the ambiguous role of music in the Nazi camps

On the occasion of the international day dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, franceinfo met musicians who perform scores composed in the death camps. In Paris, the Shoah Memorial is interested in the way in which the Nazis exploited musicians.



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Barracks at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Poland, in August 2014. (VINCENT ISORE / MAXPPP)

In the concentration camps, the deportees composed and played music. Notes and words that Francesco Lotoro and his musicians have made it their mission to make heard, 79 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. At UNESCO headquarters, Thursday January 25, they played several scores written during the Shoah, including a love tango dated 1943, dedicated to a woman who died in the Vilnius ghetto.

“At dawn up, black coffee for breakfast and to work”, sings this inmate of the Majdanek extermination camp. It evokes the lost happiness of a house where lilacs bloom. “Sometimes when I sing, I cry inside, confides Paolo Candido, one of the singers. There is a lot of emotion. Sadness, because I think about the person who made this music, and the situation in which it was created. But also joy, because I know that my work gives this music a second life and these musicians are not forgotten in the world.”

“With this music they looked towards the future”

Francesco Lotoro was still only a young pianist when he discovered the first piano scores in the 1980s. “I realized that I was facing a mountain, an Everest of music. Today we managed to collect and save 10,000 scores.” A treasure when we know how certain deportees composed their music: “Political prisoners were forbidden to write, so they used toilet paper and then hid it.”

“In Buchenwald, a musician hid scores on toilet paper in a rabbit farm where the deportees worked.”

Francesco Lotoro, Italian musician and composer

at franceinfo

These are scores of different musical genres (jazz, classical), reflecting the different generations to which the deportees belonged. According to Francesco Lotoro, they were created to leave a mark: “With this music they looked towards the future. They did not survive, but they reached us.”

In the Nazi camps, the deportees sometimes played traditional songs in their barracks because musical practice was authorized, a way of intellectual resistance and an escape from suffering. “Music doesn’t save your life, but it expands it”, summarizes Francesco Lotoro.

Orchestras used by the Nazis

But music wasn’t just for escapism. The Nazis used it for their crimes, as highlighted by the Shoah Memorial in Paris in the exhibition “Music in the Camps”. Violins, mandolins and even a double bass that served in the camps are presented to the public. “I started on the very dark side deliberately, said Elise Petit, the commissioner, to show that the first use in the camps is the one to which everyone had access, it is destructive use.

From the start of the camps, the Nazis formed orchestras of deportees, as shown in photos and drawings on the walls but also in videos in which survivors testify. “A large part of the deportees work outside and they have to go out to the sound of the military music that is being played”testifies Albert Veissid, deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

“Given that there was a very military functioning in the camps, they copied the habits they had acquired from traveling to music.”

Elise Petit, exhibition curator at the Paris Shoah memorial

at franceinfo

“There was a lot of importance given to walking in step, so that’s how the music came about. And then they used it for personal dictation or punishment.”

Punishments, even killings to music. In Mauthausen, in 1942, the SS executed a deportee who had escaped, and forced the orchestra to play a piece entitled I’ll wait. The music also has the mission of masking the cries of the victims in the gas chambers, or even for private events organized by the SS who used the deportees as objects. As evidenced by this audition passed by violinists: “The first violinist plays something that does not please, La Chaconne of Bach, he is massacred on the spot, says Elise Petit. The second is so panicked, he can’t play, he gets strangled. The third, the one who testifies, begins to play The Beautiful Blue Danube (by John Strauss), and there the SS sings the melody and says to the Kapo ‘we’re going to let this one live'”

Deportees saved thanks to their musical talent. This was also sometimes the case within the Birkenau women’s orchestra, where the survival rate was higher than in most forced labor units.

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