Theatre in the Nazi Concentration Camps

Creativity and resistance in Dachau and Buchenwald.

This article was originally published in Theatre Arts in 1941. The author reflects on the time he spent incarcerated in both Dachau and Buchenwald. Details of his release are unknown.

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 my 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 their 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 plenty of discipline but it flew around in loose, uncoordinated pieces. There was a succession of drunken and eccentric S.S. camp commanders. In my 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.

Theatre in Dachau

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.

Politics and Entertainment

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.

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.

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.

A Daring Compère

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, 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 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 were built.

At the performance, which ran for a week before, through, and after Silvester, the audience generally amounting to 500, was 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 I left the camp there was a flourishing underground theatre, both political and non-political.

The political cabarets were the most interesting for, although the performers were generally non-professional, their acts were original. The details of the program were simple. The first item was always the singing of the Buchenwald Song by the group.

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.

Satire and Release

The whole underlying idea of the theatrical activity of the concentration camps was obviously temporary release from the terrible reality of that life. 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.

Discover More

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.