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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Bossy

Music in the Camps: A look at music as a means of suppression and voice

This week marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In honour of that, I’ve decided to switch up my blog posts (this week’s for next) and discuss music in the camps (both death and concentration).

Music in the camps was used in dual purpose. On the one hand, it was a means of torture and discipline, enforced by camp guards. On the other, it was a way for prisoners to express agency, protest and cultural tradition in the most horrific of times. In both ways, the power of music and the human spirit is astounding.

Mauthausen, an orchestra accompanies prisoners to their execution

Nazi-Enforced Music

Even in the earliest camps of 1933, music was used by guards for enforcement. As the war continued, music continued to be an integral part of camp routines. At the beginning, working groups were made to sing together as they worked. Often these were songs specifically tailored to individual target groups. For example, religious prisoners were often made to sing church hymns.[1] At this time, it should be noted that music was mostly vocal-based with the odd violin, mandolin or guitar.[2]

In the pre-war camps, prisoners were often greeted by songs of ridicule upon arrival. Prisoners were made to perform for the guards entertainment and play over the sounds of the murders taking place.[3] Not only were these integral parts of camp routine, they also became a means of suppression. Just think of the emotional toll safely playing music would take on you as atrocities happened all around. Another example of music used as suppression was the loudspeakers in the camps. At night and during mealtimes, loudspeakers were used at many camps to broadcast Nazi songs and propaganda including speeches by Hitler.[4] This played the dual role of mockery and indoctrination. In this way, the guards used music not only to their own pleasure but also to affect the mental and spiritual stamina of the inmates.

Later, arrivals were rarely greeted by music but camp orchestras were established. In fact, by 1936, most camps had an official camp orchestra whose repertoires depended on the tastes of the guards at the camps.[5] Most often, the songs were Nazi soldier songs. Most famously, Auschwitz had a brass orchestra of over 120 members and a symphony orchestra of 80.[6] This was no small endeavor on behalf of prisoners or guards. For the most part, these orchestras played for the departure and arrival of work convoys. Additionally, they were used at staged executions.[7] This goes to show, that although music in the camps is still widely open for study, it was no small operation. In fact, it was integral to camp routine, operation and malice.

Auschwitz, Poland, The camp orchestra playing for work group

The Musical Creation of the Inmates

As Fackler points out in his article, Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Tradition: Music and Musical Practices in the Early Concentration Camps, 1933-6/7, music in the camps also had a role in the agency and preservation of inmates. He describes it as one way that the inmates were able to ensure they were not passive victims.[8] I find this to be a particularly important point as many have accused Holocaust victims as being “sheep to the slaughter” but music alone shows this was clearly not the case.

Many inmate-organized music endeavors were actually not forbidden. For example, inmates organized camp-wide musical celebrations that took place after work or on Sunday.. In many cases, particularly in the early camps, these were actually approved by prison guards who would often be in attendance. For example, in August 1933, at Borgermoor, inmates organized the “Concentration Circus” which utilized music to protest the evening beatings of inmates by guards.[9] According to Fackler, guards attended this show and found it entertaining. However, please do not let this take away from the shear feat of such a performance. To muster such organization, talent and political vigor after the long, laborious days of a concentration camp is tremendous. Additionally, to protest against one’s captors shows bravery and strength.

Still, there were many forms of inmate music that were forbidden and incredibly dangerous to take part in. In later camps, anti-Nazi messages and secret musical endeavors were indeed lethal in many cases. In spite of this, the spirit of the creative and determined inmate survived. For example, Herbert Zipper risked his life creating a chamber music group at Dachau. They acquired instruments and met secretly in an abandoned latrine. Here they created a song called “Dauchaulied” which became an underground resistance song in the camps.[10] It is absolutely astounding that one song written in an abandoned camp bathroom could provide a beacon of hope and spread itself to other camps.

In 1939, conductor Rosebery d’Arguto and a group of musicians at Sachsenhausen also showed immense bravery when they created a secret chorus. Later, the entire group was deported to Auschwitz and gassed. Upon hearing this news, they wrote a death ballad about their impending fate. This song was preserved by a Polish musician in the camp who ensured it survived the war.[11] To me, this shows everlasting protest to oppression. Although the musicians were silenced in brutality, their work, spirit and protest lived on far beyond them and their oppressors.


And so, there is much more to be written. Much more to be read. Much more to be researched. Much more to be left up to historical analysis. Music in the camps was a punishment but also a way to provide a voice and legitimacy to victims.

[1] Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Tradition: Music and Musical Practices in the Early Concentration Camps, 1933-6/7. Guido Fackler. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 45, No. 3 (July 2010) pp.601-627

[2] Fackler.

[3] Fackler.

[4] Fackler




[8] Fackler

[9] Fackler

[10] Music in the Holocaust. Joshua Jacobson. The Choral Journal Volume 36 No.5. December 1995, page 9-21.

[11] Jacobson.

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