Music, Holocaust Hidden and Protest

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Music, Holocaust Hidden and Protest

Nazi cultural policies toward the arts were foreshadowed in Weimar Germany, where party spokesmen denounced jazz, the musical avant-garde, and any work by a Jewish composer, regardless of category. With the advent of the Third Reich in January 1933, institutionalized harassment of Jews and antifascists began in earnest. A great many Jewish and politically dissident musicians fled Germany at this time, while those who remained were quickly forced from the public sphere. Facing unemployment and social isolation, a group of Berlin-area musicians, artists, and entertainers led by Dr. Kurt Singer established the Kulturbund deutscher Juden (Culture League of German Jews), an all-Jewish performance society, in the spring of 1933. With approval from the authorities (who reasoned the organization would serve to further separate Jews from the cultural mainstream), Kulturbund branches soon thrived in many Germany localities. The Kulturbund at its peak in the mid-1930s supported four orchestras, two opera companies, and several large choirs, each offering a busy schedule of concert events. In the wake of escalating state terror, these programs—in time restricted to Jewish-themed fare—provided respite and spiritual renewal for audience and performers alike. Immigration, deportations, and the onset of war significantly curtailed Kulturbund activities well before the Gestapo shut down the organization in 1941.

Concentration Camps

Songs of resistance from the first Nazi concentration camps (built to imprison Hitler's political opponents) often reflected the inmates' socialist and communist sympathies. The best known of these songs, "Die Moorsoldaten" (The peat bog soldiers), written in August 1933 at the Börgermoor camp by political prisoners Johann Esser, Wolfgang Langhoff, and Rudi Goguel, is emblematic of the repertoire. With lyrics hinting at the Nazis' downfall and a march melody symbolically shifting between the minor and major modes, the song became a model for later resistance songs such as "Dachau-Lied" (Dachau song, 1938), written by two Austrian Jewish political prisoners, and "Fest Steht" (Stand fast, 1942), sung by Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Disseminated outside Germany by refugees, "Die Moorsoldaten" became an international symbol of spiritual opposition to Nazi barbarism.

Prisoners' performance ensembles had been established at many camps both before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Official orchestras at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and elsewhere accompanied the inmates' forced march to labor and provided entertainment for the camp command. Orchestra members, while compelled to oblige, were often spared the worst hazards of camp life. Music making also took place in secret, with popular, patriotic, and satirical songs offering a measure of diversion and psychological release to prisoners. Such activity, particularly among non-Jewish inmates not prioritized for extermination, may have been fairly widespread: The archive of former Polish prisoner Aleksander Kulisiewicz lists approximately five hundred topical songs and numerous instrumental works originating in thirty-six different camps for the period from 1939 to 1945. This kind of activity was also dangerous. Kulisiewicz, himself the author of many anti-Nazi songs, noted that those caught performing such music risked torture and execution at the hands of the authorities.

Of the Nazi camps, Theresienstadt (Terezín), near Prague, was an exception, a "model camp" where for propaganda purposes the Germans allowed inmates a relatively open and varied cultural life. Drawing on a deep well of Jewish talent from throughout occupied Europe, the camp administration scheduled a full calendar of programs that included opera, operetta, symphony, chamber, and choral concerts. In addition, many gifted artists—among them the cabaret writer Karel Ávenck and composers Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas, and Gideon Klein—produced original works for performance at the camp. Ullmann, whose allegorical anti-Nazi opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (Emperor of Atlantis) was rehearsed but never staged at Theresienstadt, spoke for his colleagues and himself when he proclaimed "our endeavor with respect to the arts was commensurate with our will to live" (Bloch, 1989).


The larger ghettos of German-occupied eastern Europe were scenes of a flourishing if precarious cultural life. Jews crowded into ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna, and Kovno could attend concerts by orchestras and choirs of a professional caliber, and recitals by famous singers and instrumentalists, and enjoy cabaret-style entertainment in local cafés. Although archival sources and survivor memoirs indicate that original classical compositions were created and performed in the ghettos, few such works remain extant. However, hundreds of Yiddish songs from dozens of ghettos survive to bear witness to events and personalities that would otherwise be lost. Renowned troubadors such as Jankiel Herszkowicz of Lodz and Mordecai Gebirtig of Kraków, and legions of lesser known and nameless scribes, chronicled ghetto life in songs that addressed the subjects of hunger, smuggling, ghetto "elites," hidden children, deportations, death, and remembrance. Often based on popular prewar melodies, these songs were easily memorized and circulated widely. The documentary value of this repertoire was recognized early on, and published collections began to appear within a month of the Allied victory in Europe. Of these, the anthology Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of the ghettos and camps), compiled in 1948 by Shmerke Kaczerginski, remains the most comprehensive, with 233 song texts (not all with musical notation).

In the aftermath of World War II the ghetto song assumed a new function as memorial music. Performed at the gatherings of Holocaust survivors and commemoration ceremonies worldwide, the mainstays of this repertoire include "Vu ahin zol ikh geyn" (Where shall I go), with lyrics by the Warsaw writer Y. Korntayer; "Ani Ma'amin" (I believe), a text by Maimonides sung by Hasidic Jews en route to execution; and the partisans' anthem "Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg" (Never say that you have reached the final road), with lyrics by the Vilna poet and underground fighter Hirsh Glik.

SEE ALSO Architecture; Ghetto; Memorials and Monuments; Music and Musicians Persecuted during the Holocaust; Music at Theresienstadt; Music of the Holocaust


Eisler, Ejal Jakob, Rainer Lotz, et al. (2001). Vorbei: Beyond Recall. A Record of Jewish Musical Life in Nazi Berlin 1933–1938. Hambergen: Bear Family Records.

Fackler, Guido (2000). "Des Lagers Stimme" Musik im KZ. Bremen: Edition Temmen.

Geisel, Eike, and Henryk Broder, eds. (1992). Premiere und Pogrom: der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933–1941. Berlin: Siedler.

Kaczerginski, Shmerke (1948). Lider fun di getos un lagern. New York: Congress for Jewish Culture.

Karas, Joza (1985). Music in Terezín 1941–1945. New York: Beaufort Books.

Lammel, Inge, and Günther Hofmeyer, eds. (1962). Lieder aus den faschistischen Konzentrationslagern. Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister.

Levi, Erik (1994). Music in the Third Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Mlotek, Eleanor, and Malke Gottlieb, eds. (1983) We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust. New York: Workmen's Circle.

Bret Werb

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Music, Holocaust Hidden and Protest

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