Music at Theresienstadt

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Music at Theresienstadt

During the Third Reich music played significant roles for Nazi oppressors and their victims. The history of both the Nazi Entartete Musik policy and musical activities in the concentration camps is a compelling mixture of terror, inspiration, irony, and surrealism. Ultimately, it was the inspiring determination of artists, particularly those incarcerated in Theresienstadt, which left an enduring musical and social legacy for future generations.

Entartete Musik

The Nazi regime used music, as well as other arts, as a political tool to unify and indoctrinate the German Volk (the public). Entartete Musik was the name given by the Nazis to a wide variety of composers and musical genres as part of their propaganda machine. Entartete (degenerate, a term connoting psychologically abnormal behavior) signified something aberrant about the art, thus perceived as a threat to German society. In addition to educating people about the dangers of degenerate music, the public was also "protected" from cultural pollution by a ban on the performance, recording, and publication of this music. This policy was initially introduced at an exhibit of visual arts, Entartete Kunst (degenerate art), displayed in Munich in 1937. The following year in Dusseldorf, music received similar attention in the Entartete Musik exhibition.

The Entartete program became a policy of censorship that supported the ethnic and political cleansing of German society. The music targeted was enormously varied, as were the lives and backgrounds of the composers. What the Nazis identified in common for all were either elements of jazz, atonal music, or, most insidiously and specifically, any music written by Jewish composers. Simply put, jazz was deemed "Negro" music and atonality bore the subversive influences of the "Jew" and Bolshevism. Racial considerations aside, the compositions of many German composers experimenting with such new musical forms were also targeted. According to this twisted formula, such music was symptomatic of a cancer infecting German culture. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry was determined to "educate" the public about the danger of this music, and to revitalize the concept of a pure German music as exemplified by the work of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner.

Some targeted musicians, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Waxman, Berthold Goldschmidt, and Bruno Walter, fled to the United States and United Kingdom to start anew. Others were not so fortunate; many exceptionally gifted artists were imprisoned and eventually murdered.


A number of artists who were among the intelligentsia of Western Europe were sent to the Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Theresienstadt functioned not only as a transit camp to the Nazi death camps, but also as a propaganda vehicle designed to deceive the world community about the true nature of the Final Solution. Originally a garrison town of approximately six thousand, Theresienstadt was converted into a concentration camp, growing to a prison population almost ten times that number.

The overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and starvation in Theresienstadt made for intolerable living conditions. Around 120,000 people passed through Theresienstadt; 33,000 would die there. Remarkably, in the midst of horrid living conditions, musical instruments were smuggled in as early as the second transport. At first concerts were held secretly in the attics and basements of the barracks. The performances increased with the mounting number of amateur and professional artists arriving with each transport. This active cultural community included many of Europe's most gifted artists, musicians, and literary figures. On eventually discovering these secret performances, the Nazis realized the great importance of culture to the prisoners, and believed that in allowing such cultural activities, they could more easily contain the Theresienstadt prisoners.

The Freizeitgestaltung (Administration for Free Time Activities) was instituted by the Nazi SS command. This Jewish-run organization was responsible for a wide range of cultural activities for prisoners, including lectures, theater, opera, jazz, cabaret, and chamber music. Amateur and professional musicians formed a variety of ensembles. Egon Ledec, former associate concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic, established the Ledec Quartet, one of several string quartets and ensembles in Theresienstadt. Kurt Gerron, who was the original "Tiger Brown" in Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera and costarred with actress Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), produced cabaret productions. In the realm of jazz and popular music, Martin Roman led the Ghetto Swingers. Czech choirmaster Raphael Schächter directed productions of operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bedrich Smetana, and Georges Bizet. Schächter's most inspiring act of musical resistance was exemplified by his determination to perform Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. Between 1943 and 1944 he and over 150 fellow prisoners rehearsed and performed the requiem 15 times for inmates, and ultimately the Nazi elite. Twice the chorus was decimated by transports to Auschwitz.

Four classical composers emerged among the central creative forces in this extraordinarily rich cultural community: Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, and Viktor Ullmann. Before their incarceration these men were active participants in the principal trends of European culture, and were among the gifted students and musical successors of Arnold Schoenberg, Alois Haba, and Leos Janaček. Their works were performed under the direction of such notable conductors as Leopold Stokowski, William Steinberg, George Szell, and Serge Koussevitzky. Deported to Theresienstadt within four months of each other, they were important figures in the Freizeitgestaltung.

In one of many of the twisted and surrealistic aspects of Theresienstadt, the imprisoned artists and audience members experienced a cultural freedom impossible in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. Programs were rarely censored, especially with consideration to the racial criteria of the degenerate policy.

The Nazis attempted to portray Theresienstadt as a paradeis ghetto (paradise ghetto) to the outside world. This was highlighted in the summer of 1944 with the carefully orchestrated inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the production of a propaganda film entitled Der Fuehrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). Theresienstadt was superficially beautified with an outdoor concert pavilion and fake storefronts. During the staged Red Cross visit, Krása's children's opera Brundibár was performed, and a scene from the opera was shot for the Nazi propaganda film. Theresienstadt's prisoners—children and adults alike—were forced to produce and participate in the film, which was directed by Gerron. The film also included a sham performance of Haas's Study for String Orchestra, (with the narrator asserting: "Musical performances are happily attended by all. The work of a Jewish composer in Theresienstadt is performed"). Shooting of the film ended in September 1944. Within a month most of Theresienstadt's cultural establishment, including Gerron and Haas, were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

For almost half a century the music and history of these artists, whose careers and lives were cut short by Nazi policies, have been absent from concert halls and mainstream musical consciousness. The reemergence of these composers represents a significant addition to humankind's understanding and appreciation of twentieth-century classical music. In the face of the Final Solution the history of these artists is poignant testimony to their determination and creative legacy.

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


Adler, H. G. (1960). Theresienstadt 1941–1945. Das Anlitz einer Zwangagemeinschaft, 2nd edition. Tuebingen: JCB Mohr.

Barron, Stephanie (1991). "Degenerate Art," the Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Bondy, Ruth (1989). "Elder of the Jews": Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt. New York: Grove Press.

Goldstein, Phyllis, and Mark Ludwig (2000). Finding a Voice: Musicians in Terezín. Boston: Terezín Chamber Music Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves.

Lederer, Zdenek (1983). Ghetto Theresienstadt. New York: Howard Fertig.

Redlich, Gonda (1992). The Diary of Gonda Redlich. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky.

Mark D. Ludwig