Friday, February 21, 2014

Beds and a band: Life in the camps

(17th in a series)
     One of the funny parts of my Dad's 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation came when Renee Firestone -- originally from Czechoslovakia and with an accent herself -- asked Dad (Louis Van Thyn) to talk about "fixing the beds" in the concentration camps.
     But Dad misunderstood, in a couple of ways. He thought she was asking about a band and that she was asking about the satellite camp in Janina, where he spent the early part of his Holocaust experience. Actually, she was asking about the main camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau because she knew that -- indeed -- it did have a band.
      So his answer did not make much sense, at first.
The three-tiered wooden bunk beds at Auschwitz
(photo from Jewish Virtual Library)
      "No, we didn't have a band," he answered. "Christmas, 1943-44, my friend wrote a book in Holland. He was a [musical] conductor later on in Amsterdam, in 1945 and before the war, too. He was in Janina, and he goes back as a muselmanns [a prisoner thought to be on the verge of death] to Auschwitz. What happened with him is he saw some people he know, and he [was placed] in the band.
      "He was a speaker [about the Holocaust] later on in Holland," my Dad added, likening it to what my mother did in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana for years. "... I saw him last summer [1995] when I was in Holland; he was already a sick man [and died shortly afterward].
      "He wrote a book [about his Holocaust experiences]; he was a trumpet player in Auschwitz; he was in the band."
        After all that, Ms. Firestone corrected Dad:  "I wasn't talking about a band. I was asking, in Janina, you said you had to fix beds. You had beds in there?"
         Now Dad understood.
         "Ya, we had bunk beds, three high," he replied.
          OK, so ... about the beds and the band (or orchestra).
          Dad's recollection of the housing situation at Auschwitz when he first arrived was that the prisoners were taken to a school. "There were only 200 people there, and there was a special room," he said, "and we were with eight men over there. Everyone had his own bed.
         "You know we were the prominent men in that time," he added, with a laugh. "Later on they [the Nazis] made some barracks and we were sent to the barracks."
         And in those barracks, three-tiered wooden bunks were placed, so it was three men for each bed ... unless the prisoner population was overcrowded, which it often was.
         Here is how the living conditions are described on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum web site:
         "Each day was a struggle for survival under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were housed in primitive barracks that had no windows and were not insulated from the heat or cold. There was no bathroom, only a bucket. Each barrack held about 36 wooden bunkbeds, and inmates were squeezed  in five or six across on the wooden plank. As many as 500 inmates lodged in a single barrack."
          Dad remembered that "we got one blanket and we got a mattress, a real thin mattress. And a pillow. But sometimes they [other prisoners] stole your pillow. You put your bread [the thin slice of brown bread prisoners were given each day] under there, and it was gone, if you no watch it. The best way was to eat it right away; then you know you got it."
          He also recalled that "my friend stole [some] blankets and [we] put them around the body for the night shift, and took them to the coal mines and sold them for bread and something else."
           A description from the Jewish Virtual Library:
           Dampness, leaky roofs, and the fouling of straw and straw mattresses by prisoners suffering from diarrhea made difficult living conditions worse. The barracks swarmed with various sorts of vermin and rats. A constant shortage of water for washing, and the lack of suitable sanitary facilities, aggravated the situation."
           Yet, Dad would say that there were times, after hard days of labor in the mines or in the main camp, that the prisoners could relax.
           "When we were off work, we could move freely in the camp," he said at one point in the testimony. He also noted that at times "we'd have 7-8 Dutch people coming together to talk on the steps of Block Nine, where Sanders [boxing champion Leen Sanders, mentioned in the previous two parts of this series] was a block leader."
           And there was also the band, or the orchestra.
           The Nazis, the camp leaders and the SS hierarchy had to keep themselves entertained -- I suppose -- and one way to do that was with a camp orchestra. And because many of the Jewish prisoners, and some of the non-Jews, had musical backgrounds, they were able to do this.

The orchestra at Auschwitz (from Jewish Virtual Library)
          This might have been an advantage for those prisoners, given that they needed time for practice and so, according to information from, they were placed in special labor groups -- they still had to do manual work in the camps -- and given some special privileges (if  "privilege" applies to the concentration camps).  
           Auschwitz was the largest of the concentration camps, but far from the only one with an orchestra, according to what I've read.
          Here is how the web site described it ...
          "The repertoire of prisoner bands throughout the Auschwitz camp complex included -- in addition to special camp compositions -- all forms of contemporary musical life: marches, songs, parlour music, light music, dance music, hit-tunes, film and operetta melodies, classical music, and excerpts from opera ...
          "Each respective program was determined above all by the interest of the camp authorities and the function allotted to each orchestra, as well as to the level of the orchestra, its personnel, and its rehearsal possibilities."
         So when Dad -- finally -- recalled the band at Auschwitz, he wasn't making it up.
         In fact, his first cousin, Joopie Scholte, who figured prominently in Dad's life in Antwerp, Belgium, just before World War II and very much afterward, was a musician and a band member.
         The Nazis had another form of entertainment at the camp: A whorehouse. But that's a story for the next chapter.


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