One of the definitions for music is vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion, but it is so much more than that. Music brings hope in times of despair, comfort in times of grief and joy in times of sorrow. Music is like a time machine because a song or tune can bring you back to good and bad times. It can also be a tool of torture, a way of creating false hopes.
The power of music was understood, by both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
From the time the first concentration camps like Dachau were established in 1933, camp guards routinely ordered detainees to sing while marching or exercising or during punishment actions. This was done to mock, humiliate and discipline the prisoners. As Eberhard Schmidt experienced in Sachsenhausen, inmates who disobeyed the rules or who incorrectly carried them out (‘In even steps! March! Sing!’) gave the SS an excuse for arbitrary beatings:
“Those who didn’t know the song were beaten. Those who sang too softly were beaten. Those who sang too loudly were beaten. The SS men inflicted savage beatings.”
In December 1943, a 20-year-old named Ruth Elias arrived in a cattle car at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and was assigned to Block 6 in the family camp, a barracks that housed young women and the male orchestra, an orchestra of imprisoned violinists, clarinet players, accordionists and percussionists who played their instruments not only when the prisoners marched out for daily labour details, but also during prisoner punishments.
Performances could be impromptu, ordered whenever the SS felt like it. In a postwar interview, Elias discussed how drunken SS troops would often burst into the barracks late at night.
“First, they’d tell the orchestra to play as they drank and sang. Then they would pull young girls from their bunks to rape them. Pressed against the back of her top-level bunk to avoid detection, Elias heard the terrified screams of her fellow prisoners.”
In Westerbork, Max Ehrlich, a prominent performer in the risque pre-war Berlin cabaret scene, teamed up with fellow musician Willy Rosen to create the Camp Westerbork Theatre Group.
“Suddenly, the best cabaret in Europe was to be found in a concentration camp,” said Alan Ehrlich, the performer’s nephew. “Their music became Westerbork hits, with prisoners constantly humming their tunes.”
The camp commandant sat in the front row of all of the troupe’s performances of original songs, jokes, sketches and dance routines. Entranced, he kept the performers’ names off the lists of those destined for the death camps. “They were playing for their lives,” said Ehrlich
Tango in Auschwitz, was written in Polish by a 12-year-old Polish girl named Irka Janowski. Unfortunately, there is not much known about her other than her name and age. We do know she was not Jewish and that she was murdered in one of the Auschwitz camps. The song she wrote was set to a well-known pre-war tango tune and had become popular among the prisoners of the camps in the extermination complex.
Janowski’s song and biography are a reminder to us of an aspect that is often neglected in the recollection of Auschwitz. The complex comprised several extermination camps and many labour camps, and among the prisoners were many non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanis and people of colour, as well as French and Russian war prisoners, were murdered at Auschwitz. Janowski’s lyrics (translated into Yiddish by survivors) speak of the Auschwitz prisoners, but, surprisingly, do not focus on Jews:
The black man soon takes up his mandolin,
and will soon start to strum his little tune here,
and the Englishman and Frenchman sing a melody,
so a trio will arise out of this sadness.
And also the Pole soon takes up his whistle
and he will emote to the world –
The song will light up the hearts
who are longing for the freedom they miss.
The song’s chorus ignites hope in the hearts of the listeners:
Our slave tango – under the whip of the beater,
Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp…
Oh, freedom and liberty call!
The song was one of the songs recorded by Ben Stonehill after the war. In the summer of 1948, Stonehill arrived at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, a meeting point for Jewish refugees who had arrived in the United States after World War II. He brought with him heavy recording equipment and placed it in the hotel lobby. His purpose was to record the refugees singing songs they remembered from their homelands; folk songs their parents sang; holiday songs from the synagogue; songs from school and youth movements; and also – the songs they sang in the concentration and extermination camps, in the ghettos and in the hiding places, where they had spent the long years of war.
The songs that he recorded were stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dedicated to the documentation and preservation of a rich, pre-WWII Yiddish culture. The recordings eventually made their way to the National Sound Archive at the National Library of Israel.
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