About the project

Music was present in the Auschwitz camp from the first days of its operation. The inmates sang from the very beginning—initially on orders of the SS and prisoner functionaries. Singen!—sing!—is one of the earliest commands learned by new arrivals. Singing, or rather rhythmic “screaming”, always in German, was one of the basic elements of “sport”—a cruel camp version of drill. Over time, the longing for freedom, constant exposure to torture and death, led to the inmates’ mental enslavement. One of the forms of defense against that was singing in prisoner barracks. Many of the prisoners were amateur musicians, but there were professionals musicians as well. Initial informal singing in prisoner barracks slowly evolved into performances, and small singing groups grew in numbers and their repertoire expanded.

When the camp authorities gave their permission to create prisoner orchestras, of which there were at Auschwitz eleven in total, all or only some members of the bands played every day while prisoners were being marched out to work, but also gave concerts for the SS and fellow prisoners. They played at the most tragic moments in the camp but accompanied prisoners on happier days as well. Music became ingrained in the camp life.

The music of Polish and Jewish composers could not officially be played or sung in the territories occupied by the German Third Reich, but in many post-war accounts former prisoners mention informal concerts and performances, during which such pieces, at the risk to the musicians’ lives, were nonetheless played. They also unanimously emphasize in these accounts that these were unique and exceptionally touching moments.

Some of these pieces have been found in their memoires and we are presenting them in the project “Forbidden Music”. We hope that in this way we can explain the role of music and prisoners-musicians in preserving humanity in extreme circumstances, and commemorate at least a few musicians and their works.

However, there are many more primary sources that deal with this topic. The notes and words of the songs composed in Auschwitz survive, and even the fairy tales containing “children’s notes”. We would like to focus on some of them, uncover their history, record them and make them available to wide audiences. Therefore, we hope that this website will include further studies on the subject of music played, composed or sung illegally in Auschwitz.