Music During the Holocaust

Music had a huge presence in everyday life during the Holocaust.  The Nazis used music as a method of torture and propaganda, resistance fighters used songs as a clandestine way to deliver messages, and musician prisoners performed concerts and wrote new music in the camps.  Ultimately for most, music became a profound and necessary outlet to express emotions and preserve humanity in the face of extraordinary violence and discrimination.

  • Torture
    • Nazis often used singing on command as a form of abuse or punishment.  Singing is physically exerting, and the soldiers would force prisoners to sing after a day of hard labor, which was exhausting, sometimes even deadly. They could be beaten for stopping their singing, or for singing the wrong notes.  They sometimes forced the prisoners to sing “happy” songs or politically charged/patriotic songs that were chosen deliberately to add a sadistic undertone.

An inmate in Sachsenhausen named Eric Goodman, gave this account of forced singing: “Late in the evening, when we were already tired and longed for the little bit of rest that remained for us in the day, we were made out of pure abuse to remain standing in the courtyard and to sing, sing continuously, into the depths of the night.  The same happened when, now and then, someone tried to escape.  Then the sirens howled eerily through the night, until the victim had been seized, but in the meantime all the prisoners had to remain standing on the big square, without food, without pause to rest, and had to sing.  During this singing many perished, exhausted.”[1]

  • Propaganda/work: Official camp orchestras and choruses were made up of both amateurs and professionals and had a variety of functions.  Some existed for propaganda purposes, to convince the outside world that the Jews weren’t being treated so badly.  Nazis used these orchestras as a way to organize prisoners, keep them occupied and calm.  The orchestras played concerts at official events, like Hitler’s birthday, for example, or Nazi holidays.  They performed for both their fellow prisoners and also for the officers for their entertainment.  In some cases, music was played during executions — one source said that marching music drowned out the sound of guns and/or screams.  In Auschwitz the prison orchestra played at the camp gates every morning and evening as inmates walked to and from work.  Often, being a member of the orchestra was a lifesaver, literally.   Though these groups were all sanctioned by the Nazis and of course had some horrific functions, they could also be meaningful to the prisoners.  Karel Stancl wrote about his time in the Sing-Sing Boys, an a capella group in the camp of Sachsenhausen

“None of us had studied art professionally, but we were held together by our common fate, and by our common love of music and singing.  We also wanted to express our contempt and our resistance towards the bestiality and tedium that surrounded us.  We were bound by the endeavor “to do something” against the monotonous ill-treatment, the sadness and the misery of camp life, to raise ourselves every day over the wall with the barbed wire.  I always see us in my mind’s eye, the way in which we – bald headed, dressed in striped rags, in wood-soled shoes with our numbers on our breasts and our trousers – gave gala concerts.  It is almost unbelievable what power there was in our singing, and how it helped us to humanize relations in an inhuman milieu and an inhuman time.”[2]

  • Spontaneous bouts of song in the barracks by prisoners
  • An inmate in Sachsenhausen described this scene after the Nazis left the inmates after a particularly brutal treatment.

“All at once the oppressive silence was broken by a mournful tune.   It was the plaintive tones of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer.  I raised myself up to see whence it came.  There, close to the wall, the moonlight caught the uplifted face of an old man, who in self-forgetful, pious absorption, was singing softly to himself the sorrowful melody with the familiar deep moving words…We sat up very quietly so as not to disturb the old man, and he did not notice that we were listening.  As if transported into another world, he chanted the prayer to the end, so softly that the words were scarcely distinguishable to those who did not know them by heart.  His old, quavering voice held us in a spell.  When at last he was silent, there was exaltation among us, an exaltation which men can experience only when they have fallen as low as we had fallen and then, through the mystic power of a deathless prayer, have awakened once more to the world of the spirit.”[3]

  • Songs were written to describe circumstances, record history, and rally resistance.  This song was written just after news was received of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.  Here is one person’s reminiscence of the creator of the song.

“Hirschke came to my room bright and early…He began to sing softly, but full of excitement.  His eyes glowed with little sparks… Kumen vet noch undzer oysgebenkte sho… Where did he get his faith?  His voice became firmer.  He tapped out the rhythm with his foot, as if he were marching…  We lived with the spirit of April and the Warsaw ghetto uprising.  The partisan staff in the Vilna ghetto decided that the song should become the hymn of its fighters.  But the people did not wait for this decision, and the song had already spread to the ghettos, the concentration and labor camps, and into the woods to other partisan brigades.”

  • Music thrived in Terezin (also known as Thereseinstadt), a camp in Czechoslovakia where many Jewish musicians and artists were sent.  Though performances began spontaneously and covertly, the Nazis soon allowed cultural life to flourish and used it to create a propaganda film.  At Terezin, there were at least 4 different orchestras, choruses, chamber groups, jazz bands (one called the Ghetto Swingers) and a fully staged children’s opera, Brundibar.

  • Brundibar was a children’s opera written by Hans Krasa, a Czech composer.  Based on a play by Aristophanes, Krasa completed Brundibar in 1942, just before he was sent to Terezin.  Once at Terezin, he rewrote it for the instruments that were available, and the work was performed 55 times.  Krasa died in Auschwitz in 1944.
    • Synopsis: a brother and a sister (who are fatherless) have been told by the doctor that their mother is gravely ill and needs milk to survive, but they have no money to buy it.  They decide to sing in the street to earn money, but their voices are too small to be heard and the evil organ grinder Brundibar chases them away.  Discouraged, they fall asleep.  Meanwhile a dog, cat, and sparrow pledge to help, and gather a choir of children to stand up to Brundibar.  Together their voices are heard and Brundibar is defeated.  Here is the opera in completion, performed in Cape Town in February 2012.  At the end of the film, Ela Stein Weissberger joins the students on stage.  Ela played the cat in the original performances in Terezin as a child.

  • There were many composers in Terezin writing new music.  Composer Gideon Klein wrote this trio for violin, viola and cello nine days before his death.  It was originally supposed to be a quartet, but the 2nd violinist was sent to his death and Klein rewrote it for 3 instruments.

Spotify playlists of music written and performed in Terezin:

 Hawthorne Quartet – Haas/Krása: String Quartets

Daniel Hope, Philip Dukes, & Paul Watkins – Forbidden Music – Klein, Krása, & Schulhoff

Anne Sofie von Otter – Terezín / Theresienstadt (read about this album)

Hawthorne String Quartet – Chamber Music from Theresienstadt – Klein & Ullmann

  • Alice Herz-Sommer was a pianist who was sent to Terezin with her five-year old son in 1942.  She survived, and lived until the age of 110. (She died this past February 2014.)  In this video, she recounts her time at Terezin and describes how music kept her alive. Between the summer of 1943 and her liberation, Alice played more than 100 concerts, mostly solo recitals from memory.

“In the camp, I sometimes felt that I was protesting against the inhumanity of the Nazis when I played Beethoven.  I could feel the audience breathing, feeling with me as they clung to their memories of a better time.”  An audience member described hearing Alice play all the Chopin etudes at a concert, “For the duration of the concert I could imagine that life was normal and that we would soon go home again to our familiar life.  It meant much to me…”

  • Victor Ullmann, another great composer who lived in Terezin, wrote the following:

Goethe’s maxim, “Live within the moment, live in eternity” has always revealed to me the enigmatic meaning of Art…Terezin was and is for me the school of Form.  Earlier, when one did not feel the impact and burden of material life, because they were erased by comfort, this magic accomplishment of civilization, it was easy to create beautiful forms.  Here, where even in daily life one must overcome matter by the power of form, where anything connected with the Muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings, here is the true school for masters, if one, following Schiller, perceives the secret of every work of art in the endeavor to annihilate matter by the means of form, which presumably, is the overall mission of man, not only of the esthetical man, but of the ethical man as well.   I have written in Terezin a fair amount of new music, mainly to meet the needs and wishes of conductors, stage directors, pianists, and singers, and thereby the Freizeitgestaltung of the ghetto.  To compile a list would seem as superfluous as to point out that piano playing was impossible in Terezin as long as there were no instruments.  Likewise uninteresting for future generations should be the painful scarcity of manuscript paper.  However, it must be emphasized that Terezin has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavor with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live.”[4]



Gilbert, Shirli Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos And Camps Clarendon Press, 2005

Karas, Joza Music in Terezin, Pendragon Press, 2008

Piechocki, Reinhard, Muller Melissa A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer Pan Macmillan, 2010

Silverman, Jerry The Undying Flama, Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust Syracuse University Press 2002

[1] Gilbert, Shirli Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos And Camps Clarendon Press, 2005

[2] Gilbert, Shirli Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos And Camps Clarendon Press, 2005 pg. 106

[3] Gilbert, Shirli Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos And Camps Clarendon Press, 2005

[4] Karas, Joza Music in Terezin, Pendragon Press, 2008