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The Baton of Franciszek Nierychło, the first conductor of the Auschwitz camp orchestra now in the Collections of the Memorial


The Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum have been enriched with a unique object - the baton of Franciszek Nierychło, the conductor of the first prisoner orchestra established in the autumn of 1940 at the German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.


It is a fascinating object, not just because of its history but due to its form of execution. "The baton of length 32 cm is made of black polyurethaned wood, probably from mahogany. Thanks to XRF tests conducted at the Museum’s Conservation Laboratory, it was found that both the haft and tip were made of ivory, and the haft is embellished with an engraved decorative motif. The baton also has a nameplate - under the handle, fastened using metal miniature rivets with an engraved inscription “F. Nierychło / 1941 (A)," said Elżbieta Cajzer, head of the Museum’s Collections.

The method of execution and the dimensions of individual elements inclines us to assume that the baton was probably produced in the 20's of the 20th century in one of the European manufacturers, e.g. in Dresden. "The object was most likely in Franciszek Nierychło’s possession before his arrest. According to one of the prisoner’s, shortly upon formation of the orchestra, the SS men permitted the prisoners to bring instruments from their homes. It is, therefore, very plausible that the baton arrived at the camp by this means. The nameplate, on the other hand, could have been engraved in Auschwitz. Such elements were usually made of silver, but in this particular case it is a non-precious metal alloy," added Cajzer.

"The camp orchestra aroused controversy among the inmates. Although it saved many outstanding musicians from hard labour and provided emotional experiences during rehearsals and Sunday internal concerts; it was, however, an element of humiliation and terror, especially upon return of the commandos from work, when the completely exhausted prisoners had to enter the camp in the rhythm of military marches or other lively melodies. Several accounts also show that the presence of the orchestra mislead people brought for selection and extermination in Jewish transports from all over Europe, as to the true nature of Auschwitz," the director of the Museum, Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, emphasised.

Franciszek Nierychło hailed from Silesia. In the 30’s Of the 20th century, he lived in Cracow, where he worked at the post office and also directed the post office orchestra. He also collaborated with the local radio station Polish radio, for which he prepared music bands for recordings, playing the oboe. He also played on this instrument during his time with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre orchestra. According to former prisoners, at the beginning of the occupation he was meant to commence cooperation with the Germans but when the Gestapo received a denunciation that he was a participant of the Silesia Uprising; he was arrested and imprisoned.

Nierychło was deported to the camp on 20 June 1940 in the second transport of Polish political prisoners from the prison in Wiśnicz along with 312 persons sent to Auschwitz by the commander of Sipo-SD in Cracow. He was given the number 994. The occupation field of his preserved personal identity card carried the inscription: Muziker, Kapellmeister. In the camp, he worked as a camp kitchen kapo. From late autumn 1940, until the end of his stay in Auschwitz; he played and later conducted the Auschwitz I orchestra.

In a study on the history of the camp orchestra in KL Auschwitz published in the 27th issue of “Auschwitz Studies”, Dr. Jacek Lachendro wrote: “Franciszek Nierychło, called in the camp by his German equivalent Franz was a controversial figure; most of the former prisoners, especially those employed in the kitchen assessed him negatively. They emphasised, above all his violent behaviour to fellow prisoners (beatings, throwing insults), as well as servility towards the SS men. In turn, some members of the orchestra did not judge him negatively, some even tried to justify his actions and presented the bandmaster a bit softer. Although they underlined his brutality but justified it with his inability to do otherwise in the presence of the SS men”.

Below, is what Nierychło said in his testimony about the beginnings of the camp orchestra during the trial of the Auschwitz camp commander, Rudolf Hoess: “When Fritzsch [Karl Fritzsch - Auschwitz Lagerführer] found out that I was a bandmaster by profession, he entrusted me with the function of a bandmaster. I wanted to create an orchestra to brighten up the prisoners free time and save the musicians playing in the orchestra from death”.

Former Auschwitz prisoner Henryk Król recalled: “While working with Franciszek Nierychło in the same command, we also discussed music. He boasted that his brother plays the violin very well, I also hinted the same. I played the violin. All of a sudden, in December 1940, an order was issued to create a prison orchestra. Speaking about the decision to me, Franz Nierychło insisted I write a “Rapportbrief” immediately to the camp authorities for permission for my family to send the violin. My explanation that it made no sense, as we would have to play the funeral march in the camp incessantly, fell on deaf ears. Franz would not let me be. He had to set Brodniewicz’s lageraltester on me. At the earliest opportunity, he told me not to be too confident, “because they can easily change my commando unit”. Compelled by the threat, I wrote to my family to send the violin. That’s how the orchestra began. We played for the first time on the Epiphany (Feast of the Three Kings)”.

Franciszek Nierychło was released from the camp in May 1944, most likely as a result of signing the Volksliste. The position of conductor of the orchestra was assumed by Adam Kopyciński, who said, as cited by Ignacy Szczepański in the book “Häftlingskapelle”: "Nierychło contributed a great deal to this band, but while leaving the camp as a volunteer for the Wehrmacht, twenty thousand people whistled. No one refrained from whistling”.

After the war, Franciszek Nierychło was arrested due to his conduct in the camp and sentenced 12 years imprisonment by a court in Gliwice. The sentence was shortened, as he had served a part of it working in the mine. Upon leaving prison, Nierychło played on the oboe in the State Operetta orchestra in Łódź. He died on 29 November 1977.

Publications on the history of the camp orchestra in KL Auschwitz are available at the online bookshop: Auschwitz Studies No. 27with a study on the subject authorship of Jacek Lachendro, memories of Szymon Laks “Auschwitz Games“, as well as a book by Helena Niwińska “The ways of my life. The memoirs of a violinist from Birkenau”.

Accounts of former Auschwitz prisoners about the camp orchestra and Franciszek Nierychło:

“Once, while standing in front of the camp kitchen, prepared for the march to Buna, noticed a colleague from the period of the freedom - Franciszek Nierychło. I jumped out of the queue towards him. One of the Vorarbeiters lunged towards me, hitting with a stick. Nevertheless, I managed to approach Nierychło. He asked me how I got here. I replied: “Like everyone else from Nowy Sącz”. Franciszek said: “Don’t worry, I’ll take you to the orchestra”. He jotted down my number. After a while, I returned to the queue and went to work with the commando. A week after the said conversation, the Schreiber of block 19a called me and led me to block 25. At block 25, he handed me over to the Schreiber Jerzy Sapiński from Żywiec, marked with a red triangle. From them on I lived in block 25 and - most importantly - I was removed from the Buna command. I was admitted to the camp orchestra in which I played on the contrabass and F bass (helicon)”. (Stanisław Nawalny, camp no. 29557)

“I ran a carpentry workshop. One day, Nierychło drops by.
“Hey, you are a carpenter, right!?” - he croaked. He always spoke very harshly. “Do you know how to make a platform?”. “I’ll try”. “Well then, make me a platform”. I did it within two weeks. Afterwards, I often went to listen to the band play. Once he asked me: “Do you like music? I often see you here...”. I told him
I studied in Poznan, in Warsaw... “Aha! And what instrument do you play?”.
“The bassoon - though, I can also play the clarinet and oboe...”. “Well, good,
and do you have an instrument?”. (Maksymilian Piłat, camp no. 5131)

“Members of the orchestra had clean, ironed striped uniforms, nice caps and elegantly broadened trousers. Such was the “camp fashion” then. The kapos, functionary prisoners and some prisoners who had their means, gave the tailors trousers to sew gores in the sailor style. The first thirty kapos looked just like that; they determined certain standards. Everyone tried to imitate them. All members of the orchestra were clean, shaved, good looking and nourished. Franz Nierychło made sure of that. It was after all his pride and position” (Kazimierz Albin, camp no. 118)

“[…] The orchestra perfectly fulfilled its task, even though it was an unusual blend of musicians. Nierychło stood above us like an emperor and cautiously waved his baton. …]” (Franciszek Stryj, camp no. 11091)

“Niechryło wore heavy boots. Like a Muslim he approached the kitchen, a many got a kick in the stomach with these boots. He also bashed his cooks. Nevertheless, he tried in so many ways to ensure the band got the recognition of the camp authorities. It did not bring in any relief, because everyone had to do their twelve hours. However, the band played. And besides, he was not the founder, but only picked up the initiatives. He gave the band prestige. Moreover, as a kitchen kapo, he had more clout”. (Adam Kopyciński, camp no. 25294)