Emotions in Jewish Music: Personal and Scholarly Reflections

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Why, oh why? Our ghostlike column must look as though it were coming up from the bowels of the earth. And left, and left, and left two three This cursed measure of fear. The guard and the sound complemented each other. Primo Levi, too, made reference to the most obvious function of military marches at the camp entrance gate, which was the symbolic center of absolute power.

When this music plays we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills. There is no longer will: every beat of the drum becomes a step, a reflected concentration of exhausted muscles. The infirmary was another site of forced playing of music.

The camp commander would send musicians to perform there, usually shortly before a selection for the gas chamber was to be made. Musicians thus functioned as harbingers of death. Szymon Laks relates one such occasion that took place in the winter of , in which the camp commander ordered Dutch musicians to play Christmas carols in the infirmary to mark the holiday.

The predominantly Jewish prisoners undoubtedly felt humiliated as the orchestra filled the ward with the sound of German Christmas carols. He recalled how helpless the musicians themselves were in the face of this emotional response. Clear out! Let us croak in peace! The recollections of the violinist Jacques Stroumsa of a similar incident in the infirmary describe a markedly different scene. He explains why he accentuates this aspect:. There are many publications that claim, not without a certain emphasis, that music kept up the spirits of the emaciated prisoners and gave them the strength to survive.

Others assert that music had a directly opposite effect, that it demoralized the poor wretches and contributed instead to their earlier demise. I personally share the latter opinion. For Szymon Laks, it is the memories of musical violence that predominate. It will be those types of occurrences and shades of meaning that will be inscribed in his recollections.

Jacques Stroumsa, on the other hand, always describes the violin and music as central to his survival in the camp. It is therefore hardly surprising that positive emotions generated by the experience of music had inscribed themselves on his social body and had thus become interwoven in the patterns of his memories. It is the mindful body that ascribes meaning to music and inscribes new associations onto musical memories based on new experiences.

The inmates were forced to hear and perceive music against their own will. The ear is vulnerable because a person is unable to turn off his or her hearing, to voluntarily interrupt the perception of the world through the ear. Absolute power proved itself to be subtle, though in no way inefficient, in how it exerted control over the mindful bodies of prisoners.

SS guards were not limited to assaulting the physical body, harming the prisoner in a material way; they were able to inscribe negative emotions onto the body, such as fear, pain, rage, and helplessness. These emotions arose in contexts of coerced mechanical marching to a prescribed rhythm, accompanied by arbitrary violence and death meted out by the SS, and through hearing music that, in stark contrast to the immediate situation, could have had positive memories associated with it.

Some of the prisoners were shattered psychologically by the stark contrast between positive memories of a happier past and the negative emotions created by the concrete experience of music in the camp.

And it is not limited to a single moment, but is instead an overwhelming, unstoppable encroaching pain. There are serious difficulties in any attempt to determine the perspective of the SS guards because no records of their thoughts have survived.

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These performances were attended by SS guards seated in chairs and prisoners standing in lines. In addition, the musicians were forced to play for and at the pleasure of higher-ranking SS guards. Though the guards could demand a performance at any time day or night, requests for their favorite compositions came most frequently after they had taken part in mass killings. The horrible, drunken screams of the SS guards, and the cry: Bring in the band! As in other cases discussed thus far, the use of music in these episodes has much to do with individual habits and practices.

We can therefore imagine that SS guards ordered music to be played for therapeutic reasons and as a form of distraction. One of the most well-known examples of a cultured SS member is the doctor Joseph Mengele, who worked in Birkenau and who was often described as well educated and a music enthusiast. This bourgeois notion of music was based on the German Romantic understanding of music as something good, moral, and beautiful, a means of producing and solidifying a sense of ethics. The SS reproduced bourgeois customs related to music as well as the classical repertoire in these private concerts and Sunday afternoon concerts in the yard.

By fostering this habitus, the SS styled itself as an organization composed of cultured, civilized, and educated people, which was contrasted directly with the image of the humiliated prisoners. The very same music would be used by the music aficionados of the SS to rob the prisoners of their humanity and destroy their identities. Music had a dual purpose for the SS: to shore up their own sense of self while destroying that of the prisoners. As is evident from the examples provided here, music was systematically used in concentration camps to accompany torture and as an instrument of torture itself.

The use of music was so fruitful a technique that SS guards changed how they used music to accommodate changes in the camp population, as has been demonstrated by the example of singing in Sachsenhausen. We can begin to make sense of why they did so even without ego-documents from members of the SS. Informed by the Romantic conceptualization of music, SS officers, some of whom were well educated, used music to demonstrate their own superiority and refinement.

In a similar way, but with opposite effect, the guards tortured prisoners with music to purposefully deconstruct their cultural identities. In conditions of absolute power, culture served as a means to define belonging.

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In the perverse logic of the SS, music in this context worked to determine who counted among the civilized and refined members of humanity and who was excluded, who was not even human at all. I call this encounter a contact zone , which can be interpreted as an imagined space in the subject herself where engagement, communication, discord, and negotiation all may occur.

Music therefore serves in a positive way as an excellent medium for identity-building, formulating a self-conception, and preserving a sense of self-assurance. The opposite, however, can also be achieved, with music working to deconstruct identities. Nevertheless, music differed from these more obvious forms of violence and dehumanization in one important respect. Some prisoners describe how important it was to them that these rituals, as degrading as they were, could not exert control over their sense of self. This examination has shown that in the context of absolute power and violence, music does not necessarily have a civilized or civilizing impact.

The clash between internalized expectations and emotions related to music and the actual perception of music in new circumstances that are completely antithetical to earlier experiences results in the appearance of new emotions such as despair, helplessness, and fear, all of which make their mark on the mindful body.

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In the camps, the feeling of hopelessness manifested itself externally in their bodies. Their broken souls left them without the will to physically survive. It is important to understand the concrete ways music can be and is used to mistreat prisoners. To that end, I suggest that we must take music as torture more carefully into account and focus on the concrete link between music, emotion, the body, and questions of the construction—and deconstruction—of identities.


I would like to thank Suzanne Cusick, Dagmar Ellerbrock, Luis-Manuel Garcia, Stephanie Olsen, Yael Sela-Teichler, Veronika Springmann for their crucial input and enthusiastic encouragement, as well the anonymous reviewers for their important comments. Temmen, Levi, If This Is a Man , Anna Papaeti and Morag J. This group was unfortunately disbanded in April Morag J. Princeton: Princeton University Press, , They will be further contextualized below. A number of publications have appeared during the last five years dealing with the connection between music and torture.

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See, for example, Lily E. This article does not consider music in the ghettos or music in Theresienstadt as a particular type of ghetto. These early engagements with the topic remained relatively unknown to a broader audience up until the s.

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Literarische Momentaufnahmen aus dem KZ , ed. For example, M. See especially Gilbert, Music and Brauer, Sachsenhausen. Peter Petersen Hamburg: VsA Gilbert, Music , This observation is based on my own experiences with survivors from Germany, France, Poland, Netherlands and Norway.


This internet portal offers scholarly articles on individual camps and musicians, but also provides users with direct access to collected source material. The extensive bibliography and discography are particularly useful. Culturale, — This is the largest and most comprehensive effort to provide the public with listening material from the camps themselves. See Patrik N.

Juslin and John A. This question was also brought up by the music therapist Joseph J. Moreno, though he failed to offer a satisfactory reply. What our concepts of a contact zone share is the notion that the contact zone describes a real or imagined space in which interaction, communication, and mutual impact take place. This is based on a romantic understanding of music.

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Lily E. Sofsky, Order of Terror , Hentrich, For more detailed information, see Brauer, Sachsenhausen and Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust , Fackler, Des Lagers Stimme , See Brauer, Sachsenhausen , Michael Wildt Munich: Oldenburg, , Jewish prisoners in Sachsenhausen were mostly German-Jewish. I can therefore say very little about the specific suffering of Jewish prisoners from other countries, as their experiences are not reflected in the sources available to me.

See more examples in Brauer, Sachsenhausen , Hermann Danuser Schliengen: Ed.

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Argus, Willy Rheder, Zeugenaussage Landeskriminalpolizeidienststelle Stada, Fritsch Leipzig, , Yael Sela-Teichler and Philip V. Bohlman forthcoming in For more detailed analyses, see Knapp, Frauenorchester. For more information, see Gilbert, Music , See the Opielka interview in Knapp, Das Frauenorchester , Knapp, Frauenorchester. Laks, Music , This picture now firmly belongs to the cultural memory of the camps.

It served, for example, as the cover illustration for the pamphlet produced by the office of the president of the state parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate to accompany the events marking the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism on January 27, Moshe Zimmermann Jerusalem: Hebrew Univ.