Music in the Women’s Concentration Camp of Ravensbrueck


place/state: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
SCHOOL: Gymnasium Carolinum Neustrelitz
age group: 16 years and older
Country/ Countries: Germany
subject: Crosscurricular study group, History, Music

learning activities
Composing music
Creating a shooting script
Encountering eyewitnesses
Independent Work in Small Groups
Interpreting eyewitness reports
Learning by research at memorial sites
Producing a film
Resurrecting biographies

Art drawn in concentration camps
Concentration camps
Culture of Remembrance
Memorial day
Music composed in camps

The students learned about the importance of creativity for survival in the camp through personal stories and biographies, especially through the example of Czech music teacher Ludmila Peškařová and the songs she composed while she was a prisoner at the camp. They composed and rehearsed music pieces and performed them on selected locations of the camp premises. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp they performed songs and poems created in the camp and presented a brochure about the project to surviving former camp prisoners who had been invited to the ceremony.

Project-course of the music-group in June 2004 at Ravensbrück memorial site

Between June 21st and 24th, 2004, twelve students of 9th, 10th and 12th grade music courses of the Carolinum Gymnasium at Neustrelitz participated together with their teachers in the project at the Ravensbrück memorial. The students brought their instruments along and stayed at the youth hostel next to the memorial site. Their studies focused on the role of music as a means of survival in the everyday life of the women prisoners. In advance of the project the students had been taken on a guided tour of the memorial site at Ravensbrück. Some of them had visited the memorial before or had taken part in projects there about other subject matters.

The first project-day

The first day at the memorial was dedicated to an “encounter with the historical site”, exploring the camp premises, and getting a first insight into music performed in the camp. At special/specific/chosen locations the students learned about the specific history and function of these places. They recited passages from memoirs of witnesses, in which music played an important role, for example: compulsory singing had to take place on the main street of the camp (Doc. 1). Through this exercise the students were able to connect the historical places with personal experiences of individual women prisoners and groups of prisoners.

The second project-day

The topic of the second day was “Everyday life in the Ravensbrück concentration camp“. The students learned from drawings, pieces of handicraft, small hand-made books and pieces of art about the significance of preserving creativity for the survival spirit of the prisoners, but also about the dangers, caused for example by secretly producing a small birthday present for a friend (Doc. 2).

In the library of the memorial the students studied memoirs of prisoners, searching specifically for reports about the use of music, and copied these passages.
After that rather theoretical dealing with the role of music in everyday life of the camp the students were eager to get to know in detail the scores from the camp and to play music themselves.

After having learned about the biography of the Czech music teacher Ludmila Peškařová (Doc. 3) and the songs she had composed in Ravensbrück and after her liberation, we listened to some of her songs, recorded on CD in 2003 (Docs 4 and 5). The students then formed small groups, choosing scores of music, which they wanted to rehearse and later perform.

Since the performances were supposed to be video-taped, the students first had to write a „screenplay“ based on the following guidelines and to compile an introductory comment:


  • Which scores did you choose, and why?
  • What information exists about the scores you chose?
  • At which location on the camp premises could your piece of music be performed?
  • Where do you want to play and why exactly there?
  • What do you know about the specific location/ the situation in Ravensbrück, where your piece of music was heard at the time of the camp’s existence? If you do not know, try first to find out.
  • What is your interpretation of the piece? How do you want it to be perceived? Do you want to create a specific atmosphere?

The third and fourth project-day

The students’ pieces of music – rehearsals and performances

One group of boys and girls formed an ensemble with two guitars, percussion instruments, clarinets and flute. They first studied a song from the times of the camp, which they then dismissed as being too sad. They rather wanted to convey hope with their music. So they decided to compose a melody of their own and perform it with improvisations. They called their piece “Hope is the last to die”. They chose the place before the “bunker” (prison), because they imagined that this arrangement could express the hope the prisoners had when looking from behind the bars of their prison windows to the lake thinking of their liberation.

A single student played on his accordion the Polish song “Modlitwa obozowa” (prison prayer) which according to the Polish survivor Wanda Poltawska had been the favourite song of the Polish women in the camp. Since the student also regarded this song as too sad, he transposed the tune from a major key to a minor key. Originally he wanted to perform the song in commemoration of the Polish prisoners in the room dedicated to their memory in the prison building, but because of the poor lighting there he decided to play in the room of contemplation equipped only with a small Pieta- statue on a pedestal. Also this student envisaged the liberated prisoners walking with this march-like song out of the gate of the camp.

Accompanied by an electric piano three girls presented the well known German romantic evening song “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” ( The moon has risen), which the women sometimes sang in the evenings, to calm down before falling asleep. Their performance took place in a former garage of the SS, which now houses a permanent exhibition “The language of commemoration – history of the memorial site Ravensbrück 1945-1995”, a room providing excellent acoustics for the wonderful voices of the young singers. They posed in front of the flag made of the red triangular patches marking the former prisoners from Austria.

Two girls, a duo of flute and violin, decided to play explicitly in front of a single cell in the prison the poem “To my brothers in the concentration camps”, written by the Austrian resistance fighter Käthe Leichter, set in a musical version for two violins by Ernst Strauss at the end of the 1960ies.

They had transformed one of the violin tunes for the flute.

A trio of three girls who had studied the origin of one song of the Czech composer Ludmila Peškařová wanted to perform this song “Moravo, moravo” on the grounds for roll call, because Peškařová had designed it there. The group wanted to commemorate this moment, and, at the same time to express the hope of the prisoners for imminent liberation. But because of heavy wind and the bad quality of the outdoor sound track they had to repeat their performance inside the former SS- administration building in the rooms of the permanent exhibition “Ravensbrückerinnen” (women of Ravensbrueck) with exemplary biographies of female prisoners.

At the end of the project the students had the opportunity to view their video-taped performances. Some were visibly moved when watching themselves playing music or singing.

After the weeks of the summer holidays I met the students again at their school to evaluate the videos, photos and their experiences during the project days. This was the first part of the project. I then worked with a history course, who researched biographies of female musicians imprisoned at Ravensbrück.

In April 2005 both groups participated in the event organized at the assembly hall of their school for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Ravensbrück. Together we had compiled a booklet of 90 pages with photos and texts about the results of the researches of the students. This booklet was handed out as a present to the seventy survivors and their families, who had been invited. In a moving ceremony the students presented songs and poems of the times of the camp, and the survivors spontaneously joined the singing with great emotion. The students then presented the music project in a multimedia show and read texts from memoirs, thus commemorating former prisoners. This was a very special experience, since there were women in the audience who had witnessed the events in the camp and sung the songs themselves.
The music-project was finally awarded with two prizes ( € 5000)- a regional competition of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern promoting practical learning and in addition a cultural prize of the county of Mecklenburg- Strelitz.

Evaluation of the project- some critical remarks

Reports about memorial projects with students usually present the positive results of the learning process, and avoid mentioning difficulties or methodological failures . Yet, from a professional point of view the critical analysis of mistakes are important for planning further projects. Apart from certain organizational problems, I was surprised by the students’ answers to my initial question, what expectations they had about the project. They said they would not like to deal with the political context of National Socialist and concentration camp history, nor would they want to be exposed to dry, boring theories. Obviously they did not want to be confronted with atrocities and methods of killing of the camp system or generally with death.

They did not want to participate in a guided tour, because they had experienced that before, and they also did not want to see the crematoria a second time. They said they would not like to feel sad and therefore did not want to deal with the subject matter for too long. They also refused to go swimming or rowing (boats) in the nearby lake (Schwedtsee). People familiar with the local past also often refrain from such activities because of feelings of respect. On the other hand most of them were interested in getting information about the use of music in the concentration camp and practically playing music with their instruments. Most important for them was the program for their leisure time. Some wanted to watch the film “Schindler’s list” as recommended by the school and one teacher. I personally did not support this proposal, because during their leisure time the students should have the opportunity to distance themselves from the serious topics. One evening they planned to watch a football match of the European championship. The other days they wanted to spend their time with having fun and going out together eating ice cream.

After the first project day I thought about their ideas and asked myself: Is it appropriate to participate in a memorial project at a former concentration camp and avoid or demand to avoid emotional strain? Can the history of National Socialism with its mass murders and genocide be studied without causing emotional burden? Should not having fun at such a place of suffering and dying be ruled out? There were also other factors which contributed to tensions during the four days:

  • the bad weather, which made outdoor activities on the camp premises difficult;
  • the lack of homogeneity in the group caused by three different age groups of the students who had to work together, although they did not know or like each other. Forming of sub groups
  • different levels of competence with regard to music and playing their instruments;
  • sometimes problems of communication with the teacher, i.e. accommodating the requirements of the project work with his personal interests and plans;
  • finally disturbances, since some students left the group work with permission of the teacher, because of other obligations liker rehearsals for concerts, exams. The teacher himself was not available for half a day.

These conditions forced me to modify, shorten and finally adapt my concept again and again to the unforeseen situations.

But also during the leisure time of the students, when the teacher was in charge of their supervision, disturbing incidents happened. Some students contravened the rules of the hostel, which angered the teacher. The clashes of the nights before had repercussions the next morning. As a result, the group had to be motivated anew every day for the tasks and topics. The last morning was overshadowed to such an extent by the conflicts in the group as well as with the teacher, that a final discussion could not be realized.

In order to ease the tensions I asked them to write down individually what they had experienced during the past four days as unpleasant and burdening, and what they would not like to think about or be burdened with during the forthcoming summer holidays. Wholly absorbed in the task some of them filled several pages! In the end we collected all the papers in a shoe box, burned it as a sort of purifying ritual, and everyone felt relieved.

After these exhausting days I summed up the results of the project and pointed out their accomplishments to the students. After all, they had chosen the memorial project at Ravensbrück, although there had been other “more attractive” alternatives, as for example a sailing course on Lake Müritz in Mecklenburg, a class excursion, and an ecological project in an nearby nature reserve. Since I was interested in feedback after the summer holidays, I arranged a meeting with the project group two months later at their school. I also wanted to view the video-tapes with them. The students also agreed to fill out a questionnaire anonymously, which I had prepared. I was surprised how clearly they were able to point out what they remembered positively and negatively. Obviously something continued to have an effect on them, contrary to all my doubts. Unfortunately there was no time and opportunity to evaluate the project with the teachers involved

Students’ Experiences about the memorial project “Music in the Women’s Concentration Camp of Ravensbrück” - Results of the questionnaire (answered by 8 students)

What did you like best (of the project) ?
Most of the students liked best that the groups dealt practically with music and the topic, music in concentration camps. Besides working together in small groups they also appreciated being allowed to work on their own, because this created a relaxed atmosphere. They also valued highly to have had access to the library and the museum repository with its artefacts like drawings and crafts.

What was it that you did not like?
The students felt confused in the beginning, because I had not given them an exact program for the four project days and attributed exact tasks. Obviously they were not used to methods of project work, and especially an open learning process determined by the students themselves rather than by the teacher. They felt disoriented in this situation and did not know what do. They would have preferred to play music right away rather than dealing first theoretically with the specific history at Ravensbrück. Some were not happy with their small group, or disliked some of the methods I employed (drawing/ painting). They all regretted not to have had enough time for rehearsals of the music pieces.

What did you miss during the project days?
My intention with this question seemed to have be misunderstood. I had wanted them to talk about the work. In most of the answers the students said that they had missed their social environment –family, friends , class mates – they missed a kind of refuge, like returning home, to ease the tension caused by the topic (concentration camp). {Perhaps this explains why some of the students secretly got away at night to meet with friends - although this was forbidden-, or left the project work temporarily because of other appointments outside - Two of the girls at least had the opportunity to escape to their mothers, who worked in the memorial.} Some regretted the lack of rest and quiet periods, others missed consistent group work; there was too much fluctuation and many distractions.

Did you still think of the project days afterwards during your holidays? All the students pointed out, that they had thought of their stay at the Ravensbrück memorial several times during their summer holidays, and that they had told others about it.
Most of them remembered well their playing music in the group, they had played their parts again at home and had shown the scores and song texts to others. One student recalled the historical research, another one had contemplated the overnight stays in rooms of the former SS- guards. Their main suggestion for further projects was to let students play and perform music there, but also let them improvise and express their own feelings. Definitely there should again be access to the archive, library and repository of artefacts.

What do you see personally as your role/ your further goals connected with this music project?
I was personally very happy to learn, that the students had obviously profited from the project. They would be able to share their experiences and newly gained knowledge about the importance of music in concentration camps. They would be able to continue playing their pieces of music to others and inspire them to reflect about this history. They would also be able to convey to others that music can help to overcome tensions and fears. Most of the students wanted to participate actively in the planned school event “students invite for commemoration” at the anniversary of the liberation of Ravensbrück.

Final reflections about memorial culture and music

In my opinion, memorial work with children and youngsters of the now fourth generation after the end of the Nazi era should aim at “education promoting critical reflection” ( Th. W. Adorno). Didactical educational methods which affect both one’s mind and emotions (holistically?) often make an approach to the topics of National Socialism and genocide easier, without diminishing the seriousness of the topic. I think that in historical-political education music dealt with in an appropriate form can open up young people, who normally have an affinity to music. Also other creative methods like drama, creative writing or the fine arts can function as a bridge to learning. Yet, probably a culture of commemoration for children and youngsters will rather develop in institutions outside of the formal school system in Germany, which only offers very limited possibilities. It would be disastrous if comemmoration just ends up in periodically performed empty rituals.

This happened for example on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Ravensbrück camp held at the memorial, when at the ceremony the well-known Peat Bog Soldier song ( Moorsoldatenlied) was sung. After all that we know now about the specific culture of music at Ravensbrück, this song was not at all relevant for the daily life in the camp nor did it concern the women prisoners there. In spite of this fact, the song was included in the ceremony, and everyone, including those students, who had participated in the project and had a better and different knowledge about music at Ravensbrück, were forced to sing it. They and also I rebelled and hesitated to conform to the demand of the organizers to sing the song and motivate the survivors to join in singing this song. Especially after the ceremony organized by the students at their school the day before. There many of the survivors had spontaneously joined their singing, recognizing that they had presented the authentic songs of the women.

Will in the future students not be allowed to play their own music, but only to perform what they are dictated to do? In my opinion this would be (counterproductive) and the opposite of what music can contribute to a lively and honourable commemoration in the future.

Another question could be: is music at all acceptable at such historical sites of crimes? If we answer this question positively, shouldn’t music of commemoration form a contrast to the rituals and ordinary customs at memorial ceremonies? Such a music should not force the assembled to participate in singing, it could be different from smooth familiar modes of listening. It may also not sound pleasant, but rather strange and unusual, disturbing, and even touch the edges of the tolerable.