The orchestra in KL Auschwitz

From a certain point on, music began to play a very important role in the KL Auschwitz-
Birkenau camp. But where did the idea to create orchestras and several musical groups
operating not only in the main camp but also in the subcamps and the women’s camp come
from?

The prisoners wanted to make their time after work more attractive with the use of skills
acquired before the war. As it turned out later, many of them were very talented musicians.

The first concert took place in the concentration camp in the winter of 1941. It was then
played by 7 musicians. According to sources, the instruments they used were taken from the
inhabitants of a village near Oświęcim, and the musicians were to play from memory.
However, the Nazis already had a plan for a camp orchestra: it was to accompany prisoners
on their march to and from work. The purpose of this was to mark an even and fairly rapid
march of the prisoners. The orchestra began to play this role when it had fifteen members.

The following year, the main camp orchestra numbered over a hundred people, and it began
to separate sub-groups, such as a symphonic or jazz ensemble. Where to get instruments
for such a large orchestra? They were taken from other prisoners who brought them being
transported. Later, the prisoners began to send letters to their families to send them their
instruments to the camp.

Meanwhile, the Nazis found another use for music: it escorted those brought in transports
straight to the gas chambers. Esther Bejarano, a Jewish woman of German origin and
former inmate of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, in one of her interviews tells
about how people on the ramp were enjoying and waving the orchestra. She says it was one
of the worst experiences she had in the camp. Not hunger or backbreaking work, but the
awareness that the music she is playing is taking people unaware of anything to their death.
In her free time, she played with guards and fellow prisoners, often organizing secret
concerts.

However, we are still talking about a concentration camp, so the question that arises is: who
played in the orchestra? Initially, only Aryans who for some reason ended up in Auschwitz
were admitted there. Over time, however, other nationalities were allowed. In 1943, even
people of Jewish origin were admitted to the orchestras. A phenomenon compared to all
other camps is the fact that there was a female camp orchestra in Birkenau. The first
director of the orchestra was a music teacher, Zofia Czajkowska. Later, she was replaced by
the famous cellist Alma Rosé.

Music accompanied the way to work and death. As the head of the male orchestra, Szymon
Laksa said: “music – like Zyklon B – was used to kill”.

The photos of the orchestra, the program of the concert that took place in KL Auschwitz-
Monowitz in 1944, and fragments of scores are preserved in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State
Museum to this day.

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