To strike a chord

Samuel Pisar's text for Bernstein's 'Kaddish' attempts to convey the hell he went through.

Samuel Pisar 88 248 (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Yad Vashem)
Samuel Pisar 88 248
(photo credit: Isaac Harari/Yad Vashem)
'The Holocaust." Just saying these words comes as close to expressing the totality of the tragedy as does a 1,000-page history textbook on the topic. Which is why the efforts are so important of people who are capable - through music and poetry - of giving the world an actual sense of life in Nazi Germany. Dr. Samuel Pisar, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, performed his recently written A Dialogue with God (2003) narrative for Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish" on Monday night at Yad Vashem in a concert sponsored by Lily Safra. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra joined him, as did an audience including President Shimon Peres, Romanian President Traian Basescu and many Holocaust survivors who live both in and out of Israel. The orchestra quickly descended into diminished chords that invoked deep fear - it demanded the audience to prepare for a catharsis by the end of the night. The dark opening music could have been played during the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac: Suddenly before the slaughter, Abraham, Isaac, the ram in the bushes, the angels and God would find themselves in a courtroom with Pisar, who would be playing the judge and prosecutor. In the text that goes with the music, the poet pleads the case for mankind against God's wrath: "My grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and every one of my schoolmates… what crimes, what sins Could they have committed At so tender an age? All wiped out, in one fell swoop According to the unfathomable logic That reigns in Your realm." When Pisar recalls his grandmother's lullabies, the first sweet notes of hope and goodness are heard. But the hope is mixed with despair as he recalls: "The memory of my grandmother's lullabies Has always soothed me to sleep Even when I became an adult. But in my dreams All I could see were her eyes Raised in prayer to You As the killers took her away." And then the Finale champions hope: The music climbs higher and brighter, almost to emit light from the instruments. The speaker triumphantly states, "You performed dazzling miracles On a biblical scale Delivering the enslaved, the oppressed and the dispersed From the clutches of tyranny, To rebuild your temple." The final message is one of longing to bond again with God and his guidance toward "Tolerance, brotherhood and peace / On our small, divided, fragile planet / Our common home." PISAR SPOKE to the Jerusalem Post about the history and nature of his masterpiece. A while back, Bernstein, unhappy with his own text, requested that his longtime friend write a new narrative for "Kaddish." The composer had told Pisar that he felt he was a good candidate to write the new text because he had experienced hell himself; he could draw words of true sorrow from deep within his "kishkas" - a personal sorrow. Though honored by the composer's request, Pisar felt he had to decline the offer - that he could not "produce poetry equal to the grandeur of [Bernstein's] music." He only undertook the composer's request after he died, when Pisar was prompted by the tragic events of 9/11. The cruel attack against America impelled the author to ask, "Is it all going south again... in the heart of America?; in the beginning of the third millennium." The "new world," he said, "reminds me uneasily of the inflamed world I was born into." Though writing over the same music, the survivor poet decided that a message completely different from Bernstein's original idea was necessary. He admitted that the composer did not know what it was going to be when he asked Pisar to do it. When asked who his inspirations were in writing the text, Pisar asserted that "A Dialogue With God" was an entirely original piece. He explained that two personalities inhabit his body and mind: A little boy with a shaved head who went through hell, and a modern, educated man of the world. Together, these halves of the author drew from their own experiences and combined to produce a personal work straight from the writer's soul. The new text speaks about, and in the name of, the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism seems to take a backseat. Commenting on this theme, the author explained, "I am trying to be not only personal, but also universal." For Pisar, all three Abrahamic faiths come down to two things: "Love of God with all your being," and "love your neighbor like yourself," so one can easily champion all three together. Yet, despite his universalistic approach, he declares his work to be "totally Jewish," since it comes from a Jewish source. Though Pisar admits that after the Holocaust, "the Almighty and I went separate ways," his relationship with God was never fully severed, and now he serves God in his own unorthodox way. He recalled that in his childhood he "would go to the synagogue with a kippa," and before his bar mitzva - even in the horrific pre-Holocaust period - he "really believed" in Judaism, putting on tefilin everyday. The survivor continues to spread his poetry in the various speeches he gives around the world about the Holocaust. But more than just speaking poetry, Pisar conveys it through his thoughtful expressions and his softly spoken words - better than any textbook ever could.