THE BLOG

When Music Saved Lives

08/21/2014 08:33 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

When people ask me about music during the Holocaust, they are often surprised to learn about the orchestras in Auschwitz. It seems impossible to imagine emaciated prisoners making music in the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps.

There were actually several ensembles in the Auschwitz complex, including a large orchestra in the main camp, orchestras in the men's and women's camps of Birkenau, and several other ensembles in various satellite camps. These orchestras were comprised of amateur and professional musicians who were recruited from the prisoner population and required to perform as part of their forced labor. The Nazis commanded the prisoners to play German marches at the camp gates, to provide a cheerful façade and rhythmic orderliness as the work details marched out of camp every morning and returned every evening. Day in and day out, their schmaltzy tunes formed a macabre counterpoint to the brutal realities of life in Auschwitz.

As a reward for their contributions to camp life, the orchestral musicians sometimes received preferential treatment. This included lighter work details such as copying music and repairing musical instruments. Some of the performers were assigned to work in the kitchen, giving them access to extra food while also allowing them to work inside.

Not surprisingly, some prisoners grew to resent the orchestras. Holocaust memoirist Primo Levi wrote of the disdain he felt for the musicians while convalescing in the Auschwitz III infirmary. The patients could barely hear the camp orchestra -- just the monotonous beating of the bass drum and the crashing of cymbals accompanied by the faintest hints of melody. "We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal," he wrote in Survival in Auschwitz. "The tunes are few, a dozen, the same ones every day, morning and evening: marches and popular songs dear to every German. They lie engraven on our minds and will be the last thing in camp that we shall forget."

But other survivors have credited the orchestras with helping them stay alive. Kazimierz Gwizdka recalled dragging his fatigued body back to Birkenau after long days of tortuous labor. As he and his fellow prisoners stumbled along, they would begin to hear the Birkenau Men's Camp Orchestra playing from afar. The peppy music would renew their strength and their will to survive. To Gwizdka, the performers seemed to be reassuring their fellow prisoners through the music, "Don't give up, brothers! Not all of us will perish!"

Membership in an orchestra did not by any means guarantee that a musician's life would be spared. But it did offer opportunities to live a little longer, if only for one more day. In some cases, the small perks of being assigned to an orchestra offered just enough advantages to allow musicians to outlive the Nazi regime. "Music has kept me alive," confirmed Henry Meyer, who played violin and cymbals in the Birkenau Men's Camp Orchestra. "There is no doubt about it."

Auschwitz was certainly not the only place where music saved lives during the Holocaust. In "Violins of Hope," I also write about Bronisław Huberman, who in 1936 recruited seventy-five Jewish musicians to form a new orchestra in Palestine (now the world famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), providing the performers and their families with the financial and legal means to leave Europe before it was too late. I write about Ernst Glaser, the Jewish concertmaster of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra who used his musical influence to escape a riot during a concert in Nazi-occupied Bergen in 1941 and then to flee to safety in Sweden. And then there's the story of Feivel Wininger, an amateur violinist who performed at weddings and parties in the ghettoized Romanian territory of Transnistria in exchange for leftovers that he could bring back to his family. By playing music, Wininger was able to spare himself and sixteen family members and friends from starvation.

The stories of Jewish musicians who were able to leave Nazified Europe and those who were interned in concentration camps and ghettos are very different from each other, but they all have one thing in common: music gave them hope and, in some cases, saved their lives.

James A. Grymes is the author of Violins of Hope.