Commemorating musicians who were in concentration camps

Holocaust Memorial Day UL, logo provided by the HMD UK Trust at

Holocaust Memorial Day UL, logo provided by the HMD UK Trust at

For the last couple of years I have blogged about what in some countries is labelled Holocaust Memorial Day (the 27th January; for more information go to the the UK’s HMD Trust web page). This year I wanted to look at musicians (as opposed to composers) who continued to make music whilst living in the most difficult, life-threatening conditions in concentration camps of the 1930s and 1940s.

Women musicians in concentration camps; unknown artist, reproduced in numerous books and also available online

Women musicians in concentration camps; unknown artist, reproduced in numerous books and also available online

Maybe unsurprisingly, some of the music-making was actively encouraged, and might have saved some musicians’ lives; however, that music might have been what SS guards or concentration camp leaders preferred to hear, not necessarily what the interned musicians wanted to play. There are quite a number of publications about the fight for survival, the guilt, the exhaustion, the music making, and – of course – about the suffering and death. One publication which, to me, is a shocking, moving, depressing yet also in some places puzzling, uplifting and humbling recollection is that of Fania Fénelon. It was first published, with the help of the author and journalist Marcelle Routier, in 1976 in French with the title Sursis pour l’orchestre (literally: Reprieve for the orchestra), but has two English titles: The Musicians of Auschwitz (1979, UL MR517.d.95.14) and Playing for time (1981, UL: MR517.d.95.7). Arthur Miller turned Fénelon’s account into a film, also using the title Playing for time (1980) with Vanessa Redgrave playing the main character of the story. In 1985 Miller adapted this story into a stage play.

There are also further publications dealing with music/ians in concentration camps; the majority were originally written in French or German; a few of them are:

  • Dans l’orchestre d’Auschwitz : le secret de ma mère / Jean-Jacques Felstein.
    UL: 539:1.c.810.855
  • Survivre et mourir en musique dans les camps nazis / Bruno Giner ; postface de Violette Jacquet-Silberstein.
    UL: M834.c.201.32
  • Des Lagers Stimme : Musik im KZ : Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936 : mit einer Darstellung der weiteren Entwicklung bis 1945 und einer Biblio-/Mediographie / Guido Fackler.
    UL: M950.c.200.233


About Clemens Gresser

Between August 2010 and September 2021 I worked as a librarian at the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, UK); the last six years of that time I was at the Faculty of Divinity Library. Since September 2021 I am the Heythrop Librarian at the London Jesuit Centre. Between August 2010 and November 2013 I was the Deputy Head of Music at Cambridge University Library and at the Pendlebury Library of Music. Between December 2013 and September 2015 I was the Librarian at the Marshall Library of Economics. Since October 2015 I have been the Librarian at the Divinity Library.
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