The Birkenau Men's Camp Orchestra

In some Nazi camps, Jewish musicians were permitted or required to play in camp orchestras.  For these musicians, playing in an orchestra not only sustained their spirits but also provided opportunities for resistance and even survival. But the benefits of playing in a camp orchestra also left some with feelings of regret and guilt during and after the Holocaust. Author James A. Grymes describes the experiences of some who played in the Birkenau Men’s Camp Orchestra:

In August 1942, Johann Schwarzhuber, the camp commander of Birkenau [part of the Auschwitz concentration camp and killing center], decided to form his own ensemble [of Jewish prisoners] . . . .

. . . The main task of the Birkenau Men’s Camp Orchestra was to perform for the parades of work details leaving camp every morning and returning every night. At dawn, the musicians would line up outside the music barracks in rows of five, just like every other work detachment. The trumpets would stand in the first row, followed by the horns, accordions, clarinets, and the saxophone. Bringing up the rear would be the tuba, the snare drum, the bass drum, and the cymbals. At the front of the ensemble, proudly holding his baton, would be Franz Kopka, a drummer who in addition to being the capo of the orchestra managed to have himself named its conductor . . .

“Forward, march!” Kopka would shout, followed by the title of the march the band was to play. The snare drum would establish the tempo with a brief cadence, accompanied by the boom of the bass drum and the crash of the cymbals. The band would join in as the ensemble marched toward the stage that had been erected next to the camp gate. On their way, they would pass the capos who were busily lining up their detachments for an orderly march out of the camp.

When the band reached the stage, Kopka would cut off the music and bring the formation to a halt. The musicians would scamper to their places on the stage, spread out the music on their stands, and await their next command. Instead of launching immediately into another march, Kopka would often indulge himself by calling for a tango. This would allow him to emulate what he thought a great conductor should look like, waving the first two fingers of each hand in the air while contorting his entire body in ridiculous gestures. The musicians would simply play on, ignoring the antics of their pretentious conductor. Sometimes, the SS guards would interrupt Kopka’s selection to make a request of their own, with which Kopka would readily comply.

“Come on! Music!” the guards would shout once the detachments were in formation and once their requests had been performed. Both sides of the gate would swing open while the orchestra performed “Old Comrades.” The detachments would march out of the camp for their work details while a functionary counted each row of five to make sure every prisoner was accounted for. The process of marching all the detainees out of the camp could last two or more hours, during which time the orchestra would play without interruption. 

After the last detachments had passed through the gate, the orchestra would reassemble in its parade formation and march back to the music barracks. The performers would stow away their instruments and begin their daily work. . . . Although they were not exempt from forced labor, they did have the advantage of working slightly less, since they were the last ones to leave camp every morning. They were also the first to return in the evening, at which time they would perform marches for the exhausted workers hobbling back into the camp. 

. . . [The orchestra’s work was] complicated by the fact that the ensembles kept changing. Its members continued to fall victim to disease or grow so weak from exhaustion and starvation that they were sent to the gas chambers. Others committed suicide.

Among those who decided to take his own life was Leon Bloorman, a former violin professor at the Jewish Conservatory of Music in Rotterdam. Just a few days after arriving in Birkenau, Bloorman approached his old violin student Louis Bannet, who had since become a virtuoso trumpeter.

“Louis, do you know what they made me do today?” he asked. “They made me play my violin while they hanged a man. He was a Frenchman. Other than being a Jew, I don’t know what crime he committed.

“They pulled him on a cart to the gallows. I had to stand behind him and play La Marseillaise,” Bloorman continued, referring to the French national anthem that he was forced to perform to mock the executed Frenchman. “Can you explain such a thing to me?”

“I don’t have an answer,” Louis simply responded. “There are no answers here.”

“Louis, you are stronger than me,” the elder violinist tearfully admitted. “I don’t think I can go on like this much longer.”

“Try to think of this,” Louis suggested. “The man they hanged today, the last sound he heard was your beautiful playing.”

This was not enough to console the violinist. A few nights later, Bloorman tried to kill himself by running into the electric fence. Before he got that far, he was gunned down by SS guards. . . . 1

. . . For the musicians who played in the orchestras, music often provided a welcome escape from the thoughts that were otherwise filled with despair and death. “For all of us in the orchestra it was our music making that served as our most important life preserver and stimulant during this period,” documented a former member of the Auschwitz III orchestra. “We derived so much satisfaction and joy from performing in concert that we found ourselves forgetting for a moment that we were condemned souls living in a hell that the uninitiated could never even imagine.” 

Music offered the performers opportunities to live a little longer, if only for one more day. While participation in an orchestra did not guarantee survival, it did protect musicians from the harshest of labor assignments and sometimes offered warmer uniforms and slightly better food. In many cases, these advantages offered just enough benefits to allow musicians to outlive the Nazi regime. “Music has kept me alive,” Henry Meyer later confirmed. “There is no doubt about it.” 

Some of the musicians who played in the Auschwitz orchestras continued to make music after the Holocaust. . . . But many of the musicians never played again. Survivor’s guilt, combined with a deep regret over having been forced to exploit their art to save their lives, rendered making music too painful.2

  1. Citations

    • 1 Excerpted from James A. Grymes, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 120–28. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins.
    • 2 James A. Grymes, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 146–47. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins. 

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