The Displaced Persons Orchestra

After the Second World War, the western Allies established Displaced Persons camps in the Allied-occupied zones of Germany, Austria and Italy.

The first inhabitants of these camps were concentration camp survivors who had been liberated by the Allies on German soil.  Conditions in these camps, especially at the beginning, were very difficult. Many of the camps were former concentration camps and German army camps. Survivors found themselves still living behind barbed wire, still subsisting on inadequate amounts of food and still suffering from shortages of clothing, medicine and supplies.

In the midst of these difficult conditions and with undernourished victims who had witnessed events that would have traumatized anybody, amazingly, a number of the survivors were able to use their talents as actors, singers and musicians to entertain their fellow camp –dwellers.

A number of famous or soon to be famous  musicians appeared in concerts given  by these orchestras (for example):

On MAY 10, 1948, a young Leonard Bernstein, invited to conduct in Munich, travelled to the nearby Landsberg and Feldafing Displaced Persons camps to perform Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra of 17 musicians. These musicians were all survivors of Nazi internment at St. Ottilien, and for three years — from 1945 through 1948 — they travelled by bus all over Bavaria, wearing their striped concentration camp uniforms, and performed some 200 concerts at 100 Displaced Persons camps.

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The St. Ottilien Displaced Persons Orchestra performed in their concentration camp clothes as can be seen from the picture of the violinist above. They used these clothes for every performance that they gave between 1945 and 1948.

In June 2007 in New York City a documentary about the St. Ottilien Orchestra premiered. A section of it can be seen here.

The story of the art, music and drama produced by the Displaced Persons Camps is nothing less than the triumph of  humanity over horrific events. It is an inspiring story which more people should know about. I hope in my own small way that I have contributed to this aim.

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