Throughout history, music has played a significant role in every culture. Since the beginning, humans have used music to express themselves and their surroundings. What began as simple tribal rhythms, music has slowly evolved into complex styles, such as classical, jazz, rap, and rock. While these styles are all unique and different, they are all similar. No matter the decade or type, music is used as a universal language to communicate ideas and emotions. The themes in music are directly related to the events that are occurring in the culture at a particular time.
Almost every historical event, from the resurrection of Christ to September 11, has been depicted through some form of music. These events can be portrayed and analyzed based on the music that was played during the time and the music that was created after to recall the event. The Holocaust, being one of the darkest years in human history, provides a perfect example for how music is used for more than just pleasure. Prior to the Holocaust, German Jews played a vast role in the cultural life in Germany. Popular composers, artists, musicians, and actors found great success and fame in German culture.
However, in 1933 the Jews were persecuted when the National Socialism in Germany came to power. Under the Nuremberg racial laws in 1935, the Jews gradually became excluded from all aspects of cultural life. The Nazis banned all works by all Jewish or non-Aryan composers and musicians. As a result, many Jews began to leave Germany to escape the anti-Semitism. Any musicians that remained in Germany were controlled by the Nazis and were only allowed to perform in front of Jewish audiences. For a few years, the treatment of Jews continually egan to deteriorate.
Then in 1939, the mass population of Jews in Germany was deported to ghettos and concentration camps. During the Holocaust, music was still prevalent in the death camps. However, music in these camps had both negative and positive contributions. This Nazis, for example, used music as a way to dehumanize and humiliate the victims in the camps. Orchestras and bands were formed from the prisoners and forced to perform for the guards and other German authorities. Among the many camps, Auschwitz was known for their many prisoner orchestras.
Fania Fenelon’s autobiography, Playing for Time, describes these orchestras and the effects they had on the prisoners. Fenelon was a French pianist, composer and cabaret singer, who was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. In the camp, she became a member of the girl’s orchestra of Auschwitz. She recalls performing for the SS and having the guilt of using her art and talent to aid and comfort her torturers. Their other job was to accompany the other prisoners as they entered the camp and marched to and from work.
Instead of being pleasured by the music, many of the prisoners saw this an insult and false hope that their lives would get better. While this role of music was undesirable for the prisoners, music in Auschwitz saved lives. For Fenelon in particular, being a musician protected her and the rest of the members from the immediate death of the gas chambers. They had the privilege of staying alive to please the Nazis (Fenelon). If you were not a member of the orchestras in camps like Auschwitz, any form of cultural activity was banned and punishable by death.
Yet, prisoners refused to lose every part of humanity that existed in their lives. Regardless of the risks, prisoners sang, composed songs, and performed secret concerts in their barracks. Popular composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, were frequently heard and used to boost the morals in the camp. These clandestine performances of music gave the prisoners hope and a way to forget about the suffering that they had to go through daily. Music was no longer entertainment, but moral support. Music also served as a form of Nazi opposition.
Some of the most popular resistance songs are The Peat Bog Soldiers and the Dachau Song. The Peat Bog Soldiers was created in the Borgermoor concentration camp by a group of prisoners who reflected the workers situation in the song lyrics. The song became an immediate hit with both the prisoners and camp guards, as they did not pick up on the reference against the Nazis in the lyrics (“The Soldiers”). In addition, the Dachau Song was composed by Herbert Zipper in the Dachau concentration camp in response to the harsh work prisoners had to endure.
The purpose of these songs was to help the prisoners rise above their surroundings and preserve their own self-respect (“Dachau”). Another famous camp that had a musical influence was Theresienstadt. Unlike the death camps, Theresienstadt was used as a transit camp where Jews were sent by the thousands before they were transported to the extermination camps. This camp was unique from the other camps because the prisoners were allowed to enjoy a cultural life.
The Nazis allowed this to occur because they saw music as a propaganda technique. They used Theresienstadt to convince the world that they were treating their prisoners fairly. The camps was presented to the Red Cross as a paradise where Jews were being sheltered and saved from the ravages of war. Music ensembles, orchestras, children’s choirs, concerts, and operas were permitted to convey this cover-up. Although this was all a lie, the prisoners enjoyed the opportunity to temporarily remove themselves from the pain (Karas).
Additionally, the Nazis created a documentary film that broadcasted the comfortable life that the Jews were living. The film included scenes of the children’s opera and a musical performance in the town square. Even though the Nazis tried destroying the film, it was preserved and shows the influence that music played in Theresienstadt (“Theresienstadt”). After the Holocaust, music was used as a way to commemorate all the victims who lost their lives during those horrendous years.
No film can accurately document the reality of the Holocaust because it is too heinous. However, the film Night and Fog is certainty one of the most powerful portrayals of the events that took place in the Holocaust. This film was produced by Alain Resnais in 1955, only ten years after the concentration camps were liberated. The wounds were still fresh in this film, which made it even more influential at the time. The film’s main purpose was to reveal the ugly and disturbing actions that the Nazis took part in and later tried to cover up.
One of the reasons this film was so impactful was the fact that Resnais chose the narrator Jean Cayrol, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. In addition, music by Hanns Eisler aided in drawing the emotions out of the viewers. While the narration and pictures played a key role in this film’s emotional ploy, music helped define the scenes in the film. From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Eisler intentionally chose music that did not coincide with the narration or historical film. The emotions that were drawn from the film clips were never