Music and musicians had a distinct place in one of the worst places on earth during World War II…the death camp of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Not as much is written about the musicians who often had to play as people were executed. However, their talent most likely saved many of their lives at least for brief periods of the war.
The following is an account of some of the musicians in the concentration camps where millions of people were killed and more than ninety percent of whom were Jewish.
“In addition to the orchestra, there was a variety of other SS-sponsored music at Auschwitz. Some SS officers employed individual ‘musical slaves’, who were required to play or sing whenever commanded to. One such prisoner was the Italian tenor Emilio Jani, whose memoirs are titled My Voice Saved Me. Another was Coco Schumann, who recalled years later that
“the music could save you: if not your life, then at least the day. The images that I saw every day were impossible to live with, and yet we held on. We played music to them, for our basic survival. We made music in hell.
Amidst harsh conditions the camp housed an elaborate and multifaceted musical scene. The first prisoner orchestra was set up in the winter of 1941, with Franz Nierychlo as conductor. (The advantages of a prisoner, rather than SS, band — primarily the ability to control musicians as slave labour — led to the decision to gather inmates together to play at camp functions.) The original group of seven musicians, playing first with instruments seized from neighbouring towns, included a violin, contrabass, accordion, trumpet, saxophone and percussion. These were later replaced with better quality instruments sent to the musicians by family members. Their first formal rehearsal was held in Block 24, the basement under the camp brothel, where there was a small podium and a grand piano. This room became known as the concert hall, where the band gave shows for prisoners as well as guards and officials. The audience would stand along the walls; the musicians were scattered throughout the room, sitting wherever they could find a space. The group rapidly expanded to over 100 members…”
(Taken from Music and the Holocaust)
Let me introduce you to a woman named Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who played the piano to survive.
Click here NOW to hear Anna play Chopin. As she plays, continue to read her story of survival.
Anna’s story: “The day after Christmas, the Jews were ordered to prepare for transportation. Dawson says her father knew they were all going to die when he saw the trucks go north. There was nothing to the north. It was a road to Dobritsky Yar, a road to the unthinkable. Dobritsky Yar had two giant pits like the ones at Babi Yar near the city of Kiev, where the Nazis killed 34,000 Jews in two days, most machine-gunned in the back.
Dimitri Arshansky, Anna’s father, pulled out his gold pocket watch and flashed it in front of a young Ukrainian guard. He told the guard his family wasn’t Jewish; to please let his little girl go.
“I don’t care what you do,” her father told her. “Just live.”
A few days later Dawson found her sister. To this day she does not know how Frina escaped the death march. Frina has never spoken of it or about anything else from that time. Dawson believes her sister was too traumatized to talk about it.
With the help of friends, the two girls made it to an orphanage and were able to obtain fake, non-Jewish identities. For the rest of the war, they were no longer their father’s daughters. She had to repeat this as her new identity.
“My name is Anna Morozova. I am from Kharkov. My sister Marina and I are orphans. Our father was an officer on the Red Army and was killed in action. Our mother died in the bombing of Kharkov.” Dawson said it so many times during the rest of the war that it echoed endlessly in her head.”
A piano tuner at the orphanage heard her play one day and offered her and Frina jobs with a musical troupe that entertained the Germans. It was a frightening prospect, but Anna kept thinking of her father’s last words — just live. They played for Nazi generals and in front of German audiences in the city of Kremenchug: Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Brahms, Chopin.
Years later people asked her how she could have done what she did. Was it not like the musicians who played as Jews walked into gas chambers in the concentration camps?
And her music, she says, was the only spot of beauty in that bleak atmosphere. Music provided a psychological cocoon. Without it, her spirits might have broken… “We were a precious commodity for the Germans,” she said. “We were more valuable alive than dead.”
When the Germans began retreating, they took the musical troupe with them, back to Berlin. There, the Jewish Arshanskaya girls walked past Gestapo headquarters and even Adolf Hitler’s bunker after the Allied bombing began…When the war finally ended in 1945, they were taken to a displaced persons camp…” (in part from an article by Mona Basu CNN )
The story shared above is only a portion of the overall story that is truly fascinating. To read the full story about Anna’s life after coming to America and the shock her sons received, after they were adults, in learning for the first time about their brave mother’s endurance during the War and the fact that they too were Jewish. Anna has received a number of awards and honors. she participated in The Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, memorializing each Jew killed in the Holocaust by recording their names and stories.
We also give honor to the parents who had to make terrible decisions in order to protect their children. Many put their little ones on trains to travel alone in order to get them out of the country. During the Kindertransport, the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig.
We also honor the Catholic nuns who took so many of the Jewish children into the convents and protected them from detection. Young people of Poland, like Irena Sendler, also risk their lives for the children. Video: Turn up sound