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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: November 2019

From ‘Madagaskar’ to Sachsenhausen: Singing about ‘Race’ in a Nazi Camp



AMONG the many remarkable cultural artefacts to come to light after the Second World War is a large and varied repertoire of songs created by Polish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Most common of these compositions are parodies of songs popular before the war. The prevalence of this genre in the camps (as elsewhere) may be accounted for by the fact that parody is one of the easiest of processes for generating a new work, requiring only that the author add newly minted lyrics to a pre-existent melody. But while the formula of invention for parody song is fairly straightforward, its psychological effect on a knowing listener can be rather more complex. Indeed, one can hardly imagine the resonance of such music heard in the setting of a concentration camp. Drawing on well-known melodies and familiar styles such as the tango, waltz, or foxtrot, prisoners who listened to, created, and performed these songs could reclaim, if only for a moment, some part of their lost popular culture. Yet paradoxically, and as many survivors attest, these same songs, with their unsparing depictions of camp life, helped prisoners push aside thoughts of life before captivity and so preserve their mental balance during those difficult years.

In this chapter we look at one parody song, ‘Heil, Sachsenhausen’, and also examine the song parodied, ‘Madagaskar’, itself a satirical consideration of the Jewish predicament in inter-war Poland. We speculate that ‘Heil, Sachsenhausen’ served not only as a narrative of camp experience, but also as a darkly comic condemnation of Nazi ‘racial purity’ laws. Finally, we suggest that this parody song may have functioned as a zone of inquiry for the author's personal reflections on German– Polish and Polish–Jewish relations before and during the Second World War.

‘Heil, Sachsenhausen’ was written by a Polish political prisoner, Aleksander Kulisiewicz, in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen in 1943. A journalist by profession, Kulisiewicz, born in Kraków in 1918, had been denounced for anti-fascist writings and was arrested soon after the German takeover of Poland. Sent to Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, he wrote by his own tally fifty-four songs over the course of nearly six years at the camp. He was liberated in May 1945 and devoted most of the rest of his life to gathering and documenting the songs and music created in concentration camps.