The Musician Number 125792

We remember!

Czytaj ten artykuł:  po polsku

This year, January 27, was the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the German concentration camp in Oświęcim (Auschwitz). It was a very quiet anniversary, virtual, hardly mentioned in any media. Paying tribute to all those murdered in this camp, we are reminded of one of them who survived and lived among us in Chicago.

Mr. Rudolf Danel, prisoner number 125792 of the German concentration camp in Auschwitz, was born on September 22, 1915, during the still ongoing World War I, in the small village of Łazy Księże, near Bielsko. Almost everyone there spoke German and were a subject of the Emperor of Austria. He himself did not know who he was during that time. His parents were definitely Austrian nationals. In Silesia region they found their place to live. They managed to run a bakery shop and lived their lives away from the great historical upheavals.

When Rudi was 10 years old, his mother died. His father quite quickly found a new companion and lost interest in his children. Care of the younger siblings fell on the oldest sister who had already worked in the office of the municipal administration and had numerous relationships with people having an impact on the lives of local communities. When in 1918, the Silesia returned to independent Poland, Rudolf went to a Polish school, but he was bilingual in Polish and German. He had many Polish friends, with whom he was associated by friendship, and various boys' interests. He liked to watch the marching bands and once even, during musicians' break, tried to play a musician's trumpet. The director of the local music school noticed, looked at his hand, and invited him to a group of his pupils. Rudolf began to play violin first, and then the viola, and of course the trumpet. Time passed quietly and pleasantly until he graduated from high school and went to the mandatory service in the Polish army. He could have tied his future with the military marching band but on September 1st came WWII. The September war campaign ended for him quickly when, with his whole unit, he ended up in German captivity. It is believed that he had a lot of luck in life. Such luck manifested itself the moment when a column of prisoners, in which he found himself, walked the road to the west, leading from Bielsko to Cieszyn. In Cieszyn, he saw standing on the street his sister Jadwiga. In two days, he was released from captivity. He went to work, and thanks to his sister, none of the occupation authorities was interested in his past.

Areas of Silesia, which he considered his homeland, were quickly incorporated into the Reich, and now Rudolph was a citizen of Germany. After the September defeat, the Poles began to organize an underground resistance movement. Rudolf was privy to everything - and very useful in underground activity. He remembers that his conspiratorial commander was Adam Gras, who was arrested fairly quickly. It is to this day difficult to assess for Rudolf, whether Gras could just not resist torture, or if he was a German agent. After his testimony, many members of the resistance movement were arrested. The arrest also involved Rudolf. He was accused of knowing, yet not informing the German authorities of the criminal activities of the Poles. He was taken into custody and, in April 1942, in a court in Katowice, a hearing was held in which he was accused of treason. Such an offense could even carry the death penalty.

In ways only known to her, his sister Jadwiga managed to get him a lawyer, so that the case ended in a conviction of only five years in prison. Everyone was sure that such a judgment would not have to be served. In 1942, Germany was already engaged on the Eastern Front. Rudolf, believed to be a German, according to his friends, would not have to serve the sentence and would likely be drafted into the Wehrmacht, or otherwise forced to work for the Reich. None of Rudolf's friends realize that, in 1940, on the grounds of Auschwitz and in the nearby village of Brzezinka, which were administratively within the Third Reich, they began to build a camp initially designed for the detention of political prisoners and oppositionists, mostly Poles. The first group of 30 German prisoners constituted the nucleus of the functional staff of the camp. They acted as kapo and block masters. The first mass transport to Auschwitz took place on June 14, 1940. They brought 728 political prisoners in the second class railroad cars from the prison in Tarnów - these were Poles and a few Polish Jews. They received numbers from 31 to 758.

The prisoners then worked on the expansion of the camp. To the 22 existing units at the military barracks, they added a further eight, and to single-story units second floors were added. Around the camp, they set up the small and large camp area of interest covering 40 km2. The prisoners were divided into groups, or commandos, and did all the work required for the operation and expansion of the camp. The camp functioned like a factory. There were positions for management and administration. The arrivals were greeted by the famous inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) forged in the camp smith shop, but one has to understand these words as freedom through death, because the work in the camp was deadly. Hunger and cold destroyed the prisoners, causing them a quick death - after all, that was the idea of the camps. New prisoners, were arriving from all over Europe in a broad stream.

In December 1940, a number of Polish prisoners came to the idea of founding an orchestra as a means of survival. In the camp, there was a sergeant of the 20th Infantry Regiment Krakow – Antos Gargul. He volunteered to bring the idea to the attention of the officials and he was allowed to bring a number of instruments, which could play marches. At the word "march" Germans stood at attention, so he got the permission, while they mocked him that, before his death, he can manage to blow into a trumpet. But he was able to realize his idea. The orchestra began with seven musicians. They played the violin, double bass, trumpet, accordion and percussion. There were no instruments, so camp officials often confiscated them from surrounding neighborhoods. Drums were brought in from the Czech National Theatre in Prague. The orchestra had its rehearsal space in the basement of the block 24. For the first time they played on the feast of the Three Kings in 1941. Soon they grew to about a hundred, which comprised seventy-one musicians as the symphony orchestra, and the remaining thirty - as brass. At that point Mr. Rudolf "traveled" from the Katowice prison to Auschwitz. He remembers that time:

Shortly after the hearing, myself and two prisoners, were escorted by two SS men and transported to Auschwitz. I saw musicians playing for the commandos leaving for work, among them a friend of mine from a music school. I tried to talk to him somehow, and he directed me to the bandmaster.

The first kapellmeister at the Auschwitz camp orchestra was Franciszek Nierychło. Before the war, he was performing at the musical radio station in Krakow. He played the French horn. He got admitted to the camp immediately after the defeat of the Polish Army in 1939. He himself was not sure if he was German or Polish. I remember him as a strong, well-fed prisoner. He had a chance to survive, because he was a “kapo” (chief) of the kitchen staff. He auditioned me and said that I could possibly play, especially the viola, but that there were no instrument for me. At that time, once again, my sister Jadwiga, whom I was able to contact, came to my rescue and sent a viola and a trumpet for me to the camp. ...

At that moment, Rudolf, anxiously but gently opened the already very fragile case in which he stored, only apparently silenced, witnesses of the tragedy.

... Since then my chances of survival increased. In the camp, we all really wanted to live, we were so young after all. There was an unwritten agreement in the camp that the members of the orchestra did not go to work outside the camp, and this meant that they worked in the camp kitchen, in the clothing warehouses, under the roof, and did not have to freeze, and - thanks to the bandmaster-kapo - they had more soup to share amongst themselves.

The orchestra played, first and foremost, for the prisoners leaving for work, and returning from work. It was usually four times a day. In the morning, when all the commandos left for work outside the camp, at noon, when some of them returned, and then left again, and in the evening, when they all returned. The marches were to help keep the pace among the marching prisoners and to accelerate the leaving of the camp even if by a few minutes. We played Polish, German, French and American marches, and subsequent bandmasters - Nierychło, and then Kopyciński - composed their own pieces. During rehearsals, some SS men stood in the corner of the room, watched the players and listened. Apparently they liked music. The orchestra often played for prisoners in front of the block where rehearsals took place. In the winter, because the instruments were freezing, we played in the basement with the windows open. There were also special concerts. Often the orchestra played for the German authorities of the camp and their families. Wives of camp officers came with their children. We started then with "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and then we played classical pieces. I wondered what the mothers could tell their children then, how they explained that the musicians were so thin, so strangely and poorly dressed in striped uniforms, and how they played so beautifully. It was incomprehensible to me that two so different worlds functioned side by side ... The commandos returning in the evening, stumbling to the rhythm of joyful marches, always carried a dozen or so dead, and behind the wall, young mothers sang lullabies to their children. Some prisoners did not like the orchestra. They said it was the devil's idea to play in the shade of the smoking crematoria. Even today I remember the sickly smell of burning bodies. Some did not withstood the atmosphere and "went to the wire," but I believe, the orchestra gave a shred of hope of survival, and perhaps it was more beautiful to die with music...?

After a moment of reflection and a deep breath, Rudolf quietly continues his story.

The first bandmaster - Franz Nierychło - was released in 1944. He signed the Volksdeutsch list and volunteered to the Wehrmacht. As he left, 20,000 people whistled. Everyone whistled. Maybe they resented him that when the Germans were threatened with imminent defeat, he went to the German army...? He was a strange man. He helped many Poles, fed them, and then to the Wehrmacht...?

Mr. Rudolf thought and added: "Yes, the camp changed people. Changed to no recognition." After a moment of rest, or perhaps mental reflection he continues:

After Franz left, Adam Kopyciński became the bandmaster. During his time, the character of the orchestra changed a bit. Sometimes we played only for ourselves, in secret, or for prisoners from individual blocks on various occasions, including on Polish national holidays. At that time, Adam played Polish songs with melancholy on the piano, and many of us were wiping away tears. This music was ours alone and it gave us hope to wake up to play the march. To play tomorrow meant to live one more day, it was a big deal, because tomorrow the war might end, we could go beyond the wires.

From September 1944, the death marches began. Large groups of physically strong prisoners were organized and directed West to work in armaments plants. The orchestra also played farewell marches to those going out into the unknown. They had 20-30 km to walk daily. Many participants of these marches died of exhaustion, but many, taking advantage of special conditions, escaped. I went out in a group, in the winter of '45. I took a blanket from the camp and wrapped it around the instruments. We walked, we swayed, we slept for a few hours wherever we could, we left the dead behind on the way, and we went... Today I cannot explain to myself how much a man can endure and what his will to live is. I remember that the end of the war found us near Munich on May 3, 1945. It was a particularly strange coincidence for me. An important holiday for Poland and the end of the journey. Then there was a quarantine and sending us to different countries. Fate threw me overseas to the United States, and then to Chicago. And here I live my days.

Rudolf managed to save his instruments from concentration camp and he still keeps them carefully wrapped in soft flannel. The cases, almost rotten, fall apart, but the trumpet still emits resonant sounds, a tuned viola cries bitterly. In these instruments, the history of not only one man - the owner - trumpeter and viola-player, prisoner number 125792, Austrian by birth, a Pole by choice, is preserved. Hidden in them is a part of the confused, very tragic history of the Polish nation.

May 28, 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of Fr. Maksymilian Kolbe - the guardian of Niepokalanów, a Franciscan monastery and a large publishing house - having been imprisoned in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. On this occasion, the Franciscan Publishing House «Fraternal Call» in Krakow will be publishing a volume of poetry by Kazimierz Braun entitled "Songs of Saint Maximilian and other poems".