Primo Levi

Primo Levi, Rosamunda and Music in the Camps

Primo Levi was incarcerated in Auschwitz in 1944, following a waterless four day journey from Fossoli detention camp near Modena, in the usual desperately overcrowded cattle wagons. After the shaving of heads, tattooing of prisoners not consigned to the gas chambers, changing into prisoner clothes and the starting of beatings, he and his other camp prisoners heard the camp band (brass) start to play Rosamunda.

Levi says of this in his book If This Is A Man: "A band begins to play, next to the entrance of the camp: it plays Rosamunda, the well-known sentimental song, and this seems so strange to us that we look sniggering at each other; we feel a shadow of relief, perhaps all these ceremonies are nothing but a colossal farce in Teutonic taste."

It was no farce. Camp prisoners were expected to sing on command. Music was widespread throughout the camps, being used as another form of political control and intimidation as well as entertainment for the guards and officers.

Levi witnessed the prisoner squads leaving and returning each day, marching to tunes played by the camp band. Prisoners could be severely beaten for not correctly marching to the music.

The grotesque aspect of this is that part of the Rosamunda tune is used for Roll Out The Barrel. It is also known as the Beer Barrel Polka.

If a full brass band can be formed the objective will be to re-populate sites such as Auschwitz with music played on very similar instruments to the original camp band but within the context of playing Music for Peace. Rosamunda may be heard again as a form of healing and reconciliation.

Camp prisoners had varied accounts of their relationship with the music. Levi speaks of the same tunes being played each day by the camp band and their infernal quality. "They lie engraven on our minds and will be the last thing in Lager that we shall forget."

Guido Fackler's article Music and the Holocaust describes how Franz Danimann found that the Leonore overture from Beethoven's Fidelio, performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive.