As a Musician
In Birkenau

They say that one can get used to anything, to the worst, to the most monstrous things. But I have never been able to fathom the mystery of the typical camp phenomenon that cannot be called anything else but habituation. Habituation to everything that is going on around us and of which we naturally become indifferent witnesses. Habituation to a sea of human beings scurrying off passively into the abyss of the crematoria, habituation to the stink of bodies breathed day and night, habituation to the chaotic jumble of hunger and overeating, extreme extreme poverty and the prosperity that feeds on it, horror and hopefulness.

After a sufficiently long stay in the camp, the monotony of the hell in which we lived became thoughtless, unconcerned, trivial everyday reality. Good news from the front, indicating the defeat of Germany and the end of the war, was of no concern to us. It did not concern us because our own end would come first. For every one of us such news came from a world we had known a long time ago, a world that for us was a distant, dead and buried world. We all had only one thought: why not take advantage of the last moments of life since everything else already belongs to the land of dreams?

Everyday we stood eye to eye with a ghastly two-sided coin: on the one side --- hell; on the other --- the benefits this hell conferred on Fortune's darlings, namely, on those who had become "habituated."

The sea of people that the cattle cars from all over Europe disgorged day in and day out left behind on the platform towering heaps of valises, suitcases, bags, parcels, and bundles filled with food, tidbits, alcohol, jewels, money, gold coins, and various kinds of precious objects --- all of which their owners would never see again. These treasures fed the camp, both its residents (not all of them, obviously) and our esmen caretakers, though in principle these things were to be sent to the heart of the Reich to shore up the tottering economy.

There was a separate detachment in the camp for segregating and transporting these Jewish treasures. It was officially called the Aufräumungskommando (cleaning-up detachment), but its members gave it the slang expression "Canada" --- symbol of abundance and plenty --- a name that was quickly accepted among the Häftlinge and in the official terminology of the administration.

"Canada" initially numbered two hundred persons, but even when it reached eight hundred it could hardly keep up with servicing the splendidly equipped newcomers. The esmen supposedly kept a strict watch over the bustling "Canadians," but they overlooked petty and less than petty thefts, which the latter committed almost ostentatiously, for it was no secret to anyone that a considerable part of the booty would remain in their hands. The Canadians were subjected to a symbolic, superficial search after their return to the camp, but this had been anticipated: master tailors had fitted their jackets and trousers with deep pockets and hiding places that could hold no mean treasures, especially as far as small things were concerned.

An uninterrupted stream of all kinds of precious objects flowed into the camp: jewels, cigarettes, chocolates, watches, spirits, perfumes, elegant underwear, cans of preserved vegetables, fruits, and meat. And all of this took place under the intentionally distracted eyes of the esmen of higher and lower rank, who would also benefit from the generosity of ... the prisoners.

These manipulations, conducted on a massive scale, gradually formed the economic and social world inside the camp, with its privileged and oppressed groups, "domestic" and "foreign" trade, and market prices and their fluctuations. We even had our own currency, whose value no one questioned: the cigarette. The price of every article was stated in cigarettes. In cases of greater influx there was a surplus, and everything became proportionally cheaper. When the lack of "fuel" was felt, there was an unavoidable rise in prices, and some "tradesmen" resorted to prices expressed in halves or even quarters of cigarettes. Butts were also in demand and had their price. In "normal" times, that is, when the candidates to the gas chambers were coming in at a regular pace, a loaf of bread cost twelve cigarettes, a three-hundred-gram package of margarine, thirty; a watch, eighty to two hundred; a liter of alcohol, four hundred cigarettes!

After the fashion of independent countries, we also conducted trade overseas. Our overseas market was the civilian workers and technicians assigned by camp authorities to the various camp detachments, with which they were in constant modalities, including clothing, underwear, shoes, and, obviously, contact. They were big consumers of various articles and commodities including clothing, underwear, shoes, and, obviously, food --- treasures that only the prisoners of Birkenau were able to provide. In the ranks of the detachments that marched out every morning to work there were many who wore almost new clothes or underwear under their regulation stripes and shoes in excellent condition; others had in their pockets precious stones or foreign currency. All of this would pass into the hands of the civilians, in exchange for which the same pockets on return to the camp would be filled with butter, vodka, meat, fowl, and various other tidbits.

All of this trading, supposedly secret but in reality recognized and tolerated, even supported by the authorities, had its commonly accepted name, though no one knew who had invented it. To engage in this activity was to organize.

To organize or to organize for oneself meant to acquire some object by any means at all. it could be through purchase (for cigarettes), begging, theft, swindling, violence, murder. One organized a piece of bread or ten loaves of bread; a miserable, verminous rag or new silk underwear; one cigarette or a thousand cigarettes; a liter of soup or a kettle of soup; a sliver of wood, a board, ten boards, a table or ... an entire barracks. One organized a pinch of salt, a bucket of coal, a straw mattress, medicine, a bed of boards --- everything the heart desired if there were means for it and a bit of typical camp savvy.

Our cozy music room was organized from top to bottom with the consent of Kurt Reinhold, the Oberkapo of the carpenters' detachment, our roommates. To be sure, the camp authorities had given us permission for the planned improvements, but they had not shown the least interest in the means at our disposal for realizing them. They advised us as usual, "Organize this yourselves." How, from where, with whose help, was of no concern to anyone.

After not very long negotiations we made a deal with Kurt Reinhold: the carpenters' detachment would supply us with materials and labor in exchange for lessons on the accordion for Reinhold's foreman and subordinate, Józef Papuga, under the condition that Papuga would also be able to practice in our room. In camp lingo this boiled down to the formula: the orchestra organized itself a music room and Józef Papuga organized himself lessons on the accordion. Both sides made a good deal.

Another example, tragic even in the camp but also typical of the mentality that had taken root in our world:

For a while a "Czech camp" that had come from Theresienstadt (Terezín) had existed near us. The modus vivendi of these Czech Jews was envious. They lived together with their wives and children, retained their long hair and ancient hairstyle, did not go out to work, and were pretty well-fed. They had their own musical group of more than a dozen members. In short, a paradise against the background of the nearby hell, but there was something ominous about it. Then one fine day the terrible news ... The impression it made on us proved that we had still not become completely insensitive. It began very innocently.

Our music stands, which had long since become rotted from continual exposure to the elements, could barely stand up straight and were hardly fit for use. The carpenters had promised us to fix some of them and to put together a few new ones, but somehow they seemed in no hurry to do so. I had whispered a word to Blockführer Danisch about this matter.

After a few days a messenger came with instructions for us to report immediately to the commander with a few musicians but without instruments. We went there, highly intrigued.

After the regulation "Attention! At ease!" the commander pointed to twelve black music stands in the comer and told us to take them, explaining: "I heard that you need music stands. Take these. I organized them especially for your orchestra."

We recognized those stands. They came from the Czech camp, which we had once had the opportunity of visiting on official business. Last night the four thousand Czechs, whom we had envied for their carefree prosperity, had been turned into ashes. That was the price of these music stands.

Along with the stands we also inherited from the Czechs a few violins, a trumpet, and a priceless violoncello, whose lack I had painfully felt. Not only would it enrich the sound of our orchestra, but it would give me the opportunity of forming a string quartet, writing from memory a few works of the great masters and also composing my own work for this classical group.

--- From Music of Another World
By Szymon Laks
Northwestern University Press

Go to a
of this book.

Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH