Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Music in the WWII Concentration Camps

A 2007 article translated from German in the online journal Music and Politics.

Music in Concentration Camps 1933–1945


Translated from the German by Peter Logan (Würzburg).

It would be wrong to reduce the “Music of the Shoah” (Holocaust/ churbn) to the Yiddish songs from the ghetto camps of Eastern Europe or to the multiple activities in the realm of classical or Jewish music found in the ghetto camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín), which of course enjoyed a special status as a model camp. It would be equally wrong to restrict our view of music in concentration camps to the “Moorsoldatenlied” (“The Peat Bog Soldiers”), the “Buchenwald Song,” the “Dachau Song,” or the so-called “Girls’ Orchestra in Auschwitz,” described by Fania Fénelon – also the subject of the Hollywood film entitled “Playing for Time”.[1] Instead of this, I wish to address the topic of musical activities in general in the concentration camps.[2] Thus this chapter is about those camps that the Nazi regime started to erect just a few weeks after Hitler’s assumption of power; these camps formed the seed from which the entire system of Nazi camps grew, and which eventually consisted of over 10,000 camps of various kinds.[3]

In fact music was an integral part of camp life in almost all the Nazi-run camps. The questions covered by my research include: how was it possible to play music in these camps? What musical forms developed there? What, under these circumstances was the function, the effect and the significance of music for both the suffering inmates and the guards who inflicted the suffering? And how was the extent of musical activities affected by the development of the concentration camp system? My research is based on extensive archive work, the study of memoirs and literature, and interviews with witnesses. In the first part of this essay I describe the various forms of music performed at the behest of the SS in the camps. In the second part I analyze the very different question of the musical activities initiated by the inmates themselves.

Read the article here.