THERE are so many contradictions in the organization of the Third Reich that it is only surprising at first thought to learn that theatres, both permitted and illicit, exist in the German Concentration Camps. The nature and extent of this theatre varies in direct relation to the conditions prevailing in a particular camp. Thus in Dachau, with its prison population of almost 10,000, where orderliness is the quintessence and Gründlichkeit is king, any licensed theatricals are out of the question. Here the discipline is so Spartan that it would reduce a military camp to kindergarten proportions. On the other hand, the larger camp of Buchenwald, with 25,000 prisoners, is quite different, or was, at least, during the writer's period of 'protective custody' when it contained both licensed and illicit theatrical activity.
The difference in the main was due to two factors. First, Dachau was in the nature of a show camp, often visited by distinguished foreigners. It was not intended by the Nazi "humanitarians" that these guests should leave with the impression that the "dangerous" prisoners were being pampered with entertainment. Second, the atmosphere of the Concentration Camps always reflected the personality of the S.S. officer in command. Dachau always had a disciplinarian who would make the generally conceived version of a Prussian officer look like a weak sister. Buchenwald was the reverse. There was plently of discipline but it flew around in loose, uncoordinated pieces. There was a succession of drunken and eccentric S.S. camp commanders. In the writer's time anything could and did happen. Thus an illicit theatre thrived continuously, and, for a short time, at the order of a drunken camp commander, the prisoners were obliged to produce a show which ran from two to four performances a day. About this, more later.
Performances in Dachau were, in the nature of things, extremely undercover, being carried out by the prisoners at great personal risk. There were no specific camp orders forbidding this form of entertainment but its discovery would have so infuriated the S.S. camp guards that torture and death would have followed automatically.
The only day in the week when there could be anything in the way of entertainment was Sunday. On this day there was none of the hard work characteristic of the week days, although the morning was spent in cleaning up the camp huts and in roll call. In the afternoon and evening the prisoners were permitted to write brief letters home or to read the newspapers (In Dachau, unlike the other camps, it was permitted to read any newspaper printed in Germany). As far as the S.S. guards were concerned, the dead hour for the camp was around 4 P.M. Under ordinary circumstances there would be no S.S. men nearer than the watch-towers surrounding the camp. The prisoners took this opportunity to create their own organized entertainment.
In Dachau there were two main types of entertainment, singing and dramatic. These again were divided according to whether the performers were political or non-political prisoners (in addition to the political prisoners, there were five other categories). In the huts mainly occupied by politicals the chief divertissement was the singing of Volkslieder and the songs common to the international revolutionary movement. In addition many new songs were composed, generally around the themes of the camp and liberty. The S.S. men (who were invariably short of cash and who would take a bribe as easily as they would shoot a man down) permitted the prisoners to have a violin, guitar, accordian and harmonica. Another form of entertainment favored by the politicals was the small satirical cabaret so common in pre-Hitler Europe. This was characterized by the recital of poems criticizing the regime and making fun of the camp personnel, humorous political monologues lashing the Nazis, and anti-fascist patter for one, two or three actors.
There was a big change in the camp entertainment, both political and non-political, on the arrival in May 1938 at Dachau of some thousands of Viennese, first victims of the Anschluss. Especially was there an increase in the number and quality of cabaret entertainments. There was quite an influx of talented and well-known actors of cabaret, stage and screen. One of the best known was Paul Morgan, famous throughout Central Europe as actor and playwright, whose musical comedy Axel vor der Himmels Tor rocketed the Scandinavian Sarah Leander into prominence. The reason given by the Gestapo for Morgan's arrest was that a letter from Stresemann was found among his possessions, a simple letter of thanks for a charity performance given years before. Morgan was later transferred to Buchenwald where he died from inflammation of the lungs contracted during one of the coldest winters in Europe.
The non-political entertainment at Dachau was performed mostly by the professional actors among the prisoners. With the exception of some of the cabaret acts the material was "foreign" to the camp. It was the Vienna or Berlin stage, transferred in miniature to the ill-lit huts of Dachau. Among the writer's fellow prisoners were many well-known in the world of European theatre, actors, singers, composers and artists -- the drawing cards of Vienna's leading cabarets.
The performances generally took place inside a hut, with some hundreds of prisoners grouped in a circle around the artists. Sentries were posted at the ends of the huts to make certain that there were no S.S. men in the locality. At times there might be three shows running simultaneously in three huts. The "stars" ran from one hut to another for their turns.
Sometimes the excellence of a performance brought forth a spontaneous burst of applause. If the S.S. men on the watch-towers came down to investigate, the scene would be reminiscent of a raid on a Brooklyn speakeasy during Prohibition days, with prisoners jumping out of doors and windows in every direction.
One of the best songs composed in the camp, the Dachau song, was specially composed for the illicit theatre. The circumstances relating to its creation are grim but interesting. During 1937, the London News Chronicle and the Manchester Guardian published some exposures of conditions in the Nazi Concentration Camps. As a Gestapo reprisal, action was taken against all Jewish prisoners in Dachau Camp. For two months they were locked in their darkened huts in complete isolation from the rest of the camp. The political prisoners among them took the initiative to organize some form of entertainment that would keep up the spirit and morale of the other prisoners. During those terrible sixty days the Dachau Song was born. The words were so bitter and yet at the same time expressed such hope for the future that the S.S. guards made it a verboten song. This, however, did not prevent the prisoners from singing it.
In Buchenwald the whole atmosphere was different. Everything was as disordered as the mind of the drunken S.S. camp commander. Whims came from his befuddled head like demons from a Bosch "Last Judgment". One day it would be extra rations and the next, a lashing for every fifth man. And so it came about that at Silvester (New Year) he commanded a week of humor from the prisoners.
A prisoner was found who had been Compère in a large Berlin Music Hall. He was made responsible for finding talent among the prisoners and producing it on a given date. After making a survey of the camp talent (of which there was plenty both professional and amateur) he selected about fifteen turns. Other prisoners were made responsible for constructing a theatre. The partitions of a long hut were pulled down and a stage with proscenium constructed along the middle of one of the hut's long sides. Overhead lights were set up and a few crudely painted pieces of scenery representing a sylvan glade (sic) were built.
At the performance, which ran for a week before, through and after Silvester, the audience generally amounting to 500, were grouped in a flat crescent, some sitting and the majority standing. While the performances were extremely good in the vaudeville class, the atmosphere was always strained by the presence of a number of S.S. men. The succession of jugglers, acrobats, dancers, conjurers, monologists, songsters and instrumentalists was held together by the extremely daring Compère. With all the Schmalz of the experienced cabareteer he introduced the show as follows:
"My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a Concentration Camp. That's something we don't have to worry about."
His comments and continuity patter, in the presence of heavily armed S.S. men, who valued human life at less than a cigarette, kept the prisoner-audience breathless. This is a typical example:
"You know, times don't really change. I remember that when we had the Kaiser, we always had swine pushing us around. Later when we had the Republic, was it any different? No, we still had swine pushing us around. And what of today? He waited for an answer. The air was electric as the prisoners watched the S.S. men out of the corners of their eyes. No answer. He answered the question himself. Why, today is Monday."
No one really enjoyed the official Buchenwald theatre. The presence of so many S.S. men threw a damper over everything. But it gave the prisoners an idea and from that time until the writer left the camp there was a flourishing underground theatre, both political and non-political. The non-political shows were after the style of those held in Dachau -- small cabarets with the performances mostly by professional actors.
The political cabarets were the most interesting for, although the performers were generally non-professional, their acts were original. There were several groups of about five men each, who made the rounds of the political huts between 6 P.M. and "lights out" on weekdays. The audience was invariably of a high intellectual level, consisting of former members of the Reichstag, leaders of the pre-Third Reich political parties, writers, artists, publicists, etc.
In the five-man cabaret in which the writer played, the performance was in the manner of the Viennese Kleinkunstbühne, the audience being grouped in a small circle round the performers. Jura Soyfer, the young Austrian poet and dramatist whose tragedy it was to die of typhoid fever in the camp the day after word came of his release, wrote the greater part of the show. The actual creation of the show was an intellectual feat. For obvious reasons nothing could be written down, so the script -- lasting one hour -- had to be transmitted to the actors by word of mouth. The program of this small group was repeated on many occasions in the various huts inhabited by the political prisoners. The players took the precaution of tearing off the identification numbers sewn on the right thigh of each prisoner's pants, in case some S.S. stool pigeon should want to make trouble.
The details of the program were simple. The first item was always the singing of the Buchenwald Song by the group. This is an excellent song of the Volklied type, in no way inferior to the better known and already recorded Moorsoldaten. Next came a humorous monologue of an imaginary conversation between the drunken camp leader and the equally drunken leader of the German Labor Front, Dr. Robert Ley. This was performed by a famous Central European comedian whose name cannot be mentioned because he is unfortunately still in a Concentration Camp, although no longer in Buchenwald. This would be followed by more political songs. The most important item would be a short play for three players, lasting some twenty minutes, a mix of true comedy and satire attacking the administration of the camp and the blood-soaked system which maintained it.
The whole underlying idea of the theatrical activity of the Concentration Camps was obviously temporary release from the terrible reality of that life. In the case of the political prisoners, whose influence was great, there was the added factor of maintaining morale. The healthiest release was in the form of satire, making fun of certain parts of camp life. The amazing abundance of humor, however, must not be misunderstood. There was, and is, nothing funny about life when death can sneak up in a score of painful ways which seem to have no connection with the laws which govern the outside world.
When at some future but unknowable date not too far distant the ghastly system of Hitler and his several hundred thousand hangmen has been destroyed, the great art of the Concentration Camps will come out into full daylight and be recorded as one of man's great achievements in adversity.
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