The Holocaust

The Nazis did not wait until the war to start their program of persecution of hated groups; nor did they limit that persecution to the Jewish people. Beginning in 1933 and until 1941, Hitler ordered the jailing and later systematic extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, other “inferior races,” homosexuals, mentally retarded, and anyone who was deemed an enemy of the Reich. The “final solution” became official policy at a meeting of Hitler and his deputies on January 20, 1942. (Jennings and Brewster, pp. 259-260.)

When mass shootings and mobile gas vans proved to be too inefficient, Nazis began shipping Jews to extermination camps in Germany (Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen), Poland (Auschwitz, Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bełżec, Warsaw), Croatia (Jasenovac), Ukraine (Janowska), Belarus (Maly Trostenets), Serbia (Sajmište) and Czechoslovakia (Terzin) via railroad cars. ( In all, the Nazis gassed and then cremated as many as six million Jews, 250,000 Gypsies, and 60,000 homosexuals. (Id.)

The American people and the U.S. government paid little attention to information regarding the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other groups. Major news media like the New York Times and Time magazine treated the Nazi genocide as minor news. In 1943, only 43 percent of Americans polled believed that Hitler was systematically murdering European Jews. (; “A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust: Music of the Holocaust”)

Liberal magazines such as the Nation and small committees of intellectuals tried to call attention to what was happening in German concentration camps. Leaders of the American Jewish Community petitioned the government to suspend the immigration quotas to allow German Jews to take refuge in the United States, but Roosevelt and Congress denied their requests.

In December 1942, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau gave the president a report on “one of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe.” Morgenthau suggested that it was anti-Semitism in the State Department that had stalled the development of an aggressive plan of action.  Roosevelt agreed to change government policy.  Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board in order to avoid scandal. (Id.)

The War of Department affirmed that Allied armed forces would not be employed “…for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy.” The government viewed civilian rescue as a diversion from decisive military operations.

The extent of the Nazi depravity was finally revealed when Allied troops invaded Germany and liberated the death camps. General Eisenhower found crematories and barracks crowded with corpses while touring the Ohrdruf (a sub-camp in Buchenwald) concentration camp in April 1945. (Id.)

Terezín (called “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. 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 well, and that the concentration camps were really resettlement areas. However, conditions were no better than at most of the other camps. For most prisoners, Terezín was just a transit camp on the way to Auschwitz. (

One especially tragic story comes out of Terezín. A theatrical work known as the “Opera of Children Going to the Gas,” or “Brundibar, the Organ Grinder,” was performed by camp inmates. Seizing an opportunity for a massive propaganda campaign, the Germans also had the opera moved to a nearby theatre and staged it for members of the International Red Cross. The Red Cross workers were impressed, but shortly thereafter the camp commander ordered the entire cast and crew to the gas chambers. (Id.)

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. In its original version, this opera had a cast of seven singers: The emperor, death, the harlequin, the young girl, the drummer girl, the soldier, and the loudspeaker. The emperor is Hitler, the loudspeaker and drummer-girl characters were cast as Goebbels and Goering. The soldier and young girl are human pawns in the chaos that is war. 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 the character 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. (Id.)

At other extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras of prisoner-musicians, forcing them to play while their fellow prisoners marched to the gas chambers. Many musicians had been forced to watch helplessly as their friends and families were destroyed. The suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other camp workers except the death details, i.e. those who were made to work in the gas chambers and the crematoria. 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.” (Id.)

Following are a number of songs that relate to various aspects of the concentration camp experience. For a comprehensive list of songs relating to the Holocaust, see Given the enormity of this topic, unlike most other sections of this work where I choose to limit the number of songs listed, here I have included a larger number of the most profound songs that I was able to find.

“Angel of Death, sung by Slayer; lyrics and music by Hanneman (1986). ( This song is about Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death,” who performed gruesome, excruciating, and unscientific experiments on innocent people, twins especially, in Auschwitz. The lyrics present a very accurate, graphic picture of the horrors of Mengele and Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, the meaning of pain
The way that I want you to die
Slow death, immense decay
Showers that cleanse you of your life
Forced in
Like cattle
You run
Stripped of
Your life’s worth
Human mice, for the Angel of Death
Four hundred thousand more to die
Angel of Death
Monarch to the kingdom of the dead

Sadistic, surgeon of demise
Sadist of the noblest blood

Destroying, without mercy
To benefit the Aryan race

Surgery, with no anesthesia
Feel the knife pierce you intensely
Inferior, no use to mankind
Strapped down screaming out to die
Angel of Death
Monarch to the kingdom of the dead
Infamous butcher,
Angel of Death

Pumped with fluid, inside your brain
Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes
Burning flesh, drips away
Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last
In this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time
‘Til you rip yourselves apart
Millions laid out in their
Crowded tombs
Sickening ways to achieve
The holocaust
Seas of blood, bury life
Smell your death as it burns
Deep inside of you
Abacinate, eyes that bleed
Praying for the end of
Your wide awake nightmare
Wings of pain, reach out for you
His face of death staring down,
Your blood running cold
Injecting cells, dying eyes
Feeding on the screams of
The mutants he’s creating
Pathetic harmless victims
Left to die
Rancid Angel of Death
Flying free

“Train for Auschwitz, written and sung by Tom Paxton (1961). ( This song is very powerful in its simplicity. The YouTube video that accompanies this song is very poignant.

I see a long train comin’
across the Polish plains
The passengers it carries
aint comin’ back again.

This train is bound for Auschwitz
Like many another one
The passengers condemned to die
But no crime have they done

They are jammed into the boxcars
So tight against the wall
And in those cars the dead men stand
There is not room to fall

Now the reason they are dying
I will explain to you
Adolf Hitler has decided
To exterminate the Jew

He ships them off to Auschwitz
The train unloads them there
And standing by the railroad track
They take their last breath of fresh air

The S.S. troopers herd them
Right down a well-worn path
Into a hall where they are told
They are to take a bath

When they’re undressed they’re led inside
A giant shower room
The door is sealed behind them
And it also seals their doom

Inside the room there drops a bomb
Of Nazi poison gas
And not one soul is left alive
When fifteen minutes pass

Now the men who did these awful crimes
They wish they’d murdered more
The only thing they’re sorry for
Is that they lost the war

And hundreds of these murderers
Still walk the earth today
Just hoping for a chance to kill
The ones that got away

“Lili’s Braids” was written and sung by Chuck Brodsky. ( Chuck Brodsky’s poignant, heartbreaking piece, is based on the scenario where a Jewish family, hearing that the Nazis shave the Jews’ heads in the camps, quickly braids and snips off their young daughter’s gorgeous long hair, telling her that she will get it back after the war from their neighbor. After the war, her brother, a soldier, returns to his hometown to retrieve the only remains of his family—his little sister’s braids—which are exhibited in a holocaust museum.

The house he was born in was only next door
His country had vanished because of the war
Out in the garden some little boys played
He had only come back to retrieve Lili’s braids

The neighbors were home, to their word they were true
They’d kept them safe, like they said they would do
Despite any orders they might have obeyed
It was righteous of them to have kept Lili’s braids

The word had come down the Germans were near
They had taken a village a few miles from here
There was no place to run, there was no place to hide
It was no longer safe to be going outside

The whispers of horrors that they did to the Jews
Sorting into piles of clothing and shoes
At the railway station shaving their heads
Then taking the hair to make pillows and beds

Lili’s hair had never been cut
The curtains were drawn, the doors were shut
It had hung to her knees just moments before
The braids would be safe with the people next door

Lili’s mother quietly prayed,
She said come here child don’t be afraid
I promise you one day, we’ll pin them back on
After the war, when the soldiers are gone

The house he was born in was only next door
Lili’s brother returned sometime after the war
They were all he had left
How heavy they weighed, though maybe not as much now
That he retrieved Lili’s braids,
Maybe not as much now

“Ilsa Koch, words and music by Woody Guthrie (1948), performed by The Klezmatics. ( …an incomplete version) The song is about the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Ilsa Koch was the wife of the commander of the Buchenwald camp. She was known as “The Bitch of Buchenwald.” It is said that her husband had a lampshade made out of human skin at his wife’s request. She was arrested by U.S. authorities on June 30, 1945 and was tried by a war crimes tribunal then sentenced to a life term in 1947, later commuted to four years, by reason of “insufficient evidence.” After being released in 1951, she was immediately re-arrested and tried again by a German court due to the large number of protests against the earlier commutation decision. She was then re-sentenced to a life term. She committed suicide by hanging herself at Aichach women’s prison on September 1, 1967. She was sixty years old.

I’m here in Buchenwald.
My number’s on my skin.
Old Ilsa Koch is here.
The prisoners walk the grounds.
The hounds have killed a girl.
The guards have shot a man.
Some more have starved to death.
Here comes the prisoner’s car.
They dump them in the pen.
They load them down the chute.
The trooper cracks their skulls.
He steals their teeth of gold.
He shoves them on the belt.
He swings that furnace door.
He slides their corpses in.
I see the chimney smoke.
I see their ashes hauled.
I see their bones in piles.
Lamp shades are made from skins.
I’m choking on the smoke.
The stink is killing me.
Old Ilsy Koch was jailed.
Old Ilsy Koch went free.
I’ve got to hush my song.
Here comes the super man.
I’ll see you later on.
I’ve got to duck and run.

Rush’s “Red Sector A” is probably the best-known Holocaust rock song. It appeared on the band’s 1984 album “Grace under Pressure.” The seeds for this song lay in the fact that lead-singer Geddy Lee’s mother was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. (

All that we can do is just survive
All that we can do to help ourselves is stay alive

Ragged lines of ragged grey
Skeletons, they shuffle away
Shouting guards and smoking guns
Will cut down the unlucky ones

I clutch the wire fence until my fingers bleed
A wound that will not heal
A heart that cannot feel
Hoping that the horror will recede
Hoping that tomorrow we’ll all be freed

Sickness to insanity
Prayer to profanity
Days and weeks and months go by
Don’t feel the hunger
Too weak to cry

I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate
Are the liberators here?
Do I hope or do I fear?
For my father and my brother, it’s too late
But I must help my mother stand up straight

Are we the last ones left alive?
Are we the only human beings to survive?

“This Train Revised, by The Indigo Girls, was written by Amy Elizabeth Ray (1994) and presents a graphic picture of the concentration camp experience. (

It’s a fish white belly
A lump in the throat
Razor on the wire
Skin and bone
Piss and blood
In a railroad car, 100 people
Gypsies queers
And David’s Star

This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory
(This train)

Measure the bones
Count the face
Pull out the teeth
Do you belong
To the human race
Doctor doctor are you unkind?
Do you shock the monkeys?
Cover our eyes with clear blue skies

This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory now
This train

Here is a dancer
Who has no legs
Here is a healer
(Here is a teacher)
Who has no face
(Who has no hands)
Here is a runner
(Who has no feet)

Here is a thinker
(Here is a builder)
Who has no head
(Who has no back)
Here is a writer
(Who has no voice)
These are the questions
(These are the answers)
Stacked like wood

This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory
This train is bound for glory now
This train

This train is bound for glory
(This train gonna carry my mother)
This train is bound for glory
(This train gonna carry my father)
This train is bound for glory now
(This train gonna carry my sister)
This train
(This train gonna carry my brother)

(Here is a teacher)
(Stacked like wood)
This train gonna carry my sister
(Here is a healer)
(Stacked like wood)
This train gonna carry my brother
(This is a builder)
This train gonna carry my sister
(Gypsies queers and David’s Star)
This train is
This train is bound for glory

These are the questions
Stacked like wood
These are the answers
Here is potential gone for good

“The Door, by Martin Page. ( These notes about the song were taken from Page’s 1995 album, “In the House of Stone and Light.” “The non-Jewish Page did not set out to write a Holocaust-inspired song for the album. He had a piece of music he describes as ‘uplifting, dark and mysterious,’ and he kept singing the phrase ‘the door,’ to a certain part of the melody. After he finished making a ‘demo’ recording of the tune in his home studio, he glanced up at a bookshelf, saw Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner, grabbed it and read it. ‘I was so moved,’ Page said. ‘I grew up in England, so I was very aware of the Holocaust, but I was not aware of the bravery at Treblinka… I instantly went back into the studio and the song, in a way, wrote itself.’ He said ‘The Door’ is the door to the gas chambers or the door to hope, and added that, ‘the story is basically told through the eyes of a character I imagined had survived. I wanted to end the album with it because it is a testament to heroics and hope.’”

Hannah is dreaming, she’s young once again
She stands with her brother, with thousands of men
Her head has been shaven by a black uniform
She’s one of God’s children that waits at the door

Tears on her pillow, she tightens her lips
Touches the number tattooed on her wrist
The sign says, ‘Treblinka’, again she can’t breathe
For all of these children she’ll always see

They’re her constant companions, six hundred souls
In the doors of the chambers, there’s one door of hope
That opens to the forest and fields covered green
Where all of God’s children again would be free

And they came out of the tunnels, went over in waves
She’d run with the others over the graves
As the watchtowers tumble in an ocean of fire
Some of God’s children escaped through the wire

Slowly ’round the raven flies, scours the trees
Where they hide, the beast, he threatens, “You won’t survive”
She raises her fist and whispers in her sleep
“I am going to live, I am going to live”

Sunlight has risen in her garden today
Hannah is watching, her grandchildren play
She hears the bells ringing in a town far away
For all of God’s children who died for this day

The ‘Börgermoorlied’ (Song of Börgermoor), This song was written in the early 1930s by prisoners in a moorish labor camp in Lower Saxony in Germany. The camp, Börgermoor, held around 5,000 socialist and communist prisoners. Socialist songs were forbidden, so they wrote their own. It was written by Johann Esser, a miner, and Wolfgang Langhoff, an actor. It was one of the first and most famous songs to have been created within a concentration camp. ( In its English version, it became famous as the “Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers,” sung by Paul Robeson (

Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere,
Not a bird sings out to cheer us,
Oaks are standing, gaunt and bare.

We are the peat bog soldiers.
We’re marching with our spades,
To the bog.

Up and down the guards are pacing,
No one, no one can go through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wire greet our view.

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall cry rejoicing,
“Homeland dear, you’re mine at last!”

[Final Chorus:]
Then will the peat bog soldiers,
March no more with spades,
To the bog.

“Piesn Obozowa (Camp Song),by lyricist Zbigniew Koczanowicz; music by Ludwik Zuk-Skarszewski. This song was written in April 1945 at Falkensee, a subcamp of the Samusicchsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. The piece was associated with a clandestine “camp patrol” that prisoners, including Koczanowicz and Zuk-Skarszewski, formed in 1945. As their liberation neared, the patrol stole arms from a camp arsenal to defend themselves against camp guards. (

Separated from the world by barbed wire,
We’re rounded up from everywhere
The longing woven into our hearts,
Throbs like a ringing bell.

You with the striped rag on your back,
Could you forget who you are—and where?
They stitched a number to your breast,
A red triangle and the letter “P”.

And your shaved head reminds you,
Of your burden of sins unknown,
And you yearn for the day
When your will and your purpose return.

Neither stars nor sun bring you happiness,
Neither day nor night yields joy.
You stand and wait, dressed in stripes and shaved bare;
With thousands of others like you.

The words of this song are stained with our blood,
Within them are sorrow and grief,
Yet your camp song will carry beyond these barbed wires
To a distant place unknown to you.

Yet your camp song will carry beyond these barbed wires
To a distant place unknown to you.