Flora Schrijver (1923-2013), Music in Subhuman Conditions

"I played the accordion in a women’s orchestra in Birkenau, was Camp Commander Kramer’s nursemaid, and worked for Margareth Montgomery after the liberation. At the age of twenty-two, I returned to the Netherlands penniless, the only survivor of a large family. There I had to try to put my life back together. I married my murdered sister’s fiancé and had children."

(Photo: Robert Oey)
(Photo: Robert Oey)
"We knew that Hitler had come to power. We knew about Kristallnacht in 1938. We saw the emergence of the Dutch Nazi Party. We saw the fascists stand up for ‘Folk and Fatherland.’ One thing followed another. There came a point when Jews were banned everywhere: cafes, restaurants, even the Albert Cuyp street market in Amsterdam, where there was a large sign that read, ‘No Jews or dogs.’”

Arrested in 1943
“One night in February 1943, it was our turn. The doorbell rang. We knew what was going to happen to us. Every morning, more and more people had been carried off, arrested, sent to the labor camps. We just thought our time had come.

My father had not expected the Germans to invade the Netherlands. He had been a professional soldier and thought that the Netherlands would stay neutral, as it had in the First World War. That’s also why my mother’s brothers didn’t leave the country. They were rich and had plenty to take with them but stayed on for their rows of houses and their bonds. They all ended up in the family camp at Bergen-Belsen. One of my richest uncles was thrown from a train to Treblitz Just thrown out like trash because he was dying in the train.”

After the Hollandsche Schouwburg: Westerbork
“We were brought to one of the station yards in Amsterdam and sent to Westerbork by train, which stopped in the middle of the camp.… Everyone had a job to do. My father was assigned to the laundry, to the mangle. He also played the trumpet in the camp orchestra at Westerbork. Flora (r.) with her sister, just befor the war
Flora (r.) with her sister, just befor the war
Camp Commander Gemmeker was crazy about that orchestra. It was filled with outstanding musicians.

We had been at Westerbork for two months when my sister also arrived there. She stayed at Westerbork for three weeks—I’ll never forget it.… I begged and pleaded with the marshal on my knees. He was responsible for compiling the lists. If he could seduce a girl, she wouldn’t have to be sent off. But my sister was a respectable girl.… She was shipped off with a very large group of prisoners - seventy people per cattle car - to Sobibor and was killed right away.”

Shipped off to Auschwitz
“More and more people had to leave. They had given my father a black Sperr [temporary exemption from deportation] because of his involvement in the orchestra. The Sperr remained in effect for months and then suddenly, at the end of August 1943, they revoked it. My parents were forced to leave. I wanted to go with them.

All of a sudden, the doors were thrown open. Blinded by the daylight, we got out of the train where we had spent three days and three nights without food, water, or toilets. The SS Committee with their German shepherds, bloodhounds, were waiting for us. The men and women were separated into two groups.

Playing at Auschwitz
“After a few weeks in quarantine, I had almost no strength left.… I only had a few days to live when they asked for musicians. A Czech girl, a Läuferin [‘runner’], came to my barracks and asked, ‘Sind Sie Musiker?’ [‘Who among you are musicians’?] She was sent from one barracks to another as a messenger girl looking for musicians for the camp orchestra.

I thought, ‘I’ll just say I’m a pianist. What did I have to lose? Had I been a doctor or a nurse, I would have signed up for that. I had nothing to lose by signing up for that orchestra. What did I have left? I was already on my deathbed, after all. One hundred and fifty women signed up, and there was only room for one of us. There were only three of us left at the end of the selection.

The Lagerführer [‘Camp Commander’], Hessler, came to see me. ‘Was spielst du?’ ‘Klavier.’ ‘Ab!’ [‘What do you play?’ ‘Piano.’ ‘Get out!’] They didn’t have a piano, and the orchestra was supposed to play marching music. The Läuferin asked, ‘Um Gottes willen [‘for God’s sake’], don’t you play anything else? Next week, you’ll be dead.’ Out of 150 women, I and two others were brought to the conductor of the orchestra, Alma Rosé. She only needed one musician, an accordionist. ‘You’re playing is terrible,’ she said. ‘But I like Dutch people. I was married to a Dutch engineer. I’ll try to save your life. I’ll try and teach you the music.’

The music barracks were an improvement. We were no longer five crammed into a hut to sleep but were given bunk beds, three stacked one on top of the other, and each of us had our own bed. I was better off because after another thousand prisoners had been gassed, Fräulein Frexler from Munich (where nearly all the camp personnel came from) would come in and shout, ‘Extra Zulage für die Musik!’ [‘Extra rations for music!’] Then we’d get more bread, since they’d have so many fewer mouths to feed.”

Alma Rosé
"Many people were jealous of Alma because she was held in such high esteem by the SS. When that woman played, it was amazing. She was a concert violinist after all. Alma Rosé
Alma Rosé
The SS officers would just stand there listening, slack-jawed. But she was scared to death of the guests. When she was angry, she would play Mendelssohn in the barracks.

At four o’clock in the morning, we would sit by the gate, am Tor, waiting for hours for the fog to lift. Sometimes it would be –15°C (5°F). After getting up, we had to play for roll call and march out with two stools and a music stand around our necks.… The fatigue parties would march out to our music."

My hands would be dead from the long wait in the cold and fog. Just try playing music with frozen hands. If I played one wrong note, I’d be punished. Alma was terrified of the Germans if we didn’t give a good performance. She never abused us but would inflict disciplinary punishment on us. Then she would roar at us, ‘Do you see that smoke? If we play out of tune, that’ll be us going up the smokestack.’

In the afternoons, we’d play again when all those poor wretches in the fatigue parties would return to the camp. Sometimes you could see that the SS officers enjoyed having a woman torn to pieces by a German shepherd. And then, you’d just have to play.”

Concerts in the Camp
“One day, Lagerführer Hessler came in shouting with joy that he’d arranged for a piano—in other words, a stolen one. That’s what that meant. I was told to play it—and I wasn’t even a professional. The piano was put in our barracks. From that moment on, we were no longer an orchestra that only played during the marching out. We sometimes also had to play for the sick in the Revier [‘sickbay’]. Those very same people would then be gassed a few days later.

In our barracks, we would practice to give concerts. We would play Richard Strauss, Frans Léhar, and songs by Zarah Leander. Unlike the male orchestra at Auschwitz, our orchestra was not made up entirely of professional musicians. Gradually, however, it did become an incredible orchestra because there were some fantastic professionals in it like Lily Mathé, who had had a Hungarian orchestra before the war. And the concert violinist Alma Rosé. Even today, Anita Laska is a cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

We gave a Christmas concert in 1943, and the bloodthirstiest of all the SS officers stood there weeping. He had hanged, murdered, shot, and gassed people, and he stood there crying when he heard our Christmas music. It’s unbelievable that those Nazi bloodhounds could have managed to squeeze out a single tear, only later to kick a prisoner to death.

“In the evenings, Joseph Kramer would often wake me up in the music barracks where we slept. Lily Mathé and I would have to get up when deportees would arrive in the evenings.… He would be bored, and we would have to play for him the entire evening. Lily would play the violin, and I the harmonica. Then he would strut around like a person drunk with power or just have a chat.

After Alma’s death in Birkenau, we were assigned a particularly bad conductor, a Russian called Sonja. She was already a member of the orchestra. She wrote the music. A few weeks after Alma’s death, the Jews in the camp were sent to Bergen-Belsen, which coincided with the approach of the Russians.

The train to Bergen-Belsen was full. It was the last train from Birkenau. Whoever arrived after that had to walk there. Those were the notorious Death Marches. Then, too, I was lucky.”

Taking to the Streets Against the “Three of Breda”
“At home, I never spoke of the horrors of the war. My husband wanted to give our children everything we didn’t have during our youth. After years of hard work, he bought a bungalow. We went there on vacation three times a year so that my daughters Jettie and Phyllis could look back on a carefree youth, no matter what happened.

We’ve always warned against the same thing happening again. As far as that goes, I’m not what you’d call an ‘armchair protester’ by any means. I took to the street to protest against the freeing of the three—and later the two - of Breda [German war criminals incarcerated in the Netherlands]. I was part of the silent march in Zandvoort, and I opposed the exhibition of skin and hair in Overloon [the National War and Resistance Museum].”

Still Not Free
“Except for two books, there’s nothing in my house that reminds me of the war. But some days, I can feel it rising up in me. In restaurants, I always sit so that I’m not facing a wall. If I move to a new house, I make sure there’s an unobstructed view. If I have to drive somewhere, I always make sure I can park right next to the door. I can no longer bring myself to walk all the way across a dark parking lot. I still have a phobia from that one time a drunken SS officer pulled a gun and followed me in Birkenau.

There are days when I don’t think about it. I don’t have concentration camp syndrome, but I’m not free. I’ve definitely spent the last forty years repressing things. Apparently, you’re never really free of it.”

This text is a compilation of quotations from
Het meisje met de accordeon, de overleving van Flora Schrijver in Auschwitz-Birkenau en Bergen-Belsen ["The Girl with the Accordion: Flora Schrijver’s Survival of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen"] by Mirjam Verheijen; Uitgeverij Scheffers, 1994. Thanks to to Mirjam Verheijen for having granted permission to reproduce the text.