The Most Beautiful Time of Life—A Song From Auschwitz

I don’t believe people who say that they don’t like music. They might not like certain types of music, but everyone loves at least one bit of music. Without music, life would be boring.

I am always amazed by the amounts of tunes and songs that are composed by using only eight notes or less. The music scale is made up of eight notes. All of these notes may have a variation in a minor or major scale, but technically there are only eight notes or octaves.

But music is so much more than a series of notes put together. It is the fabric of the soul of human nature. A piece of music can evoke so many emotions, varying from joy and laughter to fear and anger. So if you deny yourself music you deny yourself emotional well-being.

The saying goes “Music soothes the savage beast” and never in mankind’s history was there more savagery than during the Holocaust. Yet there were some who despite all the horrors they witnessed on a daily basis and were still able to compose music and even a joyous foxtrot. And yes I do realize that using the term foxtrot in the context of the Holocaust is, to say the least, bizarre. I know that some people will criticise me for the title of this post. They will see it and will not bother to read any further. I did not make up the title, it is the translation of a song written in Auschwitz Birkenau Die schönste Zeit des Lebens—The Most Beautiful Time of Life.”

Patricia Hall, a professor of music theory at the University of Michigan, has been researching musical manuscripts for the past 40 years. She knew that the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum kept music in its archive, and had heard from a scholar at the museum that some of the documents might include penciled annotations. So in 2016, Hall decided to travel to Poland to explore the archive herself. She was amazed to find several handwritten manuscripts, one of which struck her as particularly poignant due to the cruel irony of its cheerful title: “The Most Beautiful Time of Life.”

Originally a 1941 popular song composed by the German film composer Franz Grothe with a text by Willi Dehmel, “Die schönste Zeit des Lebens” has been arranged for a small ensemble of fourteen instruments: four first violins, five second-violins, a viola, two clarinets, a trombone, and a tuba.

Three prisoners had penned the manuscript, adapting Grothe’s music to suit 14 musical instruments: nine violins, a viola, a tuba, a trombone, and two clarinets. Although the prisoners didn’t compose the songs, they had to arrange them so they could be played by the available instruments and musicians.

Hall suspects the piece was played during one of the regular Sunday concerts in front of the villa of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.

Patricia Hall explained “This was for the SS personnel, It was about a three-hour concert that was broken up into stages, and at one point, they had a dance band so that soldiers could dance. Given the instrumentation of this foxtrot, I think that’s probably what it was used for.”

Based on the prisoner numbers on the manuscript, Hall could identify two of the three arrangers: Antoni Gargul, who was released in 1943, and Maksymilian Pilat, released in 1945 and later performed in the Gdansk Symphony Orchestra. They were Polish political prisoners.

Prisoner photo of Antoni Gargul, number 5665. Archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

While survivors said that the musicians received more food, had clean clothes, and were spared the hardest labor, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director Piotr M. A. Cywinski recently said in a statement that they experienced “an element of humiliation and terror.”

Patricia Hall said, “They weren’t immune to the greatest horrors of the camp…. We like to think of a narrative in which the musicians were saved because they had that ability to play instruments.”

“However, it’s been documented by another prisoner [in an orchestra] that around 50 of them…were taken out and shot.”

Survivor Coco Schumann said after the war :

“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.”

“Die schönste Zeit des Lebens” is a song about falling in love in the month of May, when “a mysterious magic lies in the air! The world is full of music and tender fragrance.” Like many of the other popular songs in the archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, it describes an atmosphere about as far from a concentration camp as one could imagine. Here is the complete text of the song:

“Die schönste Zeit des Lebens beginnt im Monat Mai:
Die Welt ist voll Musik und zärtlichem Duft!
Wer dann nicht ganz aus Stein ist, verliert sein Herz dabei:
Ein rätselhafter Zauber liegt in der Luft!
Und aus manchen kürzen schönen Sekunden
werden viele lange glückliche Stunden!
Die schönste Zeit des Lebens beginnt im Monat Mai;
doch wann sie für uns enden soll, bestimmen nur wir zwei!”

“The most beautiful time of life begins in the month of May:
The world is filled with music and tender fragrance.
Whoever isn’t then made completely of stone loses his heart thereby:
Mysterious magic lies in the air!
And many short, delightful seconds,
become many long, happy hours!
The most beautiful time of life begins in the month of May;
However, when it should end for us, only we decide.”

Music was also used in very sinister ways, Primo Levi once said:

“And for the first time, since I entered the camp the reveille catches me in a deep sleep and its ringing is a return from nothingness. As the bread is distributed, one can hear, far from the windows, in the dark air, the band beginning to play; the healthy comrades are leaving in squads for work. One cannot hear the music well from Ka-Be [Krankenbau or inmate infirmary]. The beating of the big drums and the cymbals reaches us continuously and monotonously, but on this weft, the musical phrases weave a pattern only intermittently, according to the caprices of the wind. We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal. The tunes are few, a dozen, the same ones every day, morning and evening: marches and popular songs dear to every German. They lie engraved on our minds and will be the last thing in Lager that we shall forget; they are the voice of the Lager, the perceptible expression of its geometrical madness, of the resolution of others to annihilate us, first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterward. When this music plays, we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills”

Survivor Franz Danimann recalled how the Leonore overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio, performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive:

“I was aware of the similarity of our situation to Florestan’s in the last act. He should have died as a witness to Pizarro’s misdeeds, just as the SS pursued the destruction of the prisoners. But the music warned us not to despair and lose hope.”

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.

The original composer of the music of “Die schönste Zeit des Lebens” Franz Grothe was a German composer, mainly for the cinema. His musicals were outstanding successes. He was required to be a member of the Nazi party (No. 2.580.427) from 1933 and remained opposed to de-Nazification after the war.

Finishing this post with the music of “Die schönste Zeit des Lebens”



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