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July 9, 2011

the orchestra that played at Birkenau as the Jews marched to the gas chamber

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:49 pm

A follower of this blog e-mailed me a link to a web site about the book Spectator in Hell by Colin Rushton.  The sub-title of the book is A British soldier’s story of imprisonment in Auschwitz.  The book is about Arthur Dodd, who was a British prisoner in the E715 POW camp that was just outside the huge factory complex near the village of Monowitz.

The British POWs worked in the Monowitz factory complex, alongside Jewish prisoners and German civilians.  The POW camp was very close to the Auschwitz III prison camp, aka Monowitz, where the Jewish prisoners, who worked at Monowitz, lived.  The POW camp was seven miles from the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau.

This quote is from the web site about Spectator in Hell:

Life in the camps for the Brits, at first, was bearable. Daily life began at five, with the macabre sounds of a Jewish orchestra playing as the trains disgorged their latest human cargo – some to the gas chambers, others to work details. Escape was near-impossible: there were triple rows of electrified fencing, together with machine-gun towers and sentries.

The follower of my blog questioned whether the British prisoners at E715 could have heard “a Jewish orchestra playing as the trains disgorged their human cargo.”

In May 1944, the train tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp, right up to the gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III. Prior to that, the trains to Auschwitz “disgorged their human cargo” at the Judenrampe which was very close to Birkenau. There are some people who have very acute hearing; they are the opposite of “hard of hearing.” I have very good hearing myself, although I can’t hear music playing seven miles away.

But to get back to the important point: Is there any proof that there was an orchestra playing at Birkenau as the Jews were marched to the gas chambers?  Yes, there are at least three Birkenau prisoners who said that there was an orchestra at Birkenau which practiced near the soccer field.

My very first post, when I began this blog back on February 5, 2010, was about a short story, written by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, which was included in a collection of short stories in a book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Penguin Books.

In his short story entitled The People Who Walked On,  Borowski famously wrote:

Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.

Borowski was referring to 3,000 Hungarian Jews who had been put to death in the Krema III gas chamber at Birkenau in 1944.  “The People who walked on” were Jews who walked past the gas chambers and went on to the Sauna where they took a shower.

Borowski mentioned in his short stories that, as the Hungarian Jews marched to the Krema III chamber at Birkenau, there were privileged prisoners in the camp orchestra who would be practicing for a concert in another nearby field.  The photo below shows the field behind the Krema III gas chamber where Borowski played soccer; the orchestra practiced nearby.

Field of grass behind the ruins of Krema III gas chamber

Did anyone else ever mention an orchestra playing at Birkenau?  Yes.  Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a prisoner who worked as a medical doctor at Birkenau, wrote a book about his time in the camp. (Some people believe that he was never a prisoner in Birkenau and that his book is fake, but that’s a story for another day.)

Dr. Nyiszli wrote that he was an eye-witness to the gassing of prisoners at Birkenau and the horrible medical experiments conducted on the prisoners by Dr. Josef Mengele. The movie The Gray Zone was based on his book.  In the movie, prisoners are shown entering the undressing room of one of the gas chambers at Birkenau as an orchestra plays in a field nearby.

Dr. Nyiszli wrote that he was among the prisoners on the death march out of the camp when the camp was evacuated on January 18, 1945. He eventually wound up at Ebensee, a sub-camp of Mauthausen in Austria, where he was liberated by American troops.

Dr. Nyiszli is the man in the white coat

The photo above, taken by the American Army Signal Corp, shows Dr. Nyiszli in the Ebensee sub-camp of Mauthausen.

It is well known that there were several orchestras at the main Auschwitz camp which played as the prisoners marched in and out of the camp.  The orchestra members worked in the kitchen which was right by the main gate into Auschwitz I, the main camp, and they came out to play twice a day for the prisoners who had to keep time as they marched to and from their work assignments.

The photo below shows one of the Auschwitz orchestras, which was conducted by Franciszek Nierychlo. The orchestra members were inmates in the camp. On Sundays, there were concerts which the prisoners and the SS staff members attended.

Orchestra at the main Auschwitz camp

Another orchestra, consisting of 54 female prisoners, played at Birkenau for a year and a half; this was the only female orchestra commissioned by the SS during World War II. After the orchestra leader, Alma Rosé, died in October 1944, the other 53 women were sent to Bergen-Belsen where all of them survived.

Anita Lasker Wallfisch played the cello in the women’s orchestra. In an interview in 2008, Wallfisch told a reporter that she survived Auschwitz because she was in the orchestra that played at Birkenau: “As long as they wanted an orchestra, they couldn’t put us in the gas chamber. That stupid they wouldn’t be, because we are not really replaceable. Somebody who carries stones is replaceable.”

Poster displayed at Auschwitz I camp shows a photo of the orchestra  Photo Credit: José Ángel López

The photo above, taken in 2006, shows a photo of the orchestra that was displayed at the camp kitchen which is just inside the Arbeit Macht Frei gate at the main camp.

The soccer team at the British POW camp E715


  1. […] Hitler loved music and there were several orchestras at Auschwitz, including an orchestra which played near the Krema IV gas at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as the prisoners were marching inside to be gassed. I blogged about this at… […]

    Pingback by CNN show “Voices of Auschwitz” hosted by Wolf Blitzer | Scrapbookpages Blog — February 7, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

  2. I have the book in pdf format. I could send it to you if you wanted to study it. I don’t know if there was an orchestra at Monowitz either. I don’t recall Ernst Lobet mentioning one. I think he would have if there was one. The orchestras were formed by the inmates. Maybe since everyone at Monowitz was working everyday, none had the time to organize an orchestra and didn’t care about it either. The only mention of an orchestra in Denis Avey’s book (Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz) is that he “heard music playing in the distance.” He didn’t see it, just as in your quote here the music is heard but not seen. He doesn’t “see” the trains disgorging their human cargo either. So much of what they say they don’t “see” but just “know about.” Since we weren’t there and it happened a long time ago, they can say just about anything. Rushton’s book came out in 1999.

    Comment by Skeptic — July 10, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

  3. Your title is very misleading. Plus Colin Rushton was not a prisoner at Auschwitz or anywhere else; he is a writer who wrote a book about Arthur Dodd who WAS a POW in camp E715 at Monowitz.

    What you quoted from his silly book, which was brought up in a previous comment from me on a previous blog post, just shows what a typical bunch of lies are spouted in these books and on these websites. Whether there were orchestras in every major camp does not need to be proved and is not the point.

    Comment by sceptic — July 10, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    • The title was intended to be facetious. The orchestra didn’t play for the Jews who were marching to the gas chamber; the orchestra practiced near the Krema III crematorium, but many people believe that they were playing for the Jews who were going to their death. I wrote this blog post in answer to a question that I received in e-mail from a regular reader of my blog. Sorry for the confusion.

      I did not read the book before I wrote the blog post. This morning, I finally went to and searched inside the book. I learned that the POW was really named Arthur Dodd and the book was written by Colin Rushton. It is not possible to read most of the pages in Rushton’s book on Amazon, but I deduced that he might have been talking about an orchestra at Monowitz. There was testimony about a Monowitz gas chamber at the Nuremberg IMT which you can read on my web site at

      The quote that I included in the blog post mentioned the trains that brought the prisoners to the camp. The train tracks did not go to Monowitz. Before the barracks were built at Auschwitz III, the prisoners had to walk five miles from the Auschwitz main camp. Incoming prisoners did not arrive on trains at Monowitz; the Jews arrived at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and the selection process was done at Auschwitz II. The quote that I used makes it seem that the prisoners were again selected when they arrived at Monowitz; it was not clear to me from this small tidbit from the book whether he was talking about an orchestra at Birkenau or at Monowitz. I’ve never read in any other book that there was an orchestra at Auschwitz III.

      Comment by furtherglory — July 10, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

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