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Aktion Reinhard Songs and Music

Last Update 24 August 2006

In all three Aktion Reinhard Camps (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka) the SS organised orchestras with the intentions to make their lives more pleasant, to humiliate and torture the prisoners, or to drown out the screams of Jews being gassed in the gas chambers.


At Belzec death camp there was a small orchestra, which was mainly used during the extermination of the transports, and to entertain the SS guards during their relaxation time, after murdering thousands of people.
The orchestra was made up of six musicians. They usually played in the area between the gas chambers and the burial pits. They played when the corpses were removed from the gas chambers to the graves, on instruments, taken from the murdered Jews.
Rudolf Reder described what happened to a transport from Zamosc on 2 November 1942:
The SS men ordered the vice-chairman of the Judenrat to remain behind, whilst the rest of the transport was gassed, and they instructed the orchestra to move into the yard and await further orders. Then it was ordered to play "Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei" ("Everything passes, everything goes by"), and "Drei Lilien" ("Three Lillies").
They played on violins, flutes and accordions, whilst Jirmann, Schwarz and Schmidt beat the vice-chairman, whose name was Azriel Szeps mercilessly. At six in the evening, Schmidt pushed Szeps along, shot him in the head, and kicked him into the mass grave. The orchestra played whilst prisoners received their food by the camp kitchen in the evening.
On Sundays, they played for the SS at their fenced off living area, on Tomaszowska Street.
For an unknown reason the SS men liked the song, particularly Reinhold Feix. He ordered the orchestra to play its Polish melody – "Goralu czy ci nie zal" ("Highlander, have you no regrets")


From the very inception of the camp the camp authorities created an orchestra which played when transports arrived. The SS also organised a choir (with men and women, selected by the camp authorities), as no volunteers were forthcoming. Moniek, the conductor of the choir, was promoted to the rank of a Kapo.

The camp orchestra was formed with first rate musicians. As in Belzec, the Polish song "Goralu czy ci nie zal" was often sung. It was usually played after work, or whenever ordered to by the SS. Jewish prisoners were taught SS military drill songs, and were forced to sing in total unison while marching to or returning from work.

One song became popular in Sobibor: It was improvised by Shaul Flajszhakier from Kalisz, nicknamed "Negro" because of his tan, following an order from Gustav Wagner:

Wie lustig ist da unser Leben
Man tut uns zu essen geben
Wie lustig ist’s in dem grünen Wald, wo ich mich aufhalt
Fahijad, Fahijad, Fahijad.

Our life is happy there
We receive food
How happy it is in the green forest, where I stay
Fahijad, Fahijad, Fahijad.

Thomas Blatty testified about his first few days in the camp, in spring 1943:
"We entered the womens’ barrack, after an hour we went outside. Music was heard from the tailors shop. I could not believe It - an orchestra was playing. When we marched to work we had to sing. Usually we sang military marches. German, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. About 300 meters from us, people were seeing the world for the last time, and we had to sing – loudly and as best we could – a real inferno."

SS-Oberscharführer Weiss used to dress one of the prisoners in a long robe, a Jewish cape, and with a broomstick in his hand. He had to stand on a table and sing the following song in Yiddish, composed by one of the camp inmates:

Moses, Moses,
Wi hos du deine bruder in di shmole rine
Wi di yuden sinen schon derinen
Macht men die klape zu
Wein ale felker hobn ruh.

Moses, Moses,
How you have your brothers in the narrow gutter
When the Jews are already in
The cover is closed then
And all the nations will have rest.

In Sobibor, the SS authorities wanted to give the prisoners the opportunities for relaxation. Philip Bialowicz, a Sobibor survivor, explained the motives behind this:
The SS men were interested in keeping up our spirits, so that we should not be depressed and would work better. They organised concerts for us, music was played, and we were entertained. Their purpose was that we should not feel that we were doomed for extermination and think about an uprising.


The SS organised an orchestra from the early days of the camps existence. One which is described by Abraham Krzepicki, in his account "Eighteen Days in Treblinka":
As I stood before the door of the Treblinka "bathhouse" I made a new discovery. Under a tree, about 40 meters from the bathhouse, not far from the path where Jews were driven into the 'bath', there was a small orchestra consisting of three Jews with yellow patches and three Jewish musicians from Stoczek. There they stood, playing their instruments. I don’t know why but I was particularly impressed by a long reed instrument, a sort of fife or flute. In addition there was a violin, and I believe a mandolin. The musicians were standing there and raising a ruckus for all they were worth. They were probably playing the latest hits, which were popular with the Germans and Ukrainians, for whom they used to also play at shindigs in the guard stations."

Krzepicki also recounted:
"On the eve of the anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the night between 31 August and 1 September – the SS men arranged a musical entertainment for the Jews. The musicians were taken to the roll-call square and ordered to play Jewish tunes. Several young Jews were ordered to come forward and start to dance. An elderly Ukrainian corporal directed the show. The Germans thoroughly enjoyed the show."

In late 1942 a transport from Warsaw arrived. Fifty men were selected, amongst them was the famous Warsaw musician Artur Gold. The moment Küttner ordered fifty young men to be taken out of the transport, the "Reds", who had known Gold back in Warsaw, made sure to include him. There he stood clutching a violin to his chest.

Oscar Stawczynski recalls the orchestra, its conductor and their performances:
"Gold assumed his work energetically. Quite a large amount of musical instruments were left in the yard by the Jews when they went to the showers. Only jazz was missing. To rectify this, the SS-Hauptsturmführer Stangl brought back cymbals with him from his vacation. By the order of Kurt Franz white suits with blue collars and lapels were sown for the people in the orchestra in the tailor shop. Gold appeared in a white frock coat with the same decoration, patent leather shoes, pressed pants and a white shirt."

Gold was liked by the SS. For his 40th birthday a party was held for him in the tailors shop. There a special performance was given by the orchestra, for the SS men and the Kapos.
Kurt Franz gave an order that a camp hymn should be composed. The Czech Jew Walter Hirsz wrote the words, whilst Gold wrote the melody, for a song called "Fester Schritt":
A completely unique rendition of the Treblinka hymn can be seen and heard on Claude Lanzmann’s film "Shoah", given by former camp officer Franz Suchomel:

"Fester Schritt" (Words: Walter Hirsz / Music: Artur Gold):

Frei in die Welt geschaut
Marschieren Kolonnen zur Arbeit.
Für uns gibt es heute nur Treblinka,
Das unser Schicksal ist.

Wir hören auf den Ton des Kommandanten
Und folgen dann auf seinen Wink.
Wir gehen Schritt und Tritt zusammen für das,
Was die Pflicht von uns verlangt.

Die Arbeit soll hier alles bedeuten
Und auch Gehorsamkeit und Pflicht,
Bis das kleine Glück
Auch uns einmal winkt.

We look straight out at the world,
The columns are marching off to their work
All we have left is Treblinka
It is our destiny

We heed the commandant’s voice
Obeying his every nod and sign
We march along together
To do what duty demands.

Work, obedience and duty
Must be our whole existence
Until we too, will catch a glimpse at last
Of a modest bit of luck

The playing of the orchestra at the evening roll-call, whilst prisoners were being whipped or having to perform vigorous exercises, must have been a dreadful experience. At the end of the roll-call the prisoners sang the Treblinka Hymn.

Richard Glazar wrote:
"In the spring / early summer of 1943, transports decreased. One evening, at roll-call, Kurt Franz announced: 'Now we are not working on Sunday afternoons. We will have a little amusement, maybe a little cabaret; with music, singing, skits and boxing'."
Rehearsals for these concerts took place in the corridors of the gas chambers:
"On a lovely Sunday afternoon we are all herded onto the assembly site in front of the boxing room. The greenish black gentlemen sit down on chairs that have been set up in a half circle. The shorn heads, the bearers and loaders, tailors and shoemakers, carpenters, cooks and laundry maids, clerks and accountants, supervisors, medics, gravediggers – we all crowd in behind these gentlemen, surrounded by black mercenaries and riflemen, Treblinka is a world unto itself isolated from the other world.
Artur Gold and his boys, all in white jackets with large blue lapels, open the festivities with a march. Captain Stangl is sitting in an easy chair in the middle of his men, tapping his foot and keeping time, gently beating the top of his boot with his riding whip.
A flourish: First Salwe the singer steps up and presents an Italian tarantella. He is followed by Treblinka’s newest acquisition, a cantor supposedly the best in Warsaw, who was taken off one of the last transports. He was trained in religious song, but is also familiar with secular music. A tenor voice sends an aria from Verdi’s Tosca rising high over the barracks, the green fence and the twisted pines. But this voice cannot be compared with Salwe’s fully worldly tones. This voice comes from the temple and rises to dizzying heights with such ease because there is a bond between it and the Lord. We recognise his next song, an aria from Harlevy’s Jewess and exchange knowing looks amongst ourselves, 'Recha, I consecrate you in death.'
After the song is over, Stangl looks around. He is probably the only one of them who heard anything more in this song than the melody.

The establishment of a small orchestra in the Totenlager was the result of the Kapos after they found out about the orchestra in the "Lower Camp".

Jerzy Rajgrodzki wrote:
"In the month of October 1942, while I put to work at removing corpses from the new gas chambers, a Kapo came and in his hand was a violin. He asked who knew how to play and I said I knew...
From there they put me to work in the kitchen: peeling potatoes. There were six prisoners doing this work, one was Fuchs, who played the clarinet and who had worked in the past for Polish Radio. At first I played only with Fuchs, a violin and clarinet, from time to time, during the roll-call.
We heard that in Camp 1 there was an orchestra under the direction of Artur Gold, and Camp ll demanded an orchestra of their own, which was granted.
With the addition of an harmonica player, who was also a pianist and composer from Warsaw, the trio performed at roll calls.

We played the Polish Army march 'My Pierwsza Brygada' (We the First Brigade), but the most popular song was 'Tumbalalaika', the words of the song reflected the lives of the prisoners in the camp, with humour and criticism.
The songs served a revolutionary purpose for us. They encouraged us to continue our struggle to live and find ways to salvation. For the SS men, and in order to note where we were living, a composition of Treblinka "Lager Zwei ist unser Lleben, ay,ay,ay" ("Camp 2 is our life, ay,ay,ay") was composed.
In spring, when the warm days came, the SS men would come to our camp early. The one who stuck out most was the one whose nickname was 'the black one' (der Schwarze), he would sit himself down on a chair near the well and order us to play for him.

Songs were a medium by which Jews communicated about conditions in the "Upper Camp", to Jewish prisoners in the "Lower Camp". Samuel Willenberg recounts:
"Several days later I and my group were mending the fence near the main entrance.
Beside us was a group of working prisoners from the 'Totenlager', led by an elderly Jew, a carpenter by trade, named Wiernik. They were building a wooden gate. As he toiled, Wiernik updated us on events on that side of Treblinka. We asked him in a whisper about the fate of our men who had been sent there. 'They were all alive', he said.
Then bursting into what sounded to the world like a Yiddish song, he continued ‘You have no idea what hell our side of the camp is. We have thirteen gas chambers in operation. The gas is produced by the motor of an old Russian tank. They built the gas chambers with sloping floors, making it easier to get the bodies out. We take corpses out of the graves and burn them on a giant grill made of iron rails 2500 bodies on each incinerator'. An SS man approached and Wiernik called an immediate halt to his song story.

Thus a Jewish folksong was composed after the first Warsaw Aktion, in the autumn of 1942. It was called "The Song of the Boxcars", which was sung in the Jewish workshops and factories. It told the story of Treblinka.

Listen to this 'Treblinka' song, kept by the Holocaust survivor Sara Bialas!

Whilst the Germans initially saw music as a way to further torture the doomed, and to soothe them after murdering thousands of innocents, the Jews used music to inform each other of the murderous persecution, and to raise their spirits to revolt against their oppressors.

© ARC 2005