Tasks & Purposes

Designed to Deceive

Below: Selection Ramp

The orchestra was the first encounter with the camp for many inmates. New transports were delivered directly onto the ramp at Birkenau and were greeted by the orchestra. The orchestra was designed to deceive the new arrivals about what to expect in the camp. The SS knew new arrivals looked for signs that would reveal what type of place it was and placed reassuring signs in the camp. Upon arriving the arrivals saw neatly groomed gardens, signs indicating baths and changing rooms, and heard live music courtesy of the orchestra. The orchestra would provide background music, such as popular pre-war songs, sentimental ballads, and dance melodies, during the selections that subsequently staged on the ramp. The orchestra functioned to alleviate the new arrivals' shock to make it easier to gain their cooperation. Numerous former inmates recalled that the presence of the orchestras had indeed restored a sense of calm, and led them to think that "things could not be so bad (Gilbert, Shirli)."


- Primary task - play at the camp gates each morning and evening as prisoners marched to and from work; These daily march sessions were the most frequent point of contact between the orchestra and prisoner masses.

- provided a rhythm which helped to keep the marching columns of prisoners in step as they left or returned to camp

- facilitated dicsipline in marching sessions

      - march in time

      - neat rows of five

      - prisoners easier to count

      - marching could be conducted in an orderly and efficient manner

- the orchestra was expected to play while marching from their block to their designated position at the gates

- once the last commando left, the women would return to their barracks for day-long rehearsals

- expected to provide interim entertainment for functionaries while they waited for the work detachments to be formed

In addition to the daily tasks they were required to perform, the orchestra provided background music for punishments and executions. They preceded some people sentenced to death on the way to their execution. The orchestra played on ceremonial occasions, such as Hitler's birthday, other Nazi public holidays, or even on SS officers' birthdays. It was common for the orchestra to have play concerts for the entertainment of the SS. At these concerts, the repertoire was more sophisticated than the music played during marching sessions. The repertoire included excerpts from operas, operettas and substantial symphonic works. Prisoners remember Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Puccini's Tosca.

On rare occasions, the orchestra was also allowed to play for their fellow inmates with SS permission.

Musicians' View 

To the right: Prisoners marching as they leave to work; the phrase on the gate says "Work Makes Free"

Musicians were aware of the role they were playing, but were reprimanded for showing any signs of emotion. An orchestra player in Birkenau, Yvette Assael, cried when she saw an arrival of new transports. However, the SS reprimanded and threatened to kill anyone who cried. This role that the orchestra played caused some surviving musicians to experience feelings of guilt and depression for the rest of their lives. Erika Rothschild recalls this process: "Prisoners driven out of cattle trucks and lined up; during this a band made up of the best musicians from among prisoners already there, played Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music depending on where the new prisoners were from...some were forced to march into the camp, the rest were driven into the crematorium."