Thousands of people had journeyed to the ruins of Waldeck Castle, a collection of stone arches, mossy walls, and eroded towers on a ridge in the Hunsrück mountains of West Germany. It was May 1967, the fourth spring in a row that a folk festival had been staged at the medieval site. Forests spanned the valleys below—miles and miles of oak and hornbeam, green and thick with leaves.
The festival drew young people from across West Germany and other parts of Europe. Clad in jeans and colorful shirts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a hippie enclave like San Francisco—or, two years later, at Woodstock—the audience lounged on the grass and watched dozens of performers take the festival’s small stage. There were earnest voices, acoustic guitars, and lyrics about peace, love, and resilience. Among the performers were local acts—Romani jazz bands, for instance—and big names from overseas, including Sydney Carter, who played the song “Turn Him Up and Turn Him Down,” and Hedy West, a banjo-playing folk revivalist inspired by the Appalachian culture in which she grew up.
One performer seemed out of place. He was an old man—at least he looked old. He was thin, and in his hair and eyebrows were streaks of gray. He was known to perform wearing an ill-fitting outfit, baggy and striped. It was the uniform of a concentration-camp prisoner.
The man stood before the microphone, holding a steel-string guitar. He took a long pause before he spoke, offering a few words about the songs he would be singing. Many of their composers, he said, had perished in Nazi camps. The man closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before plucking the guitar and beginning.
Bom, bom, bom, bom
His voice was heavy and haunting.
Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay
The piece was intended for a chorus, but no other voices joined.
We’re bound for the gas
For the gas
For the gas
The crowd before him sat hushed.
On a bygone spring day, in May 1940, a bus pulled up to a white gatehouse 20 miles north of Berlin. Flanking the structure were walls with razor wire looping along their crests, threatening pain or worse for anyone who tried to escape from KL Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp. Framed in the center of the camp’s wrought-iron gate were three words: “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).
The bus’s passengers were mainly Polish political prisoners: intellectuals, writers, and artists, many of them purged from the streets and flats and cafés of Kraków and the surrounding region. Among them was 21-year-old Aleksander Kulisiewicz.
“Alles raus!” the SS guards screamed. Everyone out!
The guards circled the bus. Some of them held the leads of German shepherds, and the dogs lurched and snarled. Others wielded clubs. On the crest of each man’s cap gleamed a silver skull and crossbones, the forbidding symbol of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Units). When the prisoners squeezed out the bus’s door, they were met with screams of “schnell, schnell” (quick, quick) and the blunt end of the guards’ clubs. They ducked the blows as best they could.
By then, Kulisiewicz had suffered beatings at the hands of the Nazis for several weeks. The first one took place in an interrogation cell at the jail in Cieszyn, his hometown, located along the Olza River, which formed Poland’s border with Czechoslovakia. His crime, ostensibly, was writing an article. In response to events like the annexation of Austria and the terrorizing of Jews on Kristallnacht, Kulisiewicz had published pieces in local newspapers decrying Adolf Hitler and the rise of fascism. In the interrogation cell, SS men placed a copy of one article on the table before him. “With a fist, we will squeeze every insult against the Polish nation down your throat,” it read, “and we will use the broken teeth to make an inscription in front of the theater in Cieszyn: ‘People who are passing by! Tell Adolf that this is the way we broke the teeth and hit the face of the Hitlerite system.’”
The SS officers beat Kulisiewicz, breaking his teeth as they went. “Count, you dog!” he heard them shout. Kulisiewicz was forced to count each bloody tooth he spat onto the concrete floor, bowing and repeating “danke schön” (thank you) every time.
The beatings continued in the Polish city of Wrocław, where the SS transferred Kulisiewicz, and then at Prinz-Abrecht-Straße, the Gestapo’s headquarters in Berlin. During his journey to Sachsenhausen, as fists and boots rained down on his body, Kulisiewicz sometimes found himself thinking of the last student he’d tutored in Polish literature, a job he took after finishing his own studies. Her name was Ewunia, and she was just six years old. He taught her about Polish history, the beauty of their mother tongue, and the writers she would read one day, men like Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz who had penned epic poems and sprawling novels under other repressive regimes. Kulisiewicz imagined Ewunia growing up with that knowledge still alive in her mind. Somehow it made the blood in his mouth less bitter.
Kulisiewicz and the other new prisoners at Sachsenhausen were ordered to form rows of five. They stood in a large semicircular yard dirty with black cinders; around its perimeter was a wide track paved with smooth stones. Beyond the yard were dozens of long one-story barracks, painted dark green and fanning out from the heart of the camp. Prisoners hurried about, dressed in striped shirts and pants made of a stiff material. They only ceased their frantic motion when they were addressed by a member of the SS. Then they would halt, take off their caps, and hold them rigidly against their right thighs until the guard moved on. Some prisoners pushed carts full of dirt or sand. Others carried wood on their shoulders. Harnessed like animals, some men pulled carts filled with garbage.
Every prisoner was thin, but some were so emaciated that their stomachs and backs appeared to meet. They shuffled from place to place, sometimes hunching over to scavenge for cigarette butts flicked away by guards. There was an otherness about them, as if the camp had forced an essential piece of their humanity to depart. Kulisiewicz committed their image to his memory. He would later learn that they were called Muselmänner, a slang term that many prisoners used to describe those among them who seemed ready for death. To Kulisiewicz, the word—German for “Muslim”—connoted foreignness, alienation, and dislocation.
When the guards finished counting them, the new arrivals were ordered to march. They made their way to the intake buildings in the quarantine barracks, isolated by barbed wire from the rest of the camp. In quarantine they would be subjected to lessons in physical discipline for however long the SS wanted—it could be weeks or months. Each man waited to be called forward to a desk, behind which sat another prisoner; much of the camp was run by detainees. When it was Kulisiewicz’s turn, he gave the man at the desk his full name (Aleksander Tytus Kulisiewicz) and date of birth (August 7, 1918). He was handed a slip of paper. Written on it was the number 25,149.
“Learn it by heart,” the prisoner at the desk said. It was Kulisiewicz’s new identity.
There were more lines, more waiting. In one room, the prisoners were forced to give up their belongings. Clothing, watches, cash, food, papers—all of it documented in ledgers and stuffed into sacks. Naked, they went to another room, where men with electric razors shaved them under harsh lamplight. Everything was shorn: pubis, armpits, legs, head. Kulisiewicz felt the teeth of a shaver press against his forehead and plow to the base of his skull. Stroke by stroke, his dark hair fell onto his bare shoulders and down to the floor.
Then came the distribution of uniforms, a cold shower, and barracks assignments. Kulisiewicz’s barracks held about 300 men. He received a cloth badge bearing the letter P inside a red triangle, which he had to sew onto his uniform. P meant Polish; the red signified that he was a political prisoner.
Kulisiewicz realized that most of the detainees in charge were German. It seemed that many of them were communists and trade unionists, people the Nazis viewed as enemies who were put in the camp during the regime’s crackdowns of the 1930s. The SS guards were like angry deities who intervened in the drudgery of camp life to scream, beat, and kill. “There are no sick prisoners,” one blockführer (block leader) told new arrivals. “In the camp, you’re either dead or living. The only way out is through the crematorium.”
The white Gothic script painted across the gables of the barracks closest to the camp’s main yard suggested another way out. In German, the words said, “There is one path to freedom: its milestones are obedience, industry, honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.” Kulisiewicz could read the writing because he’d grown up speaking German with some of his relatives.
At the end of his first day in Sachsenhausen, Kulisiewicz sat over a bowl of soup. A few potatoes rested at the bottom of the murky broth. Around him were other Poles newly torn from their lives and loved ones—priests removed from parishes, teachers from classrooms, communists from printing houses, students from dormitories. Before bed, Kulisiewicz looked out the window of his barracks. He saw watchtowers looming over the camp, with gun barrels protruding from observation points. Beyond them he glimpsed the tops of pine trees scraping the dull evening sky.
Kulisiewicz lay on his side between two other men, on a straw mattress on the floor. What did he think of as he tried to escape a waking nightmare? Maybe he conjured what brought him joy. Perhaps, as he fell asleep, he thought of music.
In 1926, as a boy of eight, Kulisiewicz wanted to impress some of his friends and a girl he liked named Věruška. It was a harvest day, hot, and workers from nearby fields sat around on their break drinking coffee and eating potato pancakes. Kulisiewicz loved to entertain, and when he and his friends climbed onto the roof of a laundry business, he found what he hoped could be his props: two wires that fed electricity into the building.
The adults on the ground below warned the children not to touch the snaking cords, that they would deliver a fatal shock. But Kulisiewicz couldn’t help himself. The temptation of testing the adults’ honesty consumed him so much that he brushed the back of one of his hands over the wires. When he wasn’t shocked, he decided to go a step further: Mimicking a ringmaster or magician, he declared that, for his next act, he would pick up the wires, surely astonishing Věruška and the other children. Over the shouting of the adults, Kulisiewicz did as he said he would and grasped the cords in his fists.
When he awoke, he was buried up to his neck. He couldn’t feel his body; he could only bob his head up and down against the loose, sandy soil. Witnesses to his electrocution had put him in the ground, believing that the earth might draw the charge out of his body. Eventually, he regained enough of his strength to crawl from the hole, with some help, and go home.
Kulisiewicz soon realized that, ever since the accident, he’d spoken with a horrible stutter. There was no speech therapist in Cieszyn, so one day, when a circus came through town, his father took him to the hypnotist—a man known only as Roob. “You must speak, you must recite poems, but you will do it differently than all other children,” Roob told the boy. He instructed Kulisiewicz to picture a blank page in his mind and then imagine writing what he wanted to say. “Whatever you write on this page, read it immediately, and if you do that, you will not stutter,” Roob said. “You will even be able to speak publicly.”
Kulisiewicz spent the rest of his childhood practicing the technique. He used it when asking for meat at the butcher, writing out in his mind how much ham or tenderloin he wished to buy. At school, when the class recited poetry or passages from Poland’s great books, Kulisiewicz imagined the words before saying them.
The technique helped him overcome the stutter. It also helped him nurture a budding power of memory. From early in his life, Kulisiewicz had found it easy to recall words and lists. In school he excelled at anything requiring memorization. The technique Roob taught him further sharpened his recall, making it extraordinary: He could store information and call it forth whenever he desired, like pulling a book off a shelf in his mind.
Several years after encountering Roob, Kulisiewicz himself joined the circus: In his late teens, he left home to follow a young woman, an acrobat he’d fallen in love with. His job with the circus largely consisted of cleaning up and breaking down tents, but he learned about performance, too. Clowns, dancers, and contortionists taught him how to tell jokes and engage an audience.
Kulisiewicz’s father was dismayed. His own roots were humble—the elder Kulisiewicz was one of more than a dozen children born in a small Polish village to a carpenter and his wife. He’d married a woman who was raised upper middle class, the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian engineer, and he had studied at the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Kraków, a remarkable feat for the son of a rural laborer. He went on to become a language professor at a classics school attended by the sons of local nobility. He wanted his son to complete his education.
Kulisiewicz obliged his father, enrolling in Jagiellonian University to study law, but his coursework held little interest for him. Instead of memorizing legal doctrines, he was drawn to the city’s cabarets. Music had always fascinated him. In Cieszyn, the townspeople sang Polish folk tunes, and sometimes as a teenager he’d heard Yiddish and Romani melodies. He had a good voice, and he could whistle well. Because of his memory, he learned songs quickly and never forgot them. For small sums of money, he would perform in Kraków’s smoky clubs, singing the tangos and love songs of interwar Poland. He became obsessed with the rush that being onstage delivered.
In September 1939, Nazi Wehrmacht tanks rumbled into Poland. Luftwaffe bombers screeched across the sky, leaving plumes of black smoke in their wake. Meanwhile, in the east, Joseph Stalin’s tanks rolled over the cobblestone streets of cities and towns. The Red Army imprisoned Polish soldiers and took over local governments.
After five weeks, the roar of the invasions died down. The Polish army had been crushed. Some military leaders escaped to France, where they attempted to form a government in exile. When that didn’t work, they fled to London and tried, with little success, to govern their occupied land from afar. Others were rounded up and sent to camps. After just two decades of freedom, secured at the end of World War I, Poland was again under the control of its stronger, more aggressive neighbors.
Kulisiewicz’s father was at immediate risk after the Nazi invasion: The family heard that the regime was planning to purge schools and cultural institutions and to deport professors and teachers to labor camps. When the knock on the door his family feared finally came, Kulisiewicz was the one who answered it. The SS officers asked where his father was. Kulisiewicz said that he was out. The men reviewed the records they’d brought with them and said that the regime wanted Kulisiewicz, too. He was detained on the spot.
In the days and hours leading up to that moment, Kulisiewicz had been mourning the loss of his country. He thought of Biłgoraj, east of Cieszyn, which the Nazis had torched. Because it was an old, poor place, its houses built mostly of wood, much of the town had disappeared. Only piles of ash and a forest of orphaned chimneys remained.
The devastation of Biłgoraj was a far cry from the thoughts that had consumed Kulisiewicz not so long ago. Before the invasion he’d fallen in love again, this time with a young Czech woman named Bożena. She sold vegetables in the town square. She was poor and often barefoot, and she didn’t love him back. Kulisiewicz tried to change her mind. Sometimes he stood next to her baskets of potatoes, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, and turnips and sang to her.
“You will go hoarse,” she told him, trying to shoo him away, “and won’t impress the world with your singing anymore.”
Sunday afternoons were among the only times when the prisoners in Sachsenhausen’s quarantine had little to do. They took the chance to recuperate before the next day, when their brutal disciplinary routine would begin again: the marching, the squatting, the running. The Nazis called it “sport,” a euphemism for physical activity so intense it seemed choreographed to drain the life out of a man. Kulisiewicz had been at the camp only a few weeks, but his naturally slender body was already shrinking. His arms were sinewy; bones jutted out where they hadn’t before. Around him men had begun to die of malnutrition.
Kulisiewicz was anxious to make contact with his family. He had no information about their fate, nor, surely, would they of his. They had no way of knowing that he was hundreds of miles from home, already wasting away.
On this particular afternoon, guards informed the prisoners that the camp authorities would let them send letters if they paid for stamps. But Kulisiewicz had no money. The unfairness of it brought tears to his eyes. He made his way to the barracks where the SS housed some priests. Surely, he thought, a man of God would take pity on him and give him the money to write home. A stamp was only six reichspfennigs, after all, just a few cents.
He approached a Czech priest, still fat from his privileged life before the war. Kulisiewicz spoke Czech—he’d done so with Bożena—and he had studied the country’s literature. He hoped that his knowledge would endear him to the priest. In Czech, Kulisiewicz recited the poetry of famous writers like Jiří Wolker and Jaroslav Seifert, then he asked for a few coins, explaining the situation. The priest considered the request and asked for something in return: Kulisiewicz’s margarine ration.
Kulisiewicz feared that giving up a morsel of fat could mean death, but a letter to his family seemed worth the risk. He left the priests’ barracks with coins in his pocket and a thought weighing heavily on his mind: The camp was full of opportunists, men only concerned with saving their own skins. Even the priests he’d been taught as a child to revere, who were supposed to be generous and good, were bastards willing to survive off the misery of others.
Music helped Kulisiewicz cope. He often sang in his head as a way to distract himself from the torture and humiliation of sport. Now, as he walked away from his encounter with the priest, he began to whistle a song: Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás,” a wailing tune inspired by Hungarian folk music. Its melancholy opening notes were meant to be bowed out on the lowest string of a violin.
After a few minutes of walking, Kulisiewicz noticed a prisoner behind him. The man was short, bald, and thick chested. Stitched to his striped uniform was a yellow Star of David. He seemed to be listening intently. Kulisiewicz stopped his song. The man said shyly, almost in a whisper, “Please, keep whistling, sir.”
Kulisiewicz was taken aback. The man spoke Polish and addressed him formally, despite being at least two decades older. Still feeling the sting of losing his margarine, Kulisiewicz muttered a reply. He didn’t wish to talk with a stranger who he assumed wanted only to beg for something or recruit him to a camp organization. The man persisted, talking to Kulisiewicz about music he liked. Eventually Kulisiewicz warmed to him.
When Kulisiewicz confessed what had happened with the margarine, the man took him by the arm and together they walked back to the priests’ barracks. Kulisiewicz pointed out the Czech priest who’d taken his ration. The priest was leaning against a wall, chatting with someone and munching on bread. The man with Kulisiewicz approached the priest and demanded that he give back the margarine. Speaking sharply, the man looked the priest straight in the eye, unafraid. Other prisoners heard him and gathered round.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the priest replied, smiling.
The man pressed, and the priest’s smile disappeared. The priest lunged forward, his hands in fists, and struck the man across the face. He called the man a damn filthy Jew. More prisoners joined in, kicking and yelling at him.
When they managed to flee, the man was bruised, and Kulisiewicz was disgusted. They eventually had to part ways, because Jews and other prisoners weren’t housed together. As Kulisiewicz made his way to his barracks, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Jewish prisoner.
A fellow Pole named Bolesław Marcinek told Kulisiewicz about the choir. Marcinek was 17 and had also been held at the jail in Cieszyn. One night in the barracks, Marcinek said that if he liked music, Kulisiewicz should go listen to the singing in blocks 37 and 38, where Jews were housed. A group of men had formed a choir and sang whenever they could, thanks to a block guard, a communist prisoner, who allowed it.
Kulisiewicz was stunned. As soon as an opportunity arose, he snuck into block 37 to watch one of the choir’s secret rehearsals. He stood in the back of the room, up against a wall. Some 30 men were arrayed before him, warming up their voices. All of them wore the Star of David. Some were balding, with wrinkles crawling around their eyes and across their foreheads. Others were young—still teenagers, perhaps—with smooth faces and thick hair.
The men didn’t seem to be professional musicians, but that didn’t matter. Their conductor knew how to draw out the best possible sound. He would stop the men’s singing to adjust the division of voices, making sure there were four strong groups—altos, tenors, basses, and basso profundos—able to sing in harmony. He assigned each man to a group based on the tone, timbre, and range of his voice.
The conductor was the man who had stood up to the priest. His name was Martin Rosenberg. That a clandestine choir existed at Sachsenhausen was surprise enough to Kulisiewicz. That he’d already met the conductor, and under such unusual circumstances, felt like more than a coincidence—it was something like kismet. When he noticed Kulisiewicz, Rosenberg smiled. He kept his hands aloft, never stopping his work. His blue eyes gleamed.
Kulisiewicz recognized some of the music, folk tunes and songs featured in Yiddish-language films of the 1930s. He saw how the members of the choir seemed revived, if only a little, by the music. Rosenberg later told him that he formed the group—at great risk to everyone involved, especially himself—because he had to. “I could not look at those people, knowing that they would die and they would never sing together,” Rosenberg said. “That would be a betrayal.”
Kulisiewicz felt much the same. On a warm summer evening, he stood in a corner of his barracks before a few dozen prisoners. They leaned against bunks or sat on the floor. When the dazzling brightness of a watchtower spotlight swept past a nearby window, it illuminated their ashen faces.
Kulisiewicz began to sing. His voice was faint, so as not to draw the attention of the camp guards:
I’m a godforsaken Polish pagan
To everyone here I’m less than nothing
They pu-pu-pu-push me around
Oh Muselmann, Muselmann
Kulisiewicz looked at the faces of the men before him. They were mostly Poles, expelled at gunpoint from the lives they knew. By then everyone knew what their future held: chattel labor, murderous overseers, beatings, hangings, their only means of escape in the plumes of black smoke rising from the crematorium.
Beyond barbed wire the sun shines brightly
Beyond barbed wire children play
But on the barbed wire
A sad, charred body droops
As the song came to an end, Kulisiewicz would have slowed to the pace of a lullaby:
Mama, my mama
Let me die in peace
It was the first performance of the first song he’d created at Sachsenhausen.
When they could, Rosenberg and Kulisiewicz met to talk about music. Rosenberg said little about his life or the circumstances that had brought him to Sachsenhausen. It was as if there had been a breach in the universe—everything that happened before the war, outside the camp, seemed inconsequential in comparison with the here and now. Unless, that is, a fact of someone’s previous life made them special in the Nazis’ eyes, for better or worse.
Rosenberg alluded to being a communist and expressed disdain for Europe’s aristocracy. In time, Kulisiewicz learned that he was born in 1890, came from the Polish town of Szreńsk, not far from Warsaw, and went by a musical alias before the war: Rosebery d’Arguto. That’s what Kulisiewicz took to calling his friend. Rosebery, in turn, called him Aleks.
Often they met before or after one of the Jewish choir’s secret rehearsals. Rosebery spoke of his favorite composers—illustrious Europeans like Edvard Grieg and Felix Mendelssohn, and beloved Poles like Władysław Żeleński and Józef Nikorowicz. The men discussed how fascism profaned music and used it for evil. They built a bond that transcended their age difference and the fact that one of them was a Catholic and the other a Jew.
Rosebery’s choir staged its first performance, hidden from the Nazis but open to some prisoners, in block 39. Beforehand, men stacked up the barracks’ collection of thin mattresses and blankets, making space for the crowd that eventually gathered. During the show, Rosebery’s hands—rising and falling, beckoning strength and then urging softness—seemed to shape the men’s voices.
The choir held more performances and so did Aleks, sometimes to celebrate birthdays or holidays. Rosebery and Aleks determined which barracks were the safest for gatherings—usually the ones overseen by German leftists who had been imprisoned since the Nazis’ rise to power. The men also knew how to calibrate the timing and volume of performances. If, say, a prisoner had escaped the camp, everyone was subject to much greater scrutiny. Performances needed to be smaller, quieter, and possibly held at night—or not at all.
All the while, Aleks composed his own songs, putting new lyrics to melodies he remembered from his youth. He did it for entertainment and to avoid thinking about the camp’s conditions. He also used music to create a record of life in Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were dying of malnutrition, exhaustion, disease. They were taken to the crematorium and turned to ash. Many prisoners knew that, across the Nazis’ expanding empire, the regime was killing people: men, women, and children, shot and buried in trenches. While squatting during sport, his legs swelling from the lack of circulation, Aleks wrote lyrics about the horror the world had become. Word by word, line by line, verses came together in his mind.
He couldn’t write the songs down. Doing so would mean punishment, even death. Nothing could be saved—except in his memory. Using the trick the hypnotist had taught him as a child, Aleks began to build a catalog of music and poetry. At first much of it was his. But some pieces came from Rosebery and his choir, and over time they increasingly came from other prisoners. A man in the barracks after a long day of sport would begin to sing, and Aleks would listen, committing the words and melody to memory.
Sometimes Aleks sang of courage—of men like Jan Miodoński, a doctor and professor who once confronted Sachsenhausen guards when they threatened some older prisoners. In other instances, Aleks sang of home:
Oh Kraków, oh Kraków
By your beauty
Aleks wrote lyrics about the wider war. In the wake of the Allied humiliation at Dunkirk, Hitler’s army advanced east and west across the continent, snuffing out any hope that the conflict would be a short one. At a secret performance, Aleks debuted a song that he called “Mister C,” about Winston Churchill:
It’s the second year, dear God
And the swastika’s still frolicking
There is no power that can exhaust it
So we’d all better get down on our knees
Meanwhile, Mister C puffs his big cigar
Mister C blows out some smoke
Europe crumbles all around him
But he’s got the coin and he’s got the blues!
Mister C will snuff out his smoke
And he’ll spit on Adolf’s “Sieg!”
He’ll pay for Adolf’s funeral on the Isle of Rugia—
Maybe as early as ’43!
For Aleks and Rosebery, for the men who witnessed their performances, and for those who sang or hummed along, music was a form of defiance. If the prisoners shared their art, the Nazis couldn’t take everything from them.
When Aleks was released from quarantine and joined the main part of Sachsenhausen, he found himself farther than ever from Rosebery. Still, they found ways to meet. Sundays were when they were most likely to see each other and seek an escape from their circumstances by talking about music. Once, Rosebery complained about jazz renditions of folk songs. Why ruin beautiful music?
Adapting to life outside quarantine felt like being initiated into a new universe. There were more than 10,000 men on the grounds, prisoners from all over Europe, and a strict hierarchy was observed. At the top, as ever, were the Germans, mostly political dissidents and convicts locked up before the war. Below them were men that the Nazis considered Aryan—Norwegians, for instance—followed by the French. Eastern Europeans came next: Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and, in increasing numbers, Russians. On the lowest rung were Jews and homosexuals.
A prisoner’s ranking, Aleks soon realized, wasn’t necessarily fixed. Upward mobility was possible if a man had useful skills or other resources. Being fluent in German put him above many of his fellow Poles, but he would have to figure out other ways to make himself indispensable, or at least not an easy target. For Rosebery, being both Polish and Jewish, the scramble for status was even harder and more necessary. In the 1930s, he had conducted socialist choirs that sang in protest of capitalism. This ingratiated him with some of the camp’s German communists, who arranged less arduous work assignments for him or gave him extra food.
Sachsenhausen was a machine for the Third Reich. The men who survived quarantine were assigned a work detail, and their toil was in the service of Hitler’s vision for his new empire. The camp’s brickworks, for instance, supplied building materials intended to expand Berlin. Another unit assessed the strength of synthetic leather that the Nazis hoped would be durable enough to stitch into boots for Wehrmacht soldiers fighting on both fronts. It took only a day of work for Aleks to understand that the SS would squeeze every bit of energy and effort out of him; if he died, they would replace him with another man. Protecting himself from the most brutal kind of work was a matter of survival.
Each day began with reveille at 4:15 a.m. The men made their beds, ate stale bread, and drank hot liquid brewed with burned potato peels or rotten roots to make it seem like coffee. By five they were marching to the appellplatz (roll-call square), which faced a gallows. Thousands of men lined up in rows of five, standing at attention to be counted. They repeated the ritual at dusk.
Aleks was assigned with many other Poles to the brickworks, which was located along a canal about two miles from the main camp. The SS guarded the prisoners’ every move as they worked. On the canal were barges piled with sand. The men’s job was to unload sacks of it, carrying the heavy cargo across a narrow plank stretching from barge to bank. Sometimes guards would shake the plank as the men crossed; to them it was an amusement. If a prisoner fell into the canal and couldn’t swim, often the SS men laughed as they watched him drown.
These and other deaths produced a grisly sight at evening roll call. The SS required that every man from that day’s work be present, dead or alive. Survivors hoisted corpses onto their shoulders or dragged them to the appellplatz. After roll call, the dead were left in heaps. Prisoners working as body collectors lifted them onto wooden carts and wheeled them to the crematorium.
When winter arrived, the brickworks became more dangerous still. A layer of ice formed on the canal, and sometimes the plank iced over, too. By then the prisoners were carrying cement—two sacks at a time, tied together and looped around each man’s neck. If a prisoner fell and broke the ice, no matter how much he clawed for life, the sacks would drag him below. Shards of ice sliced men’s hands as they sank. Blood stained the canal’s frozen surface. The bodies were never recovered.
Singing in his barracks, Aleks made a name for himself with his darkly comic lyrics. He composed lines about Wilhelm Böhm, an enthusiastic crematorium guard known to call out to prisoners who passed by him, “Come to Böhm! You’ll surely be coming my way soon, so why not now?” Aleks sang:
Whether it’s by night or day
I smoke corpses—full of joy!
I make a black, black smoky smoke
’Cause I am black, black Böhm!
Soon, Aleks’s power of memory became as well-known as his musical skill. Prisoners started coming to him, asking that he remember their songs. “Aleks,” they would say, “do you have some room in your archive?” He would close his eyes and respond, “Dictate it to me.”
This was how he met a man called Aron. Tall, young, and once broad shouldered, before starvation set in, Aron told Aleks his story when they met while sweeping the camp’s pavement. Before the war, he had worked as a watchmaker in Poland, where he’d lived with his wife and young son. When the Nazis deported Jews from their town, the family were sent to Treblinka, a death camp. There the SS smashed his son’s head against a wall and shot his wife. Aron told Aleks that he witnessed both murders. He begged an SS guard to let him stay with his son overnight, before the body was incinerated the next day. He pulled the boy’s corpse from a pile and curled up on the floor next to it. In a silence heavy with the stench of death, Aron composed a lullaby in Yiddish.
Aron told Aleks that he’d managed to escape Treblinka and obtain a fake passport. He made his way to Berlin, where he again found work as a watchmaker. He went undetected until one day he saw some boys from the Hitler Youth bullying an old Jew. He leaped from his workshop and hit one of the boys. The police arrived, examined his documents, and realized that they were counterfeit. Soon he was on a train to Sachsenhausen, not because he had escaped from Treblinka, and not because of his heritage. It was only when he undressed at the camp’s showers that he was outed as Jewish.
Aron asked Aleks to memorize the lullaby that he’d written at Treblinka. It took several days for him to dictate it, because they could speak only while they swept. The SS were watching, so they had to be quiet and keep close. Lyric by lyric, Aron shared his song:
Crematorium black and silent
Gates of hell, corpses piled high
I drag stiff, slippery corpses
While the sun smiles in the sky
Here he lies, my only little boy
Tiny fists pressed in his mouth
How can I cast you into the flames?
With your shining golden hair
Aleks saw that the man’s knees were thicker than his thighs, that he spat blood, that his body looked almost transparent. Sometimes feces ran down his leg. Still, Aron went on, bending his head toward Aleks, demanding that he remember the lullaby. “This is my only vengeance, you goy!” he wheezed.
Lulay, lulay—little one
Lulay, lulay—only son
Lulay, lulay—my own boy
Oh, you sun, you watched in silence
While you smiled and shined above
Saw them smash my baby’s skull
On the cold stone wall
Now little eyes look calmly at the sky
Cold tears, I hear them crying
Oh, my boy, your blood is everywhere
Three years old—your golden hair
When he reached the final stanzas, Aron’s voice rose, almost to a shout:
Lulay, lulay—little one
Lulay, lulay—only son
Lulay, lulay—my own boy
“Shut up or we’ll attract attention!” Aleks said. “And anyway, what kind of lullaby is this if you shout it?”
Aron looked at him with contempt. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “All I wanted was for my child to wake up.”
Life grew more brutal. The SS picked off prisoners to kill in arbitrary ways. They would order a man to take off his cap and throw it past a cordon line, then order him to retrieve it. If he did, the guards shot him for trying to escape; if he didn’t, they shot him for insubordination.
Thousands of Soviet prisoners of war arrived, then quickly disappeared. Word soon spread that the SS had lined them up in a special building. The guards shot them one at a time until they were all dead.
Aleks felt the depth of the camp’s cruelty when SS guards who had learned about his singing took him to the medical ward. The chief doctor of Sachsenhausen, Heinz Baumkötter, injected him with the bacteria that causes diphtheria, an ailment of the respiratory system that can cause suffocation. It can also destroy the vocal cords. That evening back at the barracks, Josef Čapek, a painter, and Walter Thate, a onetime paramedic who worked in the medical ward, smuggled Aleks an antitoxin. A few days later, the doctor brought him back in to see how the injection was working. Baumkötter forced Aleks to sing, and since he was still able to, the doctor injected him with another dose of the bacteria.
Again friends snuck Aleks the antidote. Again when he discovered that the bacteria had no effect, Baumkötter gave Aleks another dose. After taking the antitoxin once more, Aleks was summoned by Baumkötter. This time the doctor merely shrugged. “Let that dog continue to sing,” Aleks heard him say.
Rosebery feared that the Jews had little time left. He told Aleks he saw omens that he was sure presaged their deaths. One evening in early October 1942, he came to Aleks. “You are not a Jew,” he said. “If you survive, you must sing my song of bitterness and revenge, my death song. You have to sing it all around the world, or else I will curse you and you won’t be able to die in peace.” Aleks promised he would.
The song Rosebery referred to was an adaptation he had just completed—new lyrics put to an old melody. He called it “Jüdischer Todessang” (Jewish Death Song). Aleks heard it a few nights later, when he attended a rehearsal of Rosebery’s choir, which had continued to perform in the Jewish barracks. It was cold, and a hard rain was falling. Aleks saw shivering men singing by candlelight, their faces glowing. He crouched in a corner; prisoners who were not Jewish were strictly forbidden from being there.
First came the basses, deep and slightly hoarse: Bom, bom, bom, bom. They sang in unison, their eyes fixed on the flourishes of Rosebery’s outstretched hands. Then came a falsetto voice: Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay. It was Rosebery himself, Aleks realized. He imagined the basses as death, fast approaching, and his friend’s voice as the children it would soon claim. He knew the melody: It was a song from a Yiddish-language film that was popular in Poland before the war.
A young Jew with the thick neck and muscles of a newly arrived prisoner stepped forward. In a pure and vivid baritone, he sang of ten brothers who traded wine. One by one, the brothers died:
Yidl with your fiddle
Moyshe with your bass
Play, oh sing a little
We’re bound for the gas!
For the gas
For the gas
Aleks saw SS guards burst into the barracks before the song reached its end, a series of quiet knells. He quickly slipped out a window into the darkness as a guard gripped the youngest singer, Izhak, and smashed his head. He watched as the rest of the men were marched outside to the appellplatz and forced to their knees. In the mud, soaked through by the rain, they continued to sing.
A guard kicked Rosebery in the teeth, and blood splattered on the guard’s shoes. The SS man made Rosebery lick it off. Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay, the men kept singing.
The guards forced them to stay there through the night. Many did not live to see morning. For those who did, it was only a few days before the SS rounded them up and deported them to a death camp. Rosebery was among them. The night in the rain had been the last concert of Sachsenhausen’s Jewish choir.
Aleks was devastated by the loss of his friend. Still, he kept composing, adding riskier songs to his repertoire—ones that could get him killed if the SS ever heard them. Months turned into a year, then another. When he learned of the Nazis’ waning power in the war, he revisited a song that he’d written shortly after he arrived at the camp. He called it “Germania,” and initially it had been about the seemingly unstoppable expansion of Hitler’s empire. Now Aleks added a second verse:
You had half the world
Now you’ve got crap in your pants
And crap to patch your pants!
The Americans and the British intensified air raids on Berlin in the winter of 1943 and 1944. Aleks could see the planes roaring across the sky toward the capital just south of the camp. Bombs shrieked toward the earth. Sometimes the blasts were powerful enough to shake the bunks of the barracks and bright enough to see from the windows. Aleks wrote:
My, oh my, pretty little gate
You swallow everyone up, you don’t let anyone out
My, oh my, nasty gate
You’ll be busted to pieces
I guarantee it, filthy scum!
New prisoners arrived in droves. Thousands of Polish men came to Sachsenhausen after the Germans crushed the Warsaw Uprising. Prisoners came from other countries, too—the Nazis’ territory was shrinking, and detainees had to be put somewhere. The camp’s population swelled into the tens of thousands. Among the new arrivals were women. Food, already scarce, became an extravagance; the weakest prisoners died rapidly. As he starved, Aleks furiously memorized the songs he heard people sing.
In late March 1945, word got around that everyone at Sachsenhausen would soon be evacuated. On April 20, for the first time ever, there was no roll call at the appellplatz. The next day, the blockführer announced that everyone who could walk would leave immediately.
Aleks took his place in a column of Poles—as ever, five wide—and began marching. If someone stopped or fell, the SS shot them and left their body on the road. Aleks understood the danger he was in. He could hear artillery rumbling in the distance and machine-gun fire popping in the forests. The SS were jittery. The slightest infraction could mean death; the guards even shot men who stopped to urinate. Aleks saw bodies in ditches, presumably unlucky prisoners who’d been shot in the columns ahead of his. Eventually, dead women and children were in the ditches, too.
The marching ceased only at night, when the prisoners camped along the road. Some men found shelter in old barns, and a few lucky ones dug up potatoes in abandoned gardens. Songs swirled in Aleks’s mind. He had to be careful—to blend in, keep his head down, never make eye contact with a guard. Sticking out could mean death.
The march ended without a fight. Soviet troops didn’t intervene. Prisoners didn’t revolt. After a few days of marching, the SS guards simply fled, disappearing into the forest, changing into civilian clothing taken from farmers or the dead. Suddenly, the prisoners found themselves free. Some ran. Some just sat on the ground, trying to gather the strength to decide what to do next.
Aleks remained for a few days where the marching had stopped, near the German city of Schwerin. Then he moved on, determined to trek back to Poland. He walked and took buses and trains when he could. He traversed Czechoslovakia and eventually reached the river that marked the border with Poland—the Olza, on whose banks he had grown up. He could see Cieszyn across the water.
By then he was sick. He reached a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed him with typhus. His fever was high. He lay in a bed, delirious, approaching death. When he mumbled, asking for a nurse to come to him with a typewriter, the doctors thought he was mad.
His fever eventually broke. When he was able to leave the hospital he found his family, who had survived the war. Life went on, as it must. In the postwar years, Aleks enacted a convincing imitation of normal. On some nights, he went to cafés in Kraków where former Sachsenhausen prisoners met to share stories. The men worked as carpenters, engineers, doctors, and scientists. They were committed to rebuilding Poland, even as it struggled under the yoke of the Soviet state. Aleks, by contrast, felt stuck. He’d held several jobs—overseeing a lemonade factory, working as a journalist in Prague. His first marriage, which produced two sons, ended. He found himself obsessed, to the detriment of everything else in his life, with the promise he’d made to Rosebery.
By 1960, Aleks was working as a salesman; his wares were state news pamphlets. He was often on the road, traveling throughout Poland, and along the way he met more and more people who had survived the Nazi camps. He asked them for their stories and about music they remembered. Soon he was corresponding with strangers, writing hundreds, perhaps thousands of letters to former prisoners of Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps. Documents, musical scores, recordings, maps, notes, and diaries arrived at his apartment. Aleks, with a meticulous eye and a fastidious method, filed everything neatly into folders he kept in cabinets and on shelves.
The work took a toll. Money was scarce, and his health faltered. A second marriage, in which he had another son, ended. Aleks’s friends encouraged him to give up documenting the music of the camps, but he couldn’t.
Aleks began performing some of the songs he learned, mostly at festivals or in small gatherings at student clubs and concert halls. He did so first in East and West Germany, then in other parts of Europe. Often he donned a camp uniform. Singing was a political act, albeit a wholly different one than it had been at Sachsenhausen. In Italy, neofascists planted a bomb under the stage where he was set to perform. The police, tipped off, disarmed the device.
The performance at the Waldeck Castle festival was an important one, placing Aleks alongside prominent figures in the folk revival. Who was in the audience mattered just as much. With World War II more than two decades gone, many young West Germans wanted to show the world that, unlike previous generations of their countrymen and women, they were on the right side of history—that they opposed, for instance, the bombs lighting up the skies of Vietnam. The annual festival, which had started as a celebration of music with little in the way of organization (or sanitation), had always had political overtones. The 1967 event was no different. “The fourth festival should openly discuss not only the difficult questions of our society, but also the difficult questions about the form of artistic engagement,” the program stated.
When he took the stage, Aleks’s music reminded the festival’s audience that the past was still present—that the terror their fathers had inflicted lived on, and would forever. When he finished, the crowd remained quiet. It was how audiences usually reacted to his music. Applause felt unseemly in response to what he’d just performed: the songs of the dead—of his dead.
Back in 1945, feverish at the hospital, Aleks hadn’t been mumbling. He’d been dictating music—the lyrics of the songs written on the blank pages of his mind during his five years at Sachsenhausen. He needed to say the words aloud, for someone to listen, in case the typhus killed him. He needed to pass the music on, as he’d told Rosebery he would.
A nurse realized that there was sense to what he was saying, so she got a typewriter and started to transcribe. She returned again and again to his bedside over several weeks. When Aleks was finished, the nurse had typed hundredsof pages of song lyrics and poems.
Among them were the mournful lines of “Jewish Death Song,” which Aleks would perform at Waldeck Castle and elsewhere. He had kept his promise.
Aleksander Kulisiewicz died in Poland in 1982 at the age of 63. His archive, which contains the correspondence, music, scores, and memoirs he collected from former prisoners of the Nazi camps, is now housed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C.
The excerpt from “Jüdischer Todessang” comes from publicly available audio of Songs From the Depths of Hell, Kulisiewicz’s 1979 album, produced by Smithsonian Folk Ways Recordings. Other music samples are from the collection Ballads and Broadsides: Songs from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and are used with the permission of the USHMM.
“The Bard” is based in part on the memoirs and memories of Holocaust survivors. As is well documented, trauma of the kind endured by camp prisoners can affect what a person remembers, and how. The Atavist presents events as sources recalled them, supported by rigorous fact-checking of the circumstances in which they occurred.