Prisoner orchestras at Nazi Auschwitz camp remembered in University of Michigan concerts
During World War II, at many of the Nazis’ death camps in Germany and Poland, musicians were forced to perform in prisoner orchestras.
Now students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance are performing songs in the way they would have been played at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
This haunting glimpse into history is possible because of the research of U of M Professor of Music Theory Patricia Hall. Hall first discovered the manuscripts for the songs during trips to the archives at Auschwitz.
The prisoner orchestras often performed popular German songs of the times. The musicians had to arrange the songs to suit whatever instruments were available in the camp.
Hall's work first made news after she found one manuscript of a song in 2016 and a group performed it a couple of years later. On another trip in 2019, she discovered more, including an arrangement for the song "Traum von Haiti" or "Dream of Haiti."
"It's a tango. It's scored for an instrumental ensemble that performed in Auschwitz I in the original camp that was established in 1940," Hall told Michigan Radio's Morning Edition. "It has very unusual instrumentation. As a tango it has, for instance, three saxophones, a lot of strings and you can also hear some brass in there as well."
Hall says it was important to her to get the arrangements exactly right for the performances by the U of M ensemble.
"Until now, we've read about histories of these various music ensembles at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but we don't really know what they sounded like. So when I saw these manuscripts, the first thing I thought was, 'This is a chance to finally hear what this music sounded like,'" Hall said. "I was very, very careful to maintain exactly the type of instruments specified, even to the point of including nine violins in one of the arrangements because that's the number of parts they had."
Songs and testimony
During the ensemble's first performance earlier this week in Ann Arbor, singers also recited lines from transcripts of postwar testimonials from prisoners. In one, a musician describes playing music for prisoner work squads as they marched through a now infamous gate at Auschwitz with a sign that read, "Work Sets You Free."
“When the squads returned from work they were much smaller. Often 30 or 40 corpses were carried back to the camp. It was a horrible scene. I was devastated. But I had to play.”
Hall says the musicians were spared hard labor, but faced other horrors.
"This music was punitive, so they had to stay exactly in step to these marches or they would be beaten" she said. "One of the lines from [another] testimony talks about at least 50 members of the orchestra being taken out and shot. And this was just because there was a particularly sadistic SS guard there who liked to choose members of the orchestra and take them out and shoot them."
Hall says it was both moving and painful to do her research at the site where so many atrocities happened.
"I was working in an actual former prison block. Block 25 was where these musicians had slept in the evening, on the second floor, and the original flooring had been maintained in the building," she said. "I could literally stare at the floor and see the wear patterns from this period when the camp was actually active. It was very much a reminder about some of the conditions, at least, that these musicians endured."
A cruel irony
There is a terrible disconnect between the songs and the setting where they were first played. The music is often upbeat, as are the titles. The song Hall first discovered in 2016 is called "The Most Beautiful Time of Life."
"That kind of juxtaposition or that dichotomy is what the musicians experienced every day. And so for [that] particular song, they would have been playing that at an SS function at one of these Sunday open-air parties," Hall said. "In most ways, it seems as ironic as one could imagine. I just literally had to stop what I was doing and mentally reset when I saw that title."
One of the concerns shared by many is if we forget the atrocities of the Holocaust, they could come to pass again. Music adds another element to telling the stories of that time.
"As I was sitting, listening to the concert and the beautiful playing of our students, I was just so moved by it and that feeling never goes away for me. I think this is an opportunity not only to learn about the Holocaust and these musicians, but it connects us at a very emotional level, listening to this beautiful but escapist music."
The U of M ensemble's concert series continues May 22 at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, and May 25-26 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.