Ghetto songs served three major purposes: documentation of ghetto life, a diversion from reality, and the upholding of tradition. The ghetto songs reveal the capacity for suffering and the elemental will to survive and the urge to create, to sing and even to laugh. The ghetto had its street singers, its coffee and teahouses. It had its beggars and madmen. One popular tune which was supposedly started by a beggar said, "Me hot zey in dr'erd, me vet zey iberlebn, me vet noch derlebn" ("To hell with them, we will survive them, we will yet survive.") Laughter became a necessity and a channel for the hatred of the enemy; it became the catalyst for expressions of anger and bitterness when the means of struggle were still not clearly defined. In Alina Kentof's play, Dr. Yanush Korczak, the opening scene depicts the children of an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto, preparing for a concert. One child cries, "I cannot sing...I'm so hungry." Mrs. Stepha, the caretaker, replies, "We all are! That is why we must sing." Either a single person or small group of people performed ghetto songs, with accompaniment consisting of a single chord-playing instrument, a small band, or an orchestra.

Street Songs

Street songs, a sub genre of ghetto music, emphasized four dominant themes: hunger, corrupt administration, hope for freedom, and a call for revolt. A majority of ghetto street songs were sung to preexisting melodies, a technique known as contra fact. Contra fact became necessary because composers couldn't generate new music fast enough for all of the lyrics being written.

Domestic Songs

In traditional Jewish homes, music has always been a part of the family, a religious rite of the Sabbath, and a fundamental element of holiday tradition. Some traditional occasions in which music plays a central part include the Passover and Yom Kippur. Jewish families gather for a festive meal and sing songs and prayers from the Hagaddah, on Passover. For Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Jews chant the Kol Nidre, a mournful prayer song that asks God's forgiveness.

Read the lyrics and listen to MIDI renditions of some traditional Jewish selections. Domestic songs tended to be more expressive and explicit in their lyrics than street songs. They expressed themes of hopelessness and helplessness, death and revenge.

Resistance Fighter or Partisan Songs

Of all the songs of all the ghettos, the one which spread like wildfire, was the Song of the Partisans by Hirsh Glik, "Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn vet" ("Never Say that You Are Trodding the Final Path"). It used a tune by the Soviet brothers Pokras, and it became the official resistance hymn of all the Eastern European partisan brigades. It was translated into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, and English. It was well known in all the concentration camps.

Read the lyrics and listen to MIDI renditions of two Partisan songs.

Songs of the Camps

At each of the five extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras of prisoner-musicians, forcing them to play while their fellow prisoners marched to the gas chambers. The suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other camp workers except the death details. Many musicians had been forced to watch helplessly as their friends and families were destroyed. Auschwitz had six orchestras, one of which contained 100-120 musicians.

Fania Fenelon, describes her experience as a member of a women's orchestra in Auschwitz from January 1944 to liberation in her book Playing for Time. Fenelon states that even though she had clean clothes and daily showers, she had to play "gay, light music and marching music for hours on end while our eyes witnessed the marching of thousands of people to the gas chambers and ovens."

Visit the Resources section to view photographs of camp orchestras.

Read Piesn Obozowa "Camp Song".

Anita Lasker-Walfisch was able to survive Auschwitz by playing in the women's orchestra.


Terezín (Theresienstadt in German) was a concentration camp located in Czechoslovakia that was created by Hitler as a "model camp" to mislead the world about conditions within the camps and ghettos. Many prominent Jewish artists and musicians were sent here. Because of the large number of musicians and performers, the cultural life at Terezín was very rich. This richness was used by the Germans to convince outsiders that the Nazis were treating the Jews very well, and that the concentration camps were really resettlement areas. Hitler deemed it best not to exterminate prominent Jewish people until he had conquered all of the "lost" German lands. Conditions were no better than at most of the other camps. For most of the prisoners, Terezín was just a transit camp on the way to Auschwitz.

This site on the music and people of Terezín offers biographies of several of the camp musicians and an interview with one of the survivors.

The Terezín Chamber Music Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to assuring the permanence of the music written by composers who perished in the Holocaust. Visit their site for concert schedules, an on-line store, and further information.

"Against All Odds," a performance of music composed at Terezín, by Alex Ross.

One especially tragic story comes out of Terezín. The Opera of Children Going to the Gas, Brundibar, the Organ Grinder, was performed for camp inmates. Seizing an opportunity for a massive propaganda campaign, the Germans also had the Opera moved to a nearby theater and performed for the International Red Cross. The Red Cross workers were impressed, and shortly thereafter the camp commander ordered the entire cast and crew to the gas chambers.

Listen to a presentation by NPR about the history of the Brundibar opera with excerpts of music from the performance in November 26, 2005.

The most famous opera to be written at Terezín is probably The Emperor of Atlantis, by Victor Ullman. The opera is based on the horrors of the concentration camps. The Emperor is Hitler, the Loudspeaker and Drummer-girl cast as Goebbels and Goering. The soldier and young girl are human pawns in the chaos that is war. In its original version, the Emperor had a cast of seven singers: The Emperor, Death, the Harlequin, the young girl, the drummer girl, the soldier, and the loudspeaker. It is orchestrated for a small chamber orchestra: three woodwinds, a string quartet, a trumpet, a saxophone, an alto, a banjo, a keyboard player, and some percussion instruments. The libretto is the symbolic story of Emperor Overall who cannot rule chaos on earth any longer because Death has decided to go on strike. His strike is caused by his unwillingness to cope anymore with war and famine. Death has decided to take the side of the unfortunate humans, and will accept the natural order of things as soon as the Emperor agrees to accept his own death. This opera was never performed until after the war.

Important People

Kasriel Broydo was an author and director of theater revues and concerts in the Vilno ghetto. He was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a Latvian concentration camp. He was drowned by the Germans in the Baltic Sea in 1945.

Rudi Freudenfel was the director of the children's opera Brundibar, the Organ Grinder.

Mordecai Gebirtig was born in 1877 in Kraków. He worked all his life as a carpenter in Kraków, and became one of the most popular folk balladeers in Poland. He was deported to the Kraków Ghetto under the German occupation and was killed there in 1942. His poem, "Our Town Is Burning," written in 1938, became one of the most popular songs in the ghettos and concentration camps.

The life of Mordecai Gebirtig, Yiddish folk poet, who was killed in the Kraków ghetto.

Hirsh Glick was born in 1920 in Vilna. When the ghetto was liquidated, he was sent to a concentration camp in Estonia. He escaped from the camp and joined the partisans, and died while fighting as a partisan. His partisan song, "Zog Nit Kainmol," (Song of the Partisans) became the hymn of the underground organization.

Pavel Haas was born in Brno in 1899. Haas belonged to a group of Czech avant-garde composers. After the German occupation, he spent three years in Theresienstadt. He died in Auschwitz October 17, 1944.

Biography and selected works of Pavel Haas at the Czech Music Information Centre.

Peysakh Kaplan was a writer, composer and music critic. He wrote the words to a song commemorating the death of 5,000 Jews who were shot to death on the Sabbath of July 12, 1942. The women whose husbands were killed that day were called "shabesdike," or the Sabbath Ones. He died in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943.

Hans Krasa was a prisoner of the Terezín ghetto. He wrote the children's opera Brundibar, The Organ Grinder before the war in 1938. It was used in the Nazi propaganda film "The Führer gives the Jews a City," filmed in Terezín in 1944. It was performed in Israel in 1988.

Shmerke Kaczerginski was a poet and ghetto partisan fighter of the Vilna ghetto. He collected and preserved many of the ghetto songs, which have survived today.

Gideon Klein was a composer who was a prisoner of the Terezín ghetto.

Short biography and selected works of Gideon Klein.

Aleksander Kulisiewicz was born in Kraków in 1918; he aspired to become a musician, but ended as a prisoner of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Even while in the camp, he continued to collect, compose, and perform songs illegally. When an informant told the Gestapo, they injected him three different times with diphtheria. Each time, fellow prisoners managed to smuggle in the antidote. Though his voiced was damaged from the repeated dosages of the disease, his collected songs were recorded to preserve the memory of people who were joined together by having been victims of the Nazi camp.

Olivier Messian wrote Quartet for the End of Time, a 49-minute instrumental for the piano, clarinet, violin, and violoncello. These instruments are an unusual combination, chosen because they were the only ones available in the Silesian internment camp where Olivier was a prisoner of war. The French composer wrote, "Never had I been listened to with such attention and understanding."

Leyb Rozental wrote a number of plays and several songs in the ghettos. He was drowned by the Germans in the Baltic Sea near Könisburg in January 1945.

Martin Rosenberg was a professional conductor before the war; he was arrested in 1939 and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where he was tortured. While at the camp he organized a secret chorus of Jewish prisoners. They would perform for other prisoners in some of the less guarded barracks for political prisoners. Rosenberg and the chorus were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where they all died in the gas chambers. Before he died, Rosenberg wrote a parody of an old Yiddish folk song called Tsen Brider (Ten Brothers). In the parody, all ten brothers are murdered in the gas chambers, one by one.

Ervin Schulhoff came from a Prague German-Jewish family. After serving in World War I, Schulhoff spent four years in Germany where he was influenced by the Dada movement. His jazz music was an attempt to distance himself from bourgeois tastes. Schulhoff was arrested and died of tuberculosis after about a one-year imprisonment in the Wulzburg camp.

Short biography and selected works of Ervin Schulhoff.

Hannah Sennesh was a Hungarian partisan who was captured and executed by the Nazis in Budapest. She wrote the famous poem, "Eli, Eli," which was later turned into music. Her poem states, "May these things never cease: the sand and the sea, the sound of the water, the thunder in heaven, the prayer of Man."

Victor Ullman was deported to the Terezín ghetto on September 8, 1942. While there, he composed twenty-two works, as well as a libretto for an opera about Joan of Arc. His most famous piece was the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Der Tod dankt ab (The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicated). Just before its premiere, most of the musicians of the ghetto were deported to Auschwitz. He was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in October of 1944. Several years after the war, the opera was finally performed.

Viktor Ullmann biography and selected works.

Ela Stein Weissberger was a child who sang in performances of Brundibar--and lived to tell the story. "When we sang, we forgot hunger, we forgot where we were. . .when we were on the stage, we forgot everything. And when we sang the victory song at the end, we imagined that we overcame Hitler. There was such power in this music."

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