the Poznan voivodship. Unfortunately, there is no evidence confirming whether Kaczmarek talked publicly about his time in Dachau, or if he performed his own war time compositions following his liberation, but his compositions represent nowadays a gold mine to be rediscovered and brought to light by researchers and performers.

By Manuel Cini


Gilbert, Shirli. Music in the Holocaust. Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps. Oxford University Press, 2005.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive, Alexander Kulisiewicz Collection, 1939-1986, 1992.A.0034.1 (RG-55.000)

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. Storia dei campi di concentramento nazisti. Mondadori, 2015.

[1] Some of the following biographical information also come from the USHMM Survivors and Victims Database, which preserves electronic data regarding prisoners who were incarcerated at Dachau concentration camp. Unfortunately, due to a lack of available information, it has not been possible to reconstruct in more detail Kaczmarek’s life before the war.

[2] Political opponents of the regime were the first victims to be persecuted by the Nazis (e.g. democrats, social democrats, communists, liberals), usually arrested on the basis of an protective custody order.  In the camps, they were marked with red triangles.

[3] This is how Kaczmarek himself defines them in a letter to Kulisiewicz.

[4] Shirli Gilbert, Music of the Holocaust, (Oxford University Press, 2005), 122.

[5] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive, Alexander Kulisiewicz Collection, 1939-1986, 1992.A.0034.1 (RG-55.003.25). Translation from Polish by the author.

[6] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive, Alexander Kulisiewicz Collection, RG-55.003.25.