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Partial translation from DEUTSCHE GESCHICHTE, issue 60

A review of “Musik am Rande des Lebens” [Music on the Edge of Life] by Milan Kuna

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One of the most astonishing chapters in the history of the concentration camps was jazz [a particularly snide and stupid remark by the author of book review is deleted here]. “It seems all the more unbelievable that jazz could be played in German concentration camps, as if the SS and camp management were completely unaware of the racist and chauvinistic Nazi cultural policy”, Kuna wonders (p. 266). In actual fact, jazz played by inmates was not only tolerated, but even gladly listened to by SS men. The guards ignored the brown boycott, and the inmates were allowed to jazz whatever came out of their saxophones. In Buchenwald, jazz was played a 14-man combo called “Rhythmus”. The French Communist Louis “Marco” Markovitsch set the tone musically, playing tenor saxophone and clarinet, while his countryman Ives Dariet, better known under his professional name as Jean Roland, wrote the arrangements. Finn Jacobsen, from Denmark, and Lena, a Dutchman, played trumpet. The “Rhythm-Boys”, with the Russian Nikolaj on guitar, John Verden on drums and Herbert Goldschmied on piano, played hits by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Glenn Miller, W.C. Handy and Irving Berlin. This was in addition to hits by jazz geniuses ranging from Louis Armstrong to Artie Shaw and Fats Waller (p. 270 f). In addition to larger-scale entertainment concerts in the camp movie theater, the jazz musicians, working in smaller groups with constantly changing personnel, wandered from barracks to barracks: “On these occasions, for example, they were allowed to play Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, which could not be heard almost anywhere else in Europe” (p. 272). [?] [sic]

Kuna notes that, to permit the Buchenwald jazz orchestra to continue playing, influential inmates had to create jobs for them which left the musicians with sufficient energy and leisure time to play music. The allocation of "jobs fit for jazz musicians" was taken care of by Professor Herbert Weidlich, an inmate of Buchenwald since 1942, who rendered great services to jazz in [Buchenwald] concentration camp, exploiting his position to protect the musicians.

The jazz-playing inmates in Sachsenhausen included young Czechs interned for participating in prohibited student demonstrations. The so-called “Sing-Sing Boys” sang Jaroslav Jezek hits which were actually forbidden in the Third Reich because of their lyrics (p. 122 ff) [!]. The group broke up once and for all when the “boys” were released and sent home in 1942.

Jazz in Mauthausen, too

Carefully-rehearsed Czech jazz was played in Mauthausen as well: the barracks barber, Dr. Jaroslav Tobiasek, who belonged to the large camp classical orchestra but was also the driving force behind the Mauthausen mini-jazz band, resisted the hostility of the conductor of the Mauthausen classical orchestra, Rumbauer, who considered the combo "competition" and placed a great many obstacles in its way. The band members came from all over Europe; the saxophonist was [the Czech] Rudolf Dudak. Jazz was also played in Bistriz, near Beneschau, a small concentration camp near Prague: the pianists Kopecky, Mancl and Zschok played piano melodies from Gerschwin's works "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris", while Fischer's dance orchestra played songs by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin and Irving Berlin. This was in addition to all types of other songs, interpreted by Pospili, Sobesky or the "camp Caruso", Kabourek (p. 278).

Among Theresienstadt jazz groups, the Weiss Quartet competed against Erich Vogel’s Dixieland Orchestra. Bedrich Weiss, known as "Fricek", one of the best known jazz musicians in Prague in the mid-1930s, composed his “Doctor Swing” in the camp. Not only did he look like Benny Goodman – slandered by the National Socialists as the “Swing Jew” – he even played in the same style. Under the leadership of gifted German Jewish pianist Martin Roman, the two bands merged, forming what then became known as the “Ghetto Swingers”. Roman, a well-known Goodman fan just like Weiss, had emigrated from Berlin to Amsterdam on racial grounds, accompanying the well-known Americans Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton on pre-1940 tours, and had also toured with "gypsy baron" Django Reinhardt. Transferred to Theresienstadt from Westerbork concentration camp in Holland, Roman took over the artistic lead and, with Weiss, arranged thirty new compositions. Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” was used as set-chaser. The vocalists consisted of tenor Freddy Haber and a girl trio in the style of the Andrews Sisters.

The "Ghetto Swingers" at the Marktplatz Café

The Ghetto Swingers, who played at the Café am Marktplatz [in Theresienstadt], also appeared in the film “The Führer Gives the Jews a City”, in which, for propaganda purposes, the Jewish director, Kurt Gerron, depicted the ideal concentration camp on film. The band members -- gigging the “Bugle Call Rag” in the film sequence -- wore blue blazers with a Star of David. In one of the following scenes in the film, a string orchestra, led by Karel Ancerl, plays selected classics. The Jewish camp self-government in Theresienstadt had a great concern for art and culture. The first opera performed after the opening of the camp was Smetana’s “Bartered Bride”; another was “The Kiss” by the same composer. Other operas included Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”, "Bastien and Bastienne” and the “Magic Flute”. There was also a wonderful children’s opera, “Brundi Bear”, by Hans Kräsa, from Prague. Conductor Rafael Schacter’s performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” was a subject of religious dispute, and was greatly disliked by Orthodox Jews (p. 196 ff).

The night club pianist Carlo S. Taube worked up his impressions into a symphony climaxing in a distortion of “The Song of the Germans”, with horrendous dissonances (p. 215 f).

The Theresienstadt City Orchestra

The City Band of Theresienstadt was led by Peter Deutsch, former conductor of the Royal Danish Orchestra. The repertoire included various Strauss waltzes, a few songs by Kmoch, a potpourri of songs by Karel Vacek and finally the Bohemian folk song, “Schaffers Annerl" [Schaffer's Little Annie”] [?] (p. 244). “Isn’t it all miraculous?”, wrote Willi Mahler, a music-lover, describing his impressions of the Great Holiday Concert of 25 June 1944 in his diary. “The German soldier is losing the struggle for his existence in the West, South and in Eastern Europe, and the Jews, sealed off in the […] atmosphere of Theresienstadt, are allowed to listen to promenade concerts and have their own band, at the order of the German administration of our own settlement” (p. 225). Upon the approach of the Red Army, the lyrics of the Czech musical numbers got even cheekier: “… in the end, we'll all laugh when everybody shits on Germany(p. 292).

[Comment: Plus ça change, plus la même chose. - C.P.]

Perhaps with this in mind, the Prague musician Karel Hasler, composer of “Our Czech Song”, was cold-bloodedly murdered in Mauthausen by his fellow prisoners (p. 286 f.). Saxophonist Rudolf Dudak’s instrument saved his life when an American war-criminal fighter pilot machine-gunned the "victims of fascism" out of a clear blue sky on a clear day: “The attack took place in broad daylight, just while the camp band was playing on the parade ground. The musicians stumbled all over each other, trying to take cover. Rudolf Dudak was lucky enough to be wearing his saxophone on a strap around his neck, so that the instrument protected his abdomen. A bullet grazed the metal, ricocheted off as if it were a steel helmet, and Dudak survived” (p. 357).

Catastrophe on the Cap Arcona

Emil Frantisek Burian, a Marxist musician from Prague, was among the inmates evacuated from Neuengamme near Hamburg on the luxury liner Cap Arcona, immediately before the end of the war, with the intention of transferring them to the care of the British victors. “Astonishingly, Christmas was celebrated in Neuengamme every year”, Kuna summarizes. “On the parade ground stood a great fir tree, decorated with bright light bulbs. What a paradox! The symbol of a peaceful and contemplative Christmas time in the concentration camp! Christmas celebrations were held in the stone barracks opposite the kitchen, in a great hall capable of seating 500 people, with the participation of inmates from every country in Europe. Jaromir Erben sang Dvorak’s song “We Are Attracted to What Is Strange” in this hall every year since 1941. For the Christmas celebration, Burian sang the very first performance of a song of his own called... “The Song of the Cold” (p. 308).

On board the Arcona, Burian continued composing songs in praise of Marxism-Leninism. Although the war was almost completely over, the Arcona, and its sister ships the Deutschland and the Theilbeck -- also filled with refugees -- were attacked by British aircraft on the orders of [“Butcher”] Arthur Harris. “The ships burst into flames and sank within an hour. The passengers jumped into the water while the pilots machine gunned everything that moved. Anybody who wasn’t burnt to death or shot was sucked down and drowned by the sinking ships. Of the 7,500 people on board, there were only 500 survivors, who had been lucky enough to keep their bearings in the ice-cold waters…”

Burian’s compositions disappeared in the depths, but their composer was one of the few who succeeded in staying afloat, finally landing on the shores of the Baltic, totally exhausted and suffering from exposure, after many long, terrifying hours in the icy water.

[end of translation]

COMMENT: The book by Milan Kuna, 400 pages long in fine print, is chiefly concerned with clasical music, and contains many reproductions of piano sonatas, orchestral scores, etc. etc. composed by Bohemian or Czech inmates in all German concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and pen-and-ink sketches of the musicians. At the same time, the ridiculous pretense is maintained of German barbarism and cruelty and the existence of an "extermination program". I wonder how much classical music is composed in American prisons?

- C.P.
10 July 2006