On November 25, 1940, the Westerbork camp commanders established a symphony orchestra called the Gruppe Musik Lager Westerbork [“Camp Westerbork Music Group”], largely made up of members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Nearly half of that orchestra’s players were incarcerated in the camp.
The Gruppe Musik [“Music Group”] would become the driving force behind musical life at Westerbork. The symphony orchestra was made up of thirty to forty members, Heinz Neuberg was appointed its conductor. The orchestra gave countless performances in the camp’s main hall. Chamber music with choral accompaniment was also performed. In addition to Neuberg, Sal Dwinger, a violinist with the Gronings Orkest [“Groningen Orchestra”], also conducted. Only music by Jewish composers, such as Bloch, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Saint-Saëns, was allowed to be performed at Westerbork - a strange phenomenon, considering that outside the camp, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Saint-Saëns had been branded entartet [“degenerate”]. Classical theatrical productions were also staged in the Westerbork theater; these included Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with incidental music by Mendelssohn, in November 1940.
Light Music on Sunday Evenings
In the fall of 1943, the Gruppe Musik also provided a small band that would play popular music on Sunday evenings in a corner of the main hall where a small cafe had been set up. The revue orchestra was also made up of the musicians present and “sounded magnificent,” according to saxophonist and clarinetist Rudolf Blik. Blik himself played in some fifty performances given by the camp revue.
In the summer of 1943, camp commandant Gemmeker suddenly ordered a stop to classical music performances. He had been angered by rumors that he had given undue preference to the auditions for his favorite cabaret. Camp regulation no. 42 was intended to put a stop to the proposed Sunday concert and even threatened to terminate classical music performances altogether if the rumors persisted. [check: did this actually happen?] Gemmeker also believed that classical music was too tiring for people who had to work all day long. In actual fact, however, the commandant did not like classical music, preferring “light” to “heavy entertainment.”
Well known in the camp’s classical music circle was the talented concert pianist Ida Simons-Rosenheimer (1911-1960). After embarking on a promising career in 1930, she frequently performed with leading Dutch orchestras, including the Residentie Orchestra and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. She also worked as an accompanist and chamber musician. During the war, the Simons family belonged to the so-called Barneveldgroep [“Barneveld Group”], which was made up of 645 Jews who were given certain protection by the Germans starting in 1942. Ida Simons-Rosenheimer arrived with her family at the De Schaffelaar castle in the Dutch town of Barneveld in 1943. The Simons family were then sent to Westerbork, where they were incarcerated from September 1943 to September 1944. While in Westerbork, Simons-Rosenheimer played with such musicians as the leading violinist Herman Leydensdorf.
Simons-Rosenheimer took part in the very last music performance in the camp, given in July 1944 - a chamber music evening featuring soprano Erna Eisner, cellist Maurice Cantor, and violinist Sam Tromp. Simons-Rosenheimer and her family were deported to Theresienstadt on September 4, 1944. There, too, she did much playing and performing. When the Allied forces began to approach, the Germans granted her and her family a one-time pass to Switzerland in early February 1945 for “humanitarian” reasons. After the war, Simons-Rosenheimer gave occasional concerts, but the profession of concert pianist eventually became too dem
Lex van Weren
Trumpeter Lex van Weren arrived at Westerbork as a “convict Jew” in the fall of 1943. He says, “Willy Rosen found out I was there and because he had good connections in the camp and to the German commandant, he got me released fairly quickly. I had my trumpet with me, and the very next day, I was playing in the Westerbork camp orchestra.” Van Weren was sent to Auschwitz and managed to stay alive as a trumpeter.
Many musicians who had played at Westerbork were also active in the rich musical life at Theresienstadt. It was there that Leo Papenhei conducted an orchestra with violinists such as Sam Swaap, Herman Leydensdorf, Siegfried de Boer, and Sam Tromp. Ida Simons-Rosenheimer performed with them as well. Former camp inmate Ralph Prins clearly recalls a Dutch musical community, which he mainly associates with chamber music performances. Popular music was also performed by such groups as the Hans Feith Swing Quintet, in which Rudolf Blik played the saxophone. Each week, the ensemble would perform songs and dance numbers, including the “Tiger Rag.”Many of the Theresienstadt musicians lived to see the liberation.
Authors: Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen