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In some Nazi camps, Jewish musicians were permitted or required to play in camp orchestras. For these musicians, playing in an orchestra not only sustained their spirits but also provided opportunities for resistance and even survival.
But the benefits of playing in a camp orchestra also left some with feelings of regret and guilt during and after the Holocaust.
Author James A. In AugustJohann Schwarzhuber, the camp commander of Birkenau [part of the Auschwitz concentration camp and killing center], decided to form his own ensemble [of Jewish prisoners]. At dawn, the musicians would line up outside the music barracks in rows of five, just like every other work detachment. The trumpets would stand in the first row, followed by the horns, accordions, clarinets, and the saxophone.
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Bringing up the rear would be the tuba, the snare drum, the bass drum, and the cymbals. At the front of the ensemble, proudly holding his baton, would be Franz Kopka, a drummer who in addition to being the capo of the orchestra managed to have himself named its conductor.
The snare drum would establish the tempo with a brief cadence, accompanied by the boom of the bass drum and the crash of the cymbals. The band would in as the ensemble marched toward the stage that had been erected next to the camp gate.
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On their way, they would pass the capos who were busily lining up their detachments for an orderly march out of the camp. When the band reached the stage, Kopka would cut off the music and bring the formation to a halt. The musicians would scamper to their places on the stage, spread out the music on their stands, and await their next command.
Instead of launching immediately into another march, Kopka would often indulge himself by calling for a tango. This would allow him to emulate what he thought a great conductor should look like, waving the first two fingers of each hand in the air while contorting his entire body in ridiculous gestures.
The musicians would simply play on, ignoring the antics of their pretentious conductor. The process of marching all the detainees out of the camp could last two or more hours, during which time the orchestra would play without interruption. After the last detachments had passed through the gate, the orchestra would reassemble in its parade formation and march back to the music barracks. The performers would stow away their instruments and begin their daily work. Although they were not exempt from forced labor, they did have the advantage of working slightly less, since they were the last ones to leave camp every morning.
They were also the first to return in the evening, at which time they would perform marches for the exhausted workers hobbling back into the camp. Its members continued to fall victim to disease or grow so weak from exhaustion and starvation that they were sent to the gas chambers.
Others committed suicide. Among those who decided to take his own life was Leon Bloorman, a former violin professor at the Jewish Conservatory of Music in Rotterdam.
Just a few days after arriving in Birkenau, Bloorman approached his old violin student Louis Bannet, who had since become a virtuoso trumpeter. He was a Frenchman.
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This was not enough to console the violinist. A few nights later, Bloorman tried to kill himself by running into the electric fence. Before he got that far, he was gunned down by SS guards.
For the musicians who played in the orchestras, music often provided a welcome escape from the thoughts that were otherwise filled with despair and death. Music offered the performers opportunities to live a little longer, if only for one more day. While participation in an orchestra did not guarantee survival, it did protect musicians from the harshest of labor asments and sometimes offered warmer uniforms and slightly better food.
In many cases, these advantages offered just enough benefits to allow musicians to outlive the Nazi regime. Some of the musicians who played in the Auschwitz orchestras continued to make music after the Holocaust.
But many of the musicians never played again. Students broaden their understanding of resistance by exploring examples of music as spiritual and physical defiance to Nazi oppression. Read the story of a violin maker's efforts to restore the violin played by a Jewish partisan during the Holocaust. Music, Memory, and Resistance during the Holocaust. Add or Edit Playlist. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins.
Related Content. A small ensemble of Jewish musicians performs in Riga, Latvia, in the s.
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