New arrivals to the Auschwitz camp complex were immediately sorted into two groups, those on the left and those on the right. The few in the right-hand group would be sent to one of the various camps within Auschwitz to become forced labourers. The remaining majority were sent to Birkenau, otherwise known as Auschwitz II, where they were gassed and cremated. Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz, was also one of the few places where, historians confirm, music regularly accompanied selections and mass murder. Former inmate Erika Rothschild remembered this macabre accompaniment:
Those who arrived in Birkenau were driven out of the cattle wagons and put in rows … to this the band played, made up of the best musicians among the prisoners; they played, depending on the origins of the transport, Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music. The band played, the SS pummelled, and you had no time to reflect … some were forced into the camp, the others into the crematoria.
By the war’s end, approximately 1.25 million people had been killed here, more than 90 per cent of them Jewish. Birkenau was also where the infamous Dr Josef Mengele performed many of his experiments on pregnant women, dwarves, and twins. As was the case in the other camps of Auschwitz, there was a mass evacuation immediately before the Soviets reached the camp. Only a few thousand prisoners remained to be liberated when the Soviets arrived on 27 January 1945.
Birkenau was subdivided into several sections, fairly isolated from one another, and each supporting its own unique cultural scene. There was a men’s camp, a women’s camp, and two ‘family camps’, one for Roma and Sinti, and the other for Jews brought from Theresienstadt. Both ‘family camps’ were eventually liquidated, but before then the inmates were allowed to live in relatively better conditions than the other inmates. They were not required to have their heads shaved, at least initially were given more generous rations and various other 'privileges', and above all were allowed to stay together as families. Each of these mini-camps supported its own band, as well as a variety of singing, performing and instrumental groups.
The first official orchestra to be set up in Birkenau was in the men’s camp in August 1942, when a group of sixteen musicians was brought in from the main Auschwitz orchestra. Unlike in Auschwitz, in Birkenau Jews were allowed to join. The first conductor was the Polish prisoner Jan Zaborski, who was replaced a few months later by Franz Kopka. Of this early period in the orchestra's existence, the Polish-Jewish violinist Szymon Laks recalled that those who could,
took unlimited advantage of their power. They could beat us, torture us, even kill us without having to answer to anyone. Those who could not take this treatment threw themselves into the electric fence. These suicides built up the rage of our tormentors even more. One day, when the number of musicians who had killed themselves the night before was higher than usual, they called us all together and said 'sons of whores, I warn you all, if you keep leaping into the electric wire, I will kill you all like dogs'.
All of the musicians were required to perform forced labour in addition to their daily concerts. They were also subject to regular selections. As was the case in other camps, the musicians were required to play marches at the main gate when the work commandos left the camp in the morning and returned in the evening. Due to the forced labour, frequent selections, suicides and generally poor health of the musicians, by the end of the year the orchestra was shrinking rather than growing. Simultaneously, the sub-camp commander Johann Schwarzhuber, who provided the men with instruments and sheet music, increased his demands, seriously challenging Kopka's abilities. The latter became increasingly dependent on the arranging and conducting skills of Laks, who grew skilled at composing music with interchangeable parts in case of the sudden disappearance of a musician. Eventually Laks became the de facto conductor, a position made official when Kopka was sent to the front with the German army.
Under Laks' more positive leadership, the orchestra began to increase in size again. His efforts won his musicians easier work assignments and a dispensation not to play outdoors in bad weather. By the end of 1943, there were about forty members, including many Jews, from France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Greece. They included Henry Meyer, Louis Bannet, and Jacques Stroumsa.
As the calibre of the orchestra improved under the baton of Laks, the SS began to make more frequent and diverse requests of the musicians. On Sundays they were forced to give concerts of ‘light’ music, and they expanded their repertoire to include excerpts from operas and operettas. They were also frequently given special requests by various guards. They composed special musical medleys in honour of SS officials' birthdays. Some Nazis regularly attended rehearsals, playing music with the musicians, and even on occasion befriending them. Members of the orchestra were also frequently commanded to entertain at late-night parties for camp VIPs and the guards.
Perhaps the most famous orchestra to have come out of Birkenau was the women’s orchestra. Known through Fania Fénelon’s memoirs and the movie Playing for Time, this group — the only all-women SS-sponsored musical organisation established under Nazi internment — was founded in the spring of 1943. Originally directed by the Polish inmate Zofia Czajkowska, it reached its peak under the guidance of the violin virtuoso and conductor Alma Rosé. As with other camp bands, the women were required to play at the gates every morning and evening, to accompany the workers’ arrival and departure from the camp. This job won them the animosity of many prisoners, who remembered returning to their barracks, sick, exhausted, and often carrying or dragging their dead comrades, while
the orchestra in Birkenau played marches and modern foxtrots. It made you sick … we couldn't stand this music, or the musicians. They were like puppets, all in blue skirts and white collars, sitting on comfortable chairs.
According to former orchestra member Esther Bejarano, they were also often forced to play
when the trains arrived and the people were forced directly to the gas. The deported waved to us in a friendly way, because they thought, where the music is playing, that can’t be so bad. That was part of the tactic of the SS.
The musicians themselves were all too aware of their role as both accomplices and victims of the Nazi terror. For many of the women, being in the orchestra was demoralising and depressing. Although they were afforded the 'privilege' of increased rations, improved living quarters, and other 'benefits', many were disgusted by the pleasure that they gave to their tormenters. Fénelon and others describe with revulsion being forced to comfort the murderers by playing or singing their favourite pieces.
As long as Rosé remained in charge of the orchestra, it maintained a fairly high level of skill and a large repertoire. The musicians participated in strenuous rehearsals and even more stressful concerts and private performances. Although the vast majority of their music-making was (with the exception of the daily march music) for the benefit of the SS and the small group of ‘elite’ prisoners, the orchestra would occasionally give special concerts to the regular inmates, and make visits to the infirmary. However, upon Rosé's sudden and mysterious death on 4 April 1944, the orchestra began to slowly crumble. Rosé was replaced by the Ukrainian pianist and copyist Sonya Winogradowa, who, although liked by the other musicians, was not a particularly effective leader. At the end of 1944, the non-Jewish members were sent to Auschwitz I, while the Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Relatively many survived the war.
Birkenau was also home to two so-called family camps. Inmates from the Czech ‘model ghetto’ Theresienstadt were deported in several transports to Birkenau, where they lived in the ‘family camp’, did not have their heads shaved, were better fed, and were freed from slave labour assignments. They were also allowed far more freedom to create and continue the cultural production that had been the hallmark of life in Theresienstadt. As was the case in Theresienstadt, however, this ‘generosity’ was solely for the sake of propaganda, only temporarily delaying the killing. There was in the family camp a small musical group that was frequently required to play for the SS while they were drinking, as well as during public beatings. Perhaps the cruellest freedom allowed the Czech camp was the freedom to educate their children. Lessons were given in reading and counting. There were also singing and recorder lessons, with a focus on Jewish and Czech music. In two major killing waves of March and July 1944, the Theresienstadt family camp was liquidated.
In addition to this camp, which has been fairly well-documented, the Nazis also briefly maintained a Gypsy (Roma and Sinti) camp. Although both prisoners and Nazis commented upon the musical skill and creativity of these inmates, little documentation exists of their musical production. This is also partially due to their isolation from other inmates, and their extremely harsh treatment by the SS, second only to what was meted out to the Jews in cruelty. Nonetheless, there are several references to an orchestra, as well as to less formal musical groups.
As was the case in other camps, the primary form of voluntary music-making in Birkenau was singing. Due to its size and international composition, there were inmates from all over Europe whose voices survivors remembered. Prisoners sang to comfort one another, to build solidarity and to express resistance. The former inmate Kitty Hart remembered that
as a rule, the Greek girls had wonderful voices and their very popular sentimental song 'Momma' made most of the others sob, for nearly all had lost their mothers.
Some cabaret performances also took place at Birkenau, including one inspired by Yiddish-speaking theatre artist Moshe Pulawer, who arrived at the camp in the autumn of 1944. His first performance was for the 'privileged' prisoners assigned jobs in 'Canada’, the barracks where the belongings of the newly-arrived were sorted through:
I sang from the depths of my heart … I sang for those who only yesterday saw their wives and children cast into the flames … My friend and I sang and recited. With blood, with tears, we did what is called theatre. … And not far from this place, thousands of bodies smoked and burned.
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