The ‘Tango of Death’ — Horror at the Rhythm of Music in a Ukrainian Nazi Camp
Execution and torture were carried out at the rhythm of an orchestra’s music in the Janowska concentration camp
Inhuman conditions, forced labour, torture, summary executions, and mass graves. When talking about concentration camps, these are some of the horrors (unfortunately there are more) that come to mind.
There were designated and specific Schutzstaffel (SS) units to run the camps, such as the infamous Einsatzgruppen (‘deployment groups’ or ‘task forces’) and specific SS-Sonderkommando (‘special unit’, different from the prisoner-formed Sonderkommando within a camp).
These units were composed of the most depraved and malicious of fervent Nazis or ultra far-right people across Germany-occupied Europe. Some even volunteered for the tasks of genocide and ethnic cleansing and sanctioned violence in general.
In the 20th-century, Ukrainian Jews had been persecuted and killed in the dozens of thousands by civilians and governments alike since the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War, started in 1917, and the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–21).
During the occupation by Nazi forces, during World War II, in the wake of Operation Barbarossa, it simply got worse — much worse — and it continued after their retreat at the hands of partisans or other groups. Of the five to seven million people Ukraine lost during World War II, almost one and a half million were Jews who were specifically targeted.
Many, if not most, were killed by death squads in the first years of the Nazi occupation. Roundups, hunts, and mass killings were common. Then, there were the deportations to the concentration camps.
Janowska concentration camp
The Nazi built two concentration camps in Ukraine. One of them was Janowska, a forced-labour and transit camp located on the outskirts of Lwów, today Lviv. It was initially referred to as the “Jewish Worker Camp”. Those deemed fit were kept for slave work, while the others killed either in the nearby Piaski ravine or in the nearby Belzec extermination camp.
Up to 120,000 inmates passed through Janowska, all Jews, with at least 40,000 of them killed in this location (other and higher estimates arrive at more than 200,000 and another at more than 300,000, not only Jewish people). Killings happened because one was not fit to work anymore, for a minor violation, or even for no reason at all.
The camp began operations in September 1941. In March 1942, deputy commandant Richard Rokita, upon his arrival, mandated the formation of an orchestra, including conductor Jacob Mund, a violinist and composer who had been the director of more some city theatres before the war. The orchestra was formed of the best Jewish musicians of Lwów. Mund and some of the musicians, such as professor Leon Shtriks, were of international fame.
The Tango of Death
Rokita was the picture of health, he was calm mannered, and gave orders softly. Given the living hell he was running, this made him even more disturbing. From the words of one of the few Janowska survivors, Leon Weliczker Wells:
“I should mention here one outstanding trait of Rokita’s I had noted at Janowska. He always seemed to need approval from the prisoners for his every act, no matter how destructive. For example, like the other S.S. men. Rokita would often kill an inmate for some minor infraction — or no reason at all. And whenever he did he would actually try to persuade the rest of us that his actions had been for our own good. ‘The camp is less crowded now; there is more for all of you to eat,’ he would say to us almost pleadingly.”
Rokita was a known sadist in the camp, killing at a whim. His composed manners and calm behaviour ever more sinister knowing that he might have, or was going to, shoot up to eight people by himself.
The formation of the orchestra was an initiative out of his sick mind. The orchestra would stand in a circle on the grounds to perform a tango during executions, during tortures it played foxtrot. It also played for hours in a row in private concerts for the camp’s head officer. Random killings or the burial of dozens of corpses in mass graves had orchestra music on the background.
This went on until November 1943. The Soviet army was approaching. On the eve of the liberation, the guards created a 40-men orchestra and ordered them to play. First, they shot the conductor, then they ordered the others to put the instruments down and strip naked. They were shot on the spot, too.
Under Sonderaktion 1005, the order to remove any evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity, a sonderkommando was created to conceal the atrocities perpetrated there, while the Nazi and their auxiliary were liquidating the remaining inmates. There were virtually no survivors, only a few such as Leon W. Wells who managed to escape (and was later recaptured but survived) or some of those who had staged an uprising in the last few days of the camp.
Evidence of the crimes were almost all destroyed, but those who survived testified about the nightmares that took place and were instrumental to bring some of the perpetrators to justice.