Music of the Holocaust

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Music of the Holocaust

From 1933 to 1945 Nazi ideologues devised and implemented schemes whereby music could be used to further their goals. Their propaganda promoted the idea of German superiority in the art of composition and the inferiority of any music touched by Jews.

For centuries many German non-Jews had considered Jews to be culturally inferior. In his article "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music), the composer Richard Wagner wrote, "The Jew speaks the modern European languages merely as learned, and not as mother tongues. This must necessarily prevent him from any capability of therein expressing himself idiomatically, independently and comfortably to his nature. Our entire European art and civilization have remained a foreign tongue to the Jew" (1850/1995, p. 84). Wagner also decried the influence of Jewish conductors and music critics: "The Jew . . . has been able to reach the rulership of public taste in the widest spread of modern art forms, especially in music" (1850/1995, p. 87).

Eighty years later Adolf Hitler wrote, "I have the most intimate familiarity with Wagner's mental processes. At every stage of my life I come back to him" (Rose, 1992, p. 182). Indeed, the Nazis carried out Wagner's theories in a way that had never been done before. In 1933 the Reichsmusikkammer (National Ministry of Music) introduced a succession of policies aimed at protecting Aryan culture. All Jewish music teachers, performers, composers, and musicologists were expelled from their posts. Music composed or performed by Jews was banned from concert programs and broadcasts; their recordings and sheet music were removed from stores; textbooks were revised to remove offending references to their accomplishments. In 1938 Hans Ziegler organized an exhibit of degenerate music (Entartete Musik) in Düsseldorf. Visitors to the exhibit could see and hear examples of what Ziegler called "the artistic aspects of Cultural Bolshevism . . . and the triumph of Jewish impudence" (Levi, 1994, p. 96).

The Nazis also used music to control prisoners in concentration camps. An orchestra of Jewish inmates was created to play joyous music to distract new arrivals as they disembarked from trains and awaited selection, and to perform rousing marches to energize prisoners as they marched off to forced labor. The performers were rewarded with extra rations of food, better clothing, and more humane living conditions; they were temporarily spared from the murderous work details and the crematorium itself.

In one camp the Nazis organized extensive musical activities. In November 1941 the Nazis evacuated Theresienstadt (in Czech Terezín) and transformed that ancient walled city into a huge holding pen for the Jews of Czechoslovakia until they could be shipped to death camps. At first the Nazis organized cultural activities to promote calm among ghetto residents and to distract them from their fate. However, a year later they decided to use Theresienstadt as a "model camp," a facade to hide the truth of the extermination of European Jewry. There were choirs, chamber ensembles, orchestras, opera companies, a cabaret, and a jazz band called the Ghetto Swingers. The Nazis allowed inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Theresienstadt, where they were shown gardens, schools, concerts, and cafés. The prisoners' performances were even featured in a Nazi propaganda film. But, in fact, of the 140,000 men, women, and children who were sent to Theresienstadt, only 11,000 survived.

Composition and performance thrived at Theresienstadt, not merely because it was enforced, but because it provided spiritual uplift. Ghetto residents eagerly participated in various activities, led by some of Europe's most prominent composers and performers, including Karel Ancerl, Karel Berman, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Paul Kling, Hans Krása, Rafael Schächter, Zikmund Schul, and Viktor Ullmann. Ullmann declared, "Terezin served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities. By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavor with respect to Art was commensurate with our will to live" (Bloch, 1979, p. 162).

Jews also used music as a means of protest, satire, and warning. At Theresienstadt Ullmann and Peter Kien collaborated on Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), an opera that satirized Hitler and the Nazi death machinery. A pogrom in the village of Przytik inspired the Polish singer Mordecai Gebirtig to compose "Es Brent" (It's Burning), a song that warns of the dangers of passivity in the face of oppression. In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Martin Rosenberg wrote "Jüdischer Todessang" (Jewish Death-Song) for his clandestine chorus of twenty-five prisoners when they were about to be sent to the Auschwitz death camp. Rosenberg hoped that his song would survive and thus inform the free world of this horror.

For others music served as a means of expressing unbearable sadness. Mothers sang lullabies to their children not only to soothe the youngsters' spirits, but also to be unburdened of their own anguish. In songs such as "Shtiller Shtiller" (Quiet, quiet) or "Nit Keyn Rozhinkes" (No more raisins), a disturbing mixture of comfort (addressed to a baby) and despair (spoken to oneself) exists.

Those who wished to maintain their faith and hope developed their own songs, too. Even in the face of death, some Jews sang of their ultimate faith in God and the goodness of humankind with "Ani Ma'amin" (I believe) and "Zol Shoyn Kumen Di Ge'uleh" (Let our redemption come soon). And throughout Europe Jews found courage in the words of Hirsh Glick's partisan anthem "Zog Nit Keyn Mol" (Never say this is the end).

Music also served as an antidote to the dehumanizing tactics to which the Jews were subjected. While Nazis were branding them as subhuman, Jews used music to affirm their humanity. When they were barred from attending public concerts, they formed their own orchestras. When they were prohibited from leaving their homes at night, they organized clandestine concerts there. In the Vilna (Vilnius) ghetto Jewish musicians, artists, writers, and poets formed the Literary Artistic Circle, which met nearly every week throughout the war for lectures, discussions, and concerts. They declared, "Our bodies may be enslaved, but our souls are not." Music allowed the condemned to cling to life. As Theresienstadt survivor Hofmeister stated so eloquently, "Music! Music was life!" (Karas, 1985, p. 197).

SEE ALSO Music, Holocaust Hidden and Protest; Music and Musicians Persecuted during the Holocaust; Music of Reconciliation


Basart, Ann (1986). "Music and the Holocaust: A Selective Bibliography." Cum notis variorum 101:1–30.

Bergmeier, Hort, Ejal Jakob Eisler, and Rainer Lotz (2001). Vorbei: Beyond Recall. A Record of Jewish Musical Life inNazi Berlin 1933–1938. Hambergen: Bear Family Records.

Bloch, Max (1979). "Viktor Ullmann: A Brief Biography and Appreciation." Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 3(2):150–177.

Jacobson, Joshua (1995). "Music in the Holocaust." The Choral Journal 36(5):9–21.

Jacobson, Joshua (2000). "Tsen Brider: A Jewish Requiem." The Musical Quarterly 84(3):452–474.

Kalisch, Shoshana (1985). Yes, We Sang. New York: Harper and Row.

Karas, Joza (1985). Music in Terezín. New York: Beaufort Books.

Newman, Richard, with Karen Kirtley (2000). Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz. Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press.

Rose, Paul Lawrence (1992). Wagner: Race and Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Wagner, Richard (1995). Judaism in Music and Other Essays, tran. William Ashton Ellis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Hear Our Voices: Songs from the Ghettos and the Camps. HaZamir HZ-009. Music from Theresienstadt, Vilna, Vishnetz, Sachsenhausen, and Pryztik.

Krása, Hans. Brundibar: A Children's Opera in Two Acts. Arabesque Recordings Z6680.

Kulisiewicz, Aleksander. Songs from the Depths of Hell. Folkways FSS 37700.

Ullmann, Viktor. Der Kaiser von Atlantis. London 440 854-2.


The Führer Gives a City to the Jews (1944). Produced by the Ministry of Propaganda of the Third Reich. Available from the National Center for Jewish Film.

Joshua Jacobson