the musical geography of the camp

A digital rendering of the ‘musical geography’ of Auschwitz Camp II (Birkenau). The red circles indicate where the ‘forced music’ played by guards could be heard, while the blue circles illustrate how the ‘voluntary music’ of the inmates spread throughout the camp.



Stanford researcher maps melodies used in Holocaust to control prisoners

[Read full text by Benjamin Hein_Stanford University]


Using survivor testimonies and camp administration records, [Melissa Kagen, a doctoral candidate in German Studies at Stanford] is developing digital maps of the “musical geography” of the prison. By focusing on the spatial aspects of music, Kagen’s research offers historical insight into how music can be used as a means for controlling and torturing prisoners in present-day detention facilities.

Because it was among the first prison camps to systematically employ music in such a way, Auschwitz provides a valuable case study that sets a precedent for facilities such as Guantánamo Bay where music has been used as a form of “no-touch” torture.

Measuring music’s impact

Scholars have long known that music was a regular part of life in Nazi concentration camps. But the inherently transient nature of sound has made it difficult to measure its impact on the camp and its inhabitants.

“Music in the Holocaust is a relatively well-explored research topic,” said Kagen, a student of modern German musicology and literature. “But because it does not leave a lasting historical footprint, it has not been considered spatially before.”

Kagen uses an unconventional interpretation method to translate the source material into a visual form. Rather than dwelling on the significance of a specific song, she focuses on references about the locations where music was heard.

“Reading the first-hand accounts of prisoners, I noticed that one particular space – Block 24, near the camp entrance – kept coming up in relation to music,” she said.

Music, as Kagen discovered, provided a proportionally small number of prison guards with the means to maintain control over large portions of the camp without any actual physical presence.


“The prisoners wished to die in peace, which is to say, they wanted the barest hint of autonomy over the space in which they die,” said Kagen. “But the melodies of Bach, Beethoven and Horst Wessel, along with jazz songs, wrested every last bit of space away from them.”



Thanks, Mattey!

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