Play, Or Die. The Orchestras of Auschwitz

By Shannon Quinn

Upon arriving in Auschwitz, prisoners lined up to receive a physical examination from  doctors. They held all of their earthly possessions in their arms, and their things were later confiscated. Prisoners had no idea that their valuables were about to be sorted and sold by the Nazis for profit. The very young, very old, and weak or sickly people were the first to die. Women and children were sent to the gas chambers as well.

Standing in the crowd, it was easy to tell who the professional musicians were. When asked to only take what they could carry, they arrived clinging to their instruments instead of clothes or keepsakes. Music was their life. Their soul. A crowd of new arrivals got off the train, and a Nazi guard asked, “Are there any musicians here?” These people raised their hands, and move out of line. Walking with a Nazi guard, the prisoners were led to the auditorium of Auschwitz, where hundreds of other bald musicians wearing stripes were practicing for future performances. This was the Orchestra of Auschwitz.

Very few photographs of the camp orchestras still exist, but this aerial snapshot of the ensemble at the Janowska camp was kept by an SS soldier. Credit: University of Michigan

Joining the Band

A twenty-one year-old named Rachela Olewski Zelmanowicz arrived in Auschwitz with her father, brother, and her brother’s fiancee. She carried her old mandolin to the prison camp among her belongings. If it was up to her, she may have left it at home. But the mandolin is such a rare and valuable musical instrument, it was most likely passed down in their family for generations. Rachela was skinny and frail, and in no shape to do manual labor. She was almost guaranteed be sent to the gas chamber as soon as the doctor saw her.

The Nazi guard asked the crowd, “Are there any musicians here?” Rachela did not raise her hand. She had not practiced the mandolin since elementary school, and she was a far cry from a professional player worthy of joining an orchestra. Her brother’s fiancee nudged her hard. This was her one and only chance of survival. Rachela reluctantly raised her hand, and moved away from the rest of her family to join the crowd of musicians.

She watched as her father was deemed to be too weak for manual labor, and sent to the gas chambers. Shaking and sobbing, Rachela clutched her mandolin, and walked to the orchestra with the rest of the musicians holding their instruments. It was her father’s birthday. They killed her father on his birthday. But there was no time to grieve. Rachela had to practice, because her life now depended on playing the mandolin.

Photo of Alma Rose years before she became a prisoner in Auschwitz. Credit: Pinterest.

Men and women were separated in two different orchestras, since they lived in different parts of the camp. The conductor of the women’s orchestra was a world-class violinist named Alma Rose. She notices Rachela sobbing, and snaps, “Crying is forbidden here!” the young woman tried to hold back the tears. World-class musicians were all around her. Some of the greatest talent in Europe had been saved from the gas chamber. Normally, they would never be caught dead playing next to such an amateur, but now, everyone was just grateful for the lessons they had as kids. Music was very literally keeping them alive.

When Alma Rose first arrived at Auschwitz, her head was shaved, and she did manual labor, just like everyone else. She became extremely sick, and was near death. A Nazi guard finally recognized her as the famous violinist. Her uncle, Gustav Mahler, was a very famous Austrian composer. Her family was well-respected by the Nazis for their musical talent, even though they were Jews. She was asked to join up with a small group of established musicians at the camp, and she was asked to be the conductor for Birkenau, the female camp of Auschwitz.

From that day forward, she was allowed to grow out her hair, eat more rations, and her health slowly returned. Alma Rose was being given a second chance at life, and she wanted to be the best conductor she possibly could be in the short time she had left. During her time as conductor, she tried her best to keep the SS officers happy, but also save as many prisoners as she possibly could by bringing them into the orchestra. Sadly, she died of an illness in Auschwitz, and she was never able to escape after the war.

This sketch was drawn secretly by François Reisz of the setup of the women’s orchestra. In the background, dead bodies are carried away on stretchers. Credit: University of Michigan

Entertaining the Nazis

Every Sunday, the Nazi soldiers would gather in the main courtyard of Auschwitz to watch prisoners hang from the gallows. These were men and women who were being punished for small crimes. Maybe they didn’t work fast enough. Maybe they tried to escape, or spoke out of turn. It was a scare tactic, used to remind the prisoners left alive that even though they were spared from the gas chambers, they could still die at any moment. The orchestra was forced to play dramatic, foreboding music as background music for the hangings. When the murders were done, it was time for a concert. German and Polish villagers from the local towns were invited to listen to music after church.

These public musical performances at Auschwitz was a form of Nazi propaganda. If anyone visited the camp, they would see the music played by healthy-looking musicians without ever being allowed to see the starving prisoners. The locals could go to sleep at night believing that the prisoners were being treated fairly and humanely. Surely, some knew the darker truth, but they still got to enjoy a free performance from some of the best musicians in the world.

Roma and Sinti people were stereotyped as being wandering musicians. Illustration by Pennell in 1893. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aside from the concerts, the orchestra members had to play songs as new prisoners arrived on trains. Normally, it was forbidden to play any music that was not specifically allowed by the SS, but at the trains, they played folk music from the countries where the prisoners were arriving from. This lulled people into a false sense of security during the selection process. These musicians still felt an extreme amount of guilt for the rest of their lives, knowing that their talent was being manipulated for such an evil trick. Throughout the rest of the week, musicians were forced to play early each morning at the start of a work day. They had to sing or play music on command, too. Any Nazi soldier could approach one of the musicians at any time and demand them to play a song, even if they did not have the sheet music. Many of the songs were played from memory.

One high-ranking SS officer, Thies Christophersen really enjoyed traditional “gypsy” music, and they often requested upbeat songs from Sinti and Roma musicians. He specifically picked out Sinti and Roma musicians to be his personal servants to play music for him on-demand. Prisoners often traveled with the SS officers out of the camp, if they wanted free musicians to play wherever they went. They were taken to gambling dens, meetings, and even orgies. Surely, this was not an enjoyable experience to be treated like a musical slave. But the rest of the prisoners were often jealous and disliked the musicians. They got special privileges for far less physical labor. By all accounts, the life of a musician was far better than the life of a normal prisoner.

Hand drawn copy of “The Peat Bogg Soldiers” made by Hanns Kralik. Credit: University of Michigan.

Living Forever Through Music

Of course, music was played and sung by the prisoners for their own enjoyment, and not just for the entertainment of Nazi officers. For many people, organizing their own secret vocal and orchestral groups to sing their country’s traditional music were some of the only ways people reminded themselves that they were still human beings. Every so often, the SS officers would allow the orchestras to play concerts for the prisoners, and those who survived remember those performances as some of their greatest moments in the camp.

Composers who survived were still writing new songs, clearly inspired by their imprisonment. Today, Holocaust museums collect the music that was inspired by survivors. One of the most popular songs written by a prisoner lives on as an anthem of the Holocaust. “The Peat Bog Soldiers” was composed by one of the Auschwitz prisoners in 1933. The song was first sung in the camp, and committed to memory, passed down to the new prisoners as the old ones died off. After he was free from the camp, a Jewish composer named Hanns Kralik wrote down the notes of the song to create sheet music. The song soon spread across Europe, and it was later sung by soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, as well.

“Up and down the guards are marching,

No one, no one can get through.

Flight would mean a sure death facing,

Guns and barbed wire block our view.”

Even though the last of the Holocaust survivors are passing away, and the first-hand account of the sounds that were heard when the orchestras played have faded from memory, their songs still remind us of the music that was made in one of the darkest moments in history.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Music in Concentration Camps. Guido Fackler. 2007. University of Michigan. 

Beyond Auschwitz: Mother and Daughter Discuss Legacy At University Memorial Event. University of Sussex.

Holocaust Survivor Joseph Horn Describes Auschwitz Orchestra. YouTube.

Crying is Forbidden Here! Musiques-regenerees.fr