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.
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