Music During the Holocaust: A Double-Edged Sword

Music has always played a pivotal role in the human race and served a variety of functions. It has brought people together through the power of song, helped facilitate social movements and protests, and empowered and entertained people on an individual level. During the second world war music and freedom were intimately connected, and the role music played was one both important and complex in nature. Despite the fact that music was used as a form of repression in World War II concentration camps, prisoners were able to transform it into a liberating force. This phenomenon illustrates that even under the most oppressive circumstances, human beings are capable of fully exercising their mental freedom despite their physical freedom being limited.

Before discussing the backdrop of the circumstances surrounding the situation in the concentration camps, we must first consider Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas about freedom. She believes that although humans are fundamentally free, a person’s freedom is limited in every situation and his behavior can only be judged within the context of his situation. She further says that those who are enslaved or oppressed can, in their situations, “realize a perfect assertion of their freedom. But once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility ” (De Beauvoir 38). This is to say that it is the responsibility of every person to take advantage of any freedom that he does possess. De Beauvoir also discusses the sub-man, who is essentially someone who lives his entire life in rejection of his freedom. Although the sub-man exists, he does not find any great significance in his own existence or the world around him. De Beauvoir disparages this kind of existence and writes that “every man who wills himself free within a human world fashioned by free men will be…disgusted by the sub-men” (44). Because the sub-man “feels only the facticity of his existence” (44), he does not embrace his freedom, and is therefore not capable of fully exercising his human potential.

As the Nazi regime started gaining power, it sought to control not only the economic and political circumstances in Europe, but also the cultural landscape of their newly acquired territories. Artistic expression was limited, and music composed at the time had to be in accordance with the political values of the Nazi party or else it was banned. For example, jazz music was banned because it was associated with Black Americans and thus deemed to be degenerate. Most music that was considered too radical or written by Jewish composers was also banned. Moreover, Jewish musicians were dismissed from orchestras and opera troupes (Trueman). Among all the composers of the time, the one Hitler valued most was Richard Wagner, whose music and antisemitic political views he believed to personify Nazim (Music Approved). Thus, the cultural climate was heavily controlled by the Nazi regime.

Within the concentration camps, music was used as an oppressive force to an even greater extent. SS men sought to dehumanize prisoners by regularly forcing them to sing during marches and exercises to provide background music. The Nazis even went as far as using music to deceive unsuspecting prisoners when sending them to gas chambers (The Holocaust). Musicians also had to play under oppressive conditions for the entertainment of the SS and as their fellow inmates marched to their deaths (see Fig. 1). Many were forced to play while they watched their friends and family get killed (Holocaust). Some people literally played in order to stay alive, and the SS used music as a tool to strip prisoners of their humanity (Fackler). Sonic torture was also used; these episodes entailed using loudspeakers to blast music and speeches that were insulting and mocking. This method was used for purposes of political re-education (Music). By putting the prisoners through this repeated abuse, the SS sought to make them feel like sub-men. They aimed to make them feel isolated from the world and “bewildered before the darkness of the future” (De Beauvoir 45). De Beauvoir describes how the sub-man “is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror” (45). The Nazi regime aimed to instill such fear in the prisoners that they lost all awareness of their own existence, as well as their surroundings. They imagined that by taking everything away from them, they would cease to find any meaningful significance in their own existence.

concentration camp musicians

(Fig. 1:

At the same time, something quite contrary was happening in the concentration camps: music was being created. This phenomenon is best exemplified through the work of pianist Francesco Lotoro, who spent two decades recovering music written in concentration, labor and POW camps during WWII, talking to Holocaust survivors, and searching through archives. Lotoro believes that “Whenever a human being is deported and imprisoned, music is born,” and that “It is an almost automatic response to a situation of detention. They wanted to leave a testament; they leave to us music” (Poggioli). The compositions Lotoro recovered were written under extremely oppressive conditions. For example, one anti-Nazi political prisoner, Rudolf Karel, didn’t have access to notepaper. Since he suffered from dysentery, though, he was able to use toilet paper to write down his scores (see Fig. 2). Through his work, Lotoro wants “to demonstrate that the creative mind cannot be imprisoned even in conditions of brutality.” He says, “The artist is able to separate the external situation from the creativity that belongs to the mind, to the heart.” In an almost antithetical way, while the prisoners’ were stripped of their physical freedom, their freedom for artistic expression blossomed. Even though they were trapped within the confines of electric fences, they never lost the ability to tap into their creativity. Music was also a liberating force; prisoners played music for themselves and their fellow inmates. In this way, music was a survival technique and a tool for resistance against the SS’s attempts to dehumanize them and strip away their identities and culture.

rudolf karel


What kind of role, then, did music actually play? It was no doubt used by the Nazi regime as a weapon of terror and dehumanization and simultaneously used as a liberating and empowering force. But most important is what it revealed about human nature: that humans have the power to transform their own situations by reaching within and tapping into the most humanistic parts of themselves. Even in the face of violence, terror, war, and oppression, some of the prisoners were able to cling onto their humanity.

The compositions produced by these musicians perfectly encapsulate Simone de Beauvoir’s ideals about freedom. De Beauvoir writes, “Man is permitted to separate himself from this world by contemplation, to think about it to create it anew. Some men…hope, thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition. Thus, many intellectuals seek their salvation either in critical thought or creative activity” (68). The ambiguity refers to the fact that though humans are essentially free, they are limited by societal constraints and the power of others. In this case, the prisoners in the camps used music as a mental escape from the horrific atrocities they encountered and the terrifying reality they lived in. Through creating art, they were able to survive the hardships they encountered. Like Lotoro describes, they separated physical and mental freedom and did not let their lack of the former affect their exercise of the latter. They did not let themselves become the sub-man: they did not let themselves become “blind and deaf, without love and without desire,” and instead, embraced the “passion which [was their] human condition” (42). De Beauvoir further writes, “The artist and the writer force themselves to surmount existence in another way…It is existence which they are trying to pin down and make eternal…Only, in the work of art the lack of being returns to the positive. Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up. In this return, existence is confirmed and establishes its own justification. This is what Kant said when he defined art as ‘a finality without end’” (69). The music they created is “a finality without end” because it lives on forever. Although the prisoners faced imminent death, they were able to leave behind a legacy in their work. People can be killed, but music can never be destroyed as long as humanity remains in this world.

The situation in the concentration camps also embodies one of Kant’s ideas about human freedom. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” he discusses the importance of enlightenment–in essence, why it is necessary that people take control of their own minds. Toward the end of his essay he writes, “Here is displayed a strange and unexpected tendency in human affairs, so that, generally, when it is considered at large, almost everything in it is almost paradoxical. A high degree of civic freedom appears advantageous to the spiritual freedom of a people and yet it places before it insuperable restrictions; a lesser degree of civil freedom, in contrast, creates the room for spiritual freedom to spread to its full capacity” (63). In essence, because these prisoners were denied their basic human rights, they were able to fully realize and exercise their spiritual freedom. Although they were physically confined and restrained, they had the ability to think for themselves and thus their artistic expression blossomed.

Despite having extremely limited freedom, the prisoners in the concentration camps were able to attain salvation by transforming music from a repressive to a liberating force. Many musical activities were strictly controlled by the SS, but the prisoners were still able to make the best of their situations. Through looking at the lives of prisoners inside concentration camps, the dualism of music is revealed. Through examining the experiences of concentration camp musicians during the Holocaust, there is some light shed upon the sad irony of an entire people’s culture being used against them to dehumanize them. However, in spite of being branded with numbers, chained, tortured, and treated like they were not humans, these prisoners were still able “to justify the world and to make [themselves] exist validly” (De Beauvoir 57) through the power of music.


Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone De, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.

Fackler, Guido. “Music and the Holocaust.” : Music in the Nazi Concentration Camps. World ORT, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

“The Holocaust: Lest We Forget – Orchestras in Concentration Camps.” The Holocaust: Lest We Forget – Orchestras in Concentration Camps. N.p., 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

“Holocaust Music of the Ghettos and Camps.” Holocaust Music of the Ghettos and Camps. College of Education, University of South Florida, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-century Answers and Twentieth-century Questions. Ed. James Schmidt. Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.

“Music Approved of by the Third Reich.” Music Approved of by the Third Reich. Florida Center for Instructional Technology,, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Poggioli, Sylvia. “Honoring ‘Our Will To Live’: The Lost Music Of The Holocaust.” National Public Radio. All Things Considered. 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

Trueman, C. N. “Music in Nazi Germany.” The History Learning Site. N.p., 9 Mar. 2015. Web.