The Lighter Side of Auschwitz, Or the Cultural Life of the SS in the Death Camps
Berlin, Jan. 26. (PAP-Polish Press Agency)—German artists performed during the war at the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, participating en masse in cultural programs provided for the SS men in the camp garrison.
The latest edition of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit carries a long article on the subject by the German historian Ernst Klee, titled “How German Artists Kept Their Compatriots in a Good Mood while They Were Busy Murdering.”
Klee’s research shows that at least several hundred actors, musicians, singers, and writers took part in artistic events at Auschwitz during the years when the camp was in operation (1940-1945).
Klee draws attention to an account by one of them, Dieter Borsche, who was then a theater director in Breslau (now Wrocław). Documentary filmmaker Joseph Wulf recorded Borsche’s account shortly after the war. Borsche tells about how he appeared at Auschwitz over the winter of 1943 for the camp’s SS sentry units. “The actors were received in generous style. Prisoners waited on them, and they saw columns of prisoners with their own eyes,” he says. The actors were surprised that, despite the cold weather, the prisoners were dressed only in striped camp uniforms. Borsche states that SS men told him that theatrical troupes appeared frequently at the camp.
Kurt Knittel, a schoolteacher in civilian life and an Unterscharfuehrer SS during the war, organized the cultural program at Auschwitz. In October 1941, he was appointed head of the department responsible for the ideological indoctrination of the camp personnel.
Klee lists numerous cultural events held in Auschwitz and contrasts them with the crimes being committed in the camp at the same time.
“An evening devoted to ‘Goethe—The Serious Side and the Lighter Side’ . . . will be held at 8:00 PM on Monday, February 15, 1943. This event is, especially for Volksdeutsche, a good opportunity to learn about the highest achievements of German culture,” reads an invitation signed by Hauptsturmfuehrer Robert Mulka, who was sentenced after the war to 14 years’ imprisonment for his crimes.
On the afternoon of February 23, 1943, writes Klee, 39 Polish boys aged 13 to 17 were killed in block no. 20 by injections of phenol to the heart. At 6:30 PM that evening, a theater from Maerisch-Ostrau (Ostrava, now in the Czech Republic) performed the operetta Princess Greta. “Since the performance begins relatively early, the time for the end of work in the camp and the evening roll call have been moved to an earlier hour,” reads the invitation.
The new crematoria and gas chambers in Birkenau went into operation in the spring of 1943. At the same time, a theater from Kattowitz (Katowice) appeared in Auschwitz with the vaudeville show Gitta Goes Wild. On May 21, 1943, the orchestra of the Kattowitz opera played works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvorak for the SS men. “The arrangements are easy to follow, and therefore, even for people with no taste in music, this was not a waste of time,” noted camp commandant Rudolf Hoess, with satisfaction, in his diary.
In May 1944, when almost half a million Hungarian Jews were arriving in Auschwitz in transports designated for immediate extermination, cultural life was flourishing. Camp posters from the period announce a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Beaver Coat by a theater from Beuthen (Bytom), a Viennese evening featuring the best artists from the city on the Danube, and a guest appearance by a troupe from Gleiwitz (Gliwice).
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the closure of all German theaters on August 20, 1944. Yet cultural events continued in Auschwitz right up to last moment. As late as January 18, 1945, the writer Kurt Hielscher was scheduled to deliver a lecture on German culture in Transylvania. “It had to be called off because the evacuation of the camp began that day,” writes Klee.
Klee describes the postwar fate of Kurt Knittel, who organized cultural events in Auschwitz. In 1948, only three years after the end of the war, the former SS man had already become the literary director of a traveling theater company. Soon afterwards, he went back to his old profession, teaching. In 1957, he took a position with the local school authority in Karlsruhe. He became a member of the board of advisors for SDR [Sueddeutscher Rundfunk, a former German radio station], was manager of the Volksbuehne theater in Karlsruhe, and became a member of the administration of the higher music school in Baden. “A beautiful career,” Klee concludes, “for the man who had been in charge of culture at the Auschwitz death camp.”