Playing for his life: Louis Bannet

“The Auschwitz orchestra caused controversy among the prisoners: on one hand, it saved many musicians from forced labor and served as emotional help during the rehearsals and concerts on Sundays, but on the other hand, it was subject to humiliation and terror, specially when the commandos returned from work and the prisoners, completely exhausted, had to enter the camp to the rhythm of military marches or other lively melodies. Also, the fact that there was an orchestra was used to confuse the deportees from all over Europe to Auschwitz about the true nature of the camp”.

Piotr M. A. Cywiński, Dir. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Since the formation of the first band in 1941 –composed of about 120 Polish, Czech, Russian and German musicians– in Auschwitz I, in the camp complex of Auschwitz, there were up to six prisoner orchestras; men and women (from 1943) forcibly deported from different parts of Europe who, after arriving in the camp, managed to lengthen or, in the case of the luckiest, save their lives thanks to their extraordinary musical talent.

Virtuous violinists, accordionists, saxophonists, etc., of all origins and ethnicities were selected by the SS from among the transports that came to the camp, with one goal: to be part of one of the bands that, daily, should mark the rhythm of the march of the forced labor commandos on their way out and back to the camp, entertaining the German officers usually on Saturdays or Sundays (with the permission of the camp authorities, sometimes also for their companions) and, occasionally, at the the arrival of the deportation trains, so that they would not suspect and walk without resistance towards the gas chambers.

In addition, the orchestra, which usually obtained the instruments from the belongings stolen by the SS to the deportees upon arrival and stored in Kanada, had to play during the executions and other public punishments inflicted on the prisoners.

Great legends of European music such as Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (cello), the French Jewess Fania Fénelon (piano and voice) or, among others, the Polish composer Adam Kopycinski integrated some of these orchestras, to which the exhibition AUSCHWITZ. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., currently located in the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust of Manhattan (New York), pays tribute by showing to the public the trumpet that saved the life of the so-called “the Dutch Armstrong”, Louis Bannet during his time at Auschwitz.

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Louis Bannet's trumpet part of the collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A living Memorial to the Holocaust

Louis Bannet (Rotterdam, August 15, 1911 – Toronto, 2002) was a popular jazz musician from the Netherlands, where he was known as the “Dutch Armstrong”; a title that Armstrong himself would approve when they both met at the end of 1930 in a jam sesión: “So you are the Dutch Armstrong. It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m the American one”.

When, in the summer of 1942, the deportations of the Dutch Jews to Auschwitz began, Louis decided to hide to remain safe. Although, after a hidden time, he ventured to take a little walk in the open air; a decision that led him to a Dutch Nazi soldier, who turned out to be his admirer, to recognize him and take him to the police.

A month later Louis Bannet was transferred to Auschwitz, where he would become one of the few deportees of this transport who skipped the gas chambers upon his arrival. There, Hein Frank, a Dutch prisoner who deeply admired him, tattooed No. 93626 on his arm and then led him to a small wooden building where an audition was held to be part of the camp orchestra. The room was full of instruments from side to side, according to Louis himself years later.

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Louis Bannet with the trumpet that saved his life during his days at Auschwitz.

There, Frank handed a trumpet to Louis, who, thanks to his interpretation of Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘Saint Louis Blues’, managed to pass the test and become a member of one of the male orchestras of the Auschwitz complex.

From then on, Louis would perform with the orchestra a repertoire mostly composed of military marches and German and Austrian classical music, fragments of opera and operettas, and popular ballads and dances of the moment.

Likewise, he would also play some jazz pieces at the request of the SS, even though this genre was considered “degenerate music” for the Third Reich; to the point of becoming a reason for deportation to a Nazi camp.

Bannet played the trumpet in Auschwitz until the end of his days in the camp, in November 1944, when he was transferred to the Ohrdruf camp. He tied the trumpet to his waist and carried it with him until his release in May 1945.

Today, Louis Bannet’s trumpet is part of the collection of more than 700 original objects exhibited at the exhibition AUSCHWITZ. Not long ago. Not far away., during his stay at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, institution to which Louis Bannet gave the instrument that saved his life during his time in Auschwitz, the largest German Nazi camp of the Holocaust.

Discover more about the collections that are part of the Auschwitz exhibition in New York: www.auschwitz.nyc.