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Reading: ‘They were drinking, singing, and shooting’: Singing and the Holocaust in the USSR


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‘They were drinking, singing, and shooting’: Singing and the Holocaust in the USSR


Alexandra Birch

UC Santa Barbara, US
About Alexandra
Alexandra Birch is a professional violinist and scholar of recovered music from genocide. She holds a DMA from Arizona State University and is currently a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara.
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Most studies exploring the topic of music and the Holocaust focus on the camps and ghettos, the official music of the Third Reich, or on clandestine artistic creations under duress. But forced music was also employed as an additional tool of sadism and humiliation during shootings in the USSR. This article focuses on forced singing during mass shootings in the former USSR drawing on the field of Voice Studies to provide an analysis of music within a larger traumatic soundscape. Music in these instances served as entertainment for the perpetrators, and more significantly as racialized ‘othering’ of the victims for genocidal aims. The research organization Yahad in Unum’s interviews in Belarus and Ukraine contain important details about specific incidents of music and violence including individual songs, use of instruments, and post-shooting musical sadism from bystander testimony. In this article, these additional testimonies are analysed together with Soviet Extraordinary Commission records to gain a complete picture of the shootings where forced music was documented. These testimonies are from different perspectives: from victims and bystanders. A Sound and Voice Studies perspective on this testimony can shed light on how forced music is indeed traumatic and show the differences in musical realities for victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. The study of forced singing has tremendous applicability in other contexts of violence and the long history of weaponized music. Focusing on music as a tool of warfare and genocide offers insight into perpetrators and perpetration beyond the context of the Holocaust.
How to Cite: Birch, A., 2021. ‘They were drinking, singing, and shooting’: Singing and the Holocaust in the USSR. Journal of Perpetrator Research, 4(1). DOI:
Published on 19 Dec 2021.
Peer Reviewed


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