PRAGUE — In a concentration camp designed by the Nazis to eradicate Jewish cultural life, among 120,000 of its inmates who would ultimately be murdered, a rising young musician named Rafael Schachter managed one of the miracles of the Holocaust.
Assembling hundreds of sick and hungry singers, he led them in 16 performances learned by rote from a single smuggled score of one of the most monumental and moving works of religious music — Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass.
Defiance in music
In a concentration camp designed by the Nazis to eradicate Jewish cultural life, among 120,000 of its inmates who would ultimately be murdered, a rising young musician named Rafael Schachter managed one of the miracles of the Holocaust.
“These crazy Jews are singing their own requiem,” Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the genocide, was heard to remark after attending one of the performances at the unique and surreal camp of Terezin, in what was then German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
But for Schachter and his fellow prisoners, this Mass for the dead became not an act of meek submission to their fate, but rather one of defiance of their captors, as well as a therapy against the enveloping terror.
For Schachter would tell the singers: “Whatever we do here is just a rehearsal for when we will play Verdi in a grand concert hall in Prague in freedom.”
Seven decades later, in the capital of what is now the Czech Republic, his promise was finally fulfilled — the Roman Catholic Mass played in memory of the remarkable Jewish man and his fellow musicians who perished, among them brilliant composers, artists and intellectuals from across Europe.
“Rafael was not able to do it, so tonight we will play the requiem on his behalf,” said Murry Sidlin, an American conductor and educator who explains that his life’s mission is to illuminate the legacy of Terezin. He spoke before the event which took place this month, staged in St. Vitus, the magnificent 14th century cathedral which towers above the city from its hilltop location within the compound of Prague castle.
Filling the seats and pews beneath its soaring Gothic vaults, mingling among the tombs of Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, were Prague citizens, young and old, Catholic clergymen and members of a Czech-Jewish community which numbered more than 350,000 before World War II and is now reduced to fewer than 10,000 in the Czech Republic.
Also gathered together were several relatives of the dead. Terezin survivors present included Felix Kolmer, who last saw Schachter at Auschwitz as the two were separated on arrival into two lines by Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” an SS officer and doctor who conducted horrific medical experiments on inmates.
Schachter was herded into the line of those condemned to immediate death, and perished in 1945 at the age of 39, one month before the liberation of his country. The 91-year-old Kolmer, who still teaches physics and works on behalf of camp survivors, escaped death at Terezin and two other camps. But some 50 members of his extended family did not.
“What Rafi — that was his nickname — did, strengthened us,” Kolmer said. “The cultural life to which he belonged gave us the power to better resist our own fates, not just in Terezin but later in Auschwitz so we didn’t go to the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter.”
Kolmer and Schachter were among the first of some 140,000 sent to Terezin — Theresienstadt in German. Described in Nazi propaganda as a “spa town” built by Hitler for the Jews, in reality it served largely as a collection camp for deportations to the killing centers of Eastern Europe. The inmates included some of the finest talents and minds of European Jewry, uprooted not only from Czechoslovakia but Germany, Holland, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere.
The Nazis initially kept it secret, but gradually began to tolerate an incredible flowering of intellectual and artistic life. Enough instruments had been smuggled in to form the Terezin Orchestra and a jazz group called the Ghetto Swingers. Cabarets, an opera and operettas, complete with printed handbills, were staged. Inmates gave more than 2,400 lectures on subjects ranging from physics to the cinema.
Conditions were nonetheless appalling. Survivors of Schachter’s chorus recall emerging from a dark, airless cellar where they rehearsed after hours of grueling forced labor to step over the skeletal bodies of inmates who had in the meantime succumbed to starvation and disease. Their own chorus of some 150 had to be replenished twice as members were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
A brilliant conductor and pianist, the normally mild-mannered Schachter was described as “like a crazed man on a mission,” determined to realize the Requiem despite the hardships and even strong opposition from some rabbis and elders who wondered why Jews should be performing a Christian Mass and worried that their captors might see it as an apology for their Jewishness and react with brutality.
Sidlin says it’s clear that Schachter’s determination stemmed from knowing that as his chorus members fought off starvation and illness, often not knowing the fates of their children and loved ones, the only therapy was total immersion in music — and Verdi’s carried a special message.
“We became that music,” a chorus survivor, Marianka May, said, explaining how the fear of tomorrow was transformed into hours of pure joy. She was one of several survivors of the Terezin chorus who appeared on large video screens installed in the cathedral for the concert.
“The Nazi occupation of Europe was the most profound statement of insanity ever made by mankind. And here these people were the firsthand victims of the insanity,” Sidlin said. “What they found in the arts, the lectures, the scholarly pursuits was grounding, they found something that was sane, something that was still beautiful and they were linking themselves to that and not the other thing.”
Eventually the Nazis even encouraged these activities, paving the way to what Sidlin calls a “sadistic lie.” Under pressure from Denmark after the deportation of Danish Jews to Terezin, Germany allowed a visit by the International Red Cross. Before its June 1944 arrival, gardens were planted, the inmates’ barracks renovated and shops stocked with goods. The old and sick, some 8,000, were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. The Red Cross delegation spent six hours in the camp, which included tea with German officers, and gave Terezin a clean bill of health.
The visit also marked the last performance of the Requiem. Four months later, Schachter and most of the chorus were deported to Auschwitz, almost all murdered on arrival. A generation of young composers was wiped out at the same time: Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and Viktor Ullmann, who composed three piano sonatas at Terezin. Combining the Central European tradition with Czech idioms and the latest directions in contemporary music, experts like Sidlin are certain they would have become the successors to Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and other Czech greats.
Sidlin came upon this music by pure chance, browsing through a book on the subject in a Minnesota bookstore and coming to a brief mention of the 16 Requiem performances by a 150-strong chorus. “I thought to myself, ‘This is impossible, knowing what it takes to produce the Requiem under optimum conditions. If there is any truth to this it is miraculous,’” he recalled.
Sidlin, 73, whose paternal grandmother and her family where killed in a Latvian ghetto, contacted Holocaust experts but found little until he tracked down survivors, and the story began to unfold. Then, he said, one morning at 4.a.m., he bolted out of bed with a thought and combed the text of Verdi’s masterpiece:
“Who shall I ask to intercede for me, when even the just ones are unsafe...Give me a place among the sheep and separate me from the goats...Nothing shall remain unavenged...That day of calamity and misery, a great and bitter day.”
“I could see that almost every line of the Mass could have a different meaning as a prisoner. ‘Deliver me O Lord’ for them meant liberation. Nothing remaining unavenged was certainty of punishment for their captors,” he said. When Sidlin checked with the survivors they confirmed his insight into why they were so drawn to the work.
“Schachter told his chorus: ‘We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say.’ This was their way of fighting back, their form of resistance, defiance,” Sidlin said.
So in 2008, he started the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which includes the Terezin-based Rafael Schachter Institute for Arts and Humanities, attracting participants from around the world to perform concerts and study not the Holocaust as such but the application of Terezin’s lessons to human rights today.
Sidlin, currently a professor of music at Catholic University in Washington D.C., has also led performances of the Requiem — actually a concert drama with the operatic composer’s work at its core — in the U.S., Hungary, Israel and Terezin. It will be played next year in Berlin. This month, he was awarded the Medal of Valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a prominent Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles.
In the Czech capital, as the evening light filtered through the multicolored stained-glass windows, the Prague Symphony Orchestra musicians, 150 singers and conductor Sidlin, all dressed in black, began what is at any time an emotional wringer, Verdi’s music surging between chilling, thunderous depictions of the Day of Judgment and tender pleas for salvation, between unbounded joy and heartbreak.
Here, actors embedded in the orchestra rose at moments to speak the words of Schachter and others, remembered how they took their battle to the high moral ground, refusing to let their captors dehumanize them, rising from their own depths to the spiritual heights of Verdi’s music. A piano briefly replaced passages of the orchestral score, a haunting echo of Schachter playing the instrument to accompany his singers.
The silent, rapt audience, some in tears, watched segments of a Nazi propaganda film about Terezin showing children singing, eating thickly buttered bread and swaying on hobby horses as the mezzo-soprano, soprano and chorus intoned, “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.” Everyone, including 3-year-old children, who appeared in the film was executed immediately after it was made.
There was no applause when the performance ended, the musicians silently leaving one by one but for a lone violinist who played fragments of a mournful Jewish melody. On the screens, families were being loaded onto trains. The doors were slammed shut and locked, a little girl looked out of a window, and the carriages rolled toward the concentration camps.