Music of the Holocaust: Highlights from the Collection

Songs of the ghettos, concentration camps, and World War II partisan outposts



United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
English translation of Erich Frost interview excerpt describing the origin of “Zeugen Jehovas”/“Forward You Witnesses”


We had, as is generally known, the hardest labor detail under the harshest conditions imaginable. We were always plagued by hunger and the demands for work far surpassed our capacity to do it. The chicanery in the camp was often unbearable anyway. So I searched for some means to revive the spirits of the brothers. They were used to me doing that anyway. And I can say that we had such a fine unit of brothers in Sachsenhausen. They urged me to write a song that we could sing among ourselves and could use to encourage one other. In short, we marched every morning to a work site in Oranienburg. There they were building a sewage treatment plant and I was in a brigade of forty men, all brothers, led by a supervisor who was also a brother. We marched, naturally, under SS guard from the camp to the worksite. And with this march-step the rhythm went through my head around and around, bum bum bum bum... And that's how I slowly pieced together the melody. Not just on one day or one morning but over a period of days. And that's how the music developed, with a few words which appear in the text we have before us today. But then the problem was to get these verses back into the camp. Not being able to write them down, I chose a few brothers who looked sharp, who seemed up to the task, and took them aside one by one. To the first I taught the first verse until he knew it by heart, whether it be while marching, or working, or going back and forth. I did the same with the second, the third, and the fourth. In the evening I quizzed them and each repeated his verse. And that's how the song came into existence. I had enough paper and pencil in the camp so I could write it down. How this song got out of the camp, I have no idea to this day. In the evenings while we sat together someone would start to sing this song and then the whole row would singing. We were overjoyed, we became truly radiant. It gave us the courage to hope and to endure. During our church services, or evenings when we had our lectures, or when we studied a copy of the Watchtower, the song would be the highpoint where we would draw our strength to carry on. In the mornings, when forty men began their exhausting march down the streets of Oranienburg, one of the brothers would quietly start singing this melody until it enveloped the whole column. We knew, on the other hand, that we could not sing it loudly: that would have been dangerous. The SS would have taken us directly back to the camp and severely punished us.