Music is something that captures feelings when words fall short. Traditionally, music can be everything from uplifting to devastating. When considering music through the WWII lens, the Nazi party used music to control others. However, the Jews used music as a way of staying strong, keeping up the fight for their freedom, and surviving the holocaust. During the war, music had two main objectives; control and staying alive.
While we were on our tour in Poland, we visited the concentration and death camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau. While we were there, our guide mentioned that the Nazis forced musician prisoners to play classical music while prisoners were marching to and from work. The prison guards marched them in orderly fashion to control the prisoners as they were counted on their way out to work. Though this was easy in the morning and quite effective for organized marching, it was a much more disorderly and painful job in the evening. As men and women returned from their long days of work, exhausted and starving, the band would play. Each prisoner would stand at attention and be counted over and over. Often, those who were weak would ultimately collapse and be taken away to be killed. This position in the camp had a high turnover rate because these musician prisoners were not released from their usual work duties and due to the nature of this position, there was a high suicide rate. Forcing musicians to share their art in a sadistic manner was both degrading and traumatic. This is yet another example of the Nazi party using art as a form of control. [Auschwitz additional band information courtesy of: http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/death-camps/auschwitz/]
On the other hand, Jews also used music to keep morale up during the ghettos, deportations, and camps. At the end of our tour in the Schindler Museum, there was a room with quotes from Holocaust survivors about their experiences. The room was circular and bright, with calm music playing in the background to make visitors stop and read all the quotations. One quote that stuck out to me was, “we were terrified. All of a sudden he began to sing. We all joined him after a while. When we were singing, we forgot the fear”. Just as the music was used as a tool by the Nazi regime, the Jews were using music to achieve solidarity and unite as a people.
Using music as a tool is seen around our modern world. In the days of slavery in the United States, slaves used black spirituals to send messages. Lyrics were modified to keep fellow slaves out of danger and possibly find freedom. A more recent example would be the French people who gathered in front of Notre Dame as it burned. They collectively sang a French tune and remained together to mourn. [Watch here: https://youtu.be/L0zpkFlJ95I ] Music will always be a tool used to feel deeper and understand further. Whether music is used for good or evil, it is a powerful way to control a narrative.