Voices of defiance

Survivors’ rights warrior Stu Eizenstat feels ‘Defiant Requiem,’ performed at Israel Festival, shows courage of Theresienstadt musicians.

Conductor Murray Sidlin (photo credit: Alex Irvine)
Conductor Murray Sidlin
(photo credit: Alex Irvine)
Seeing Verdi’s Requiem performed in Terezin, the Czech Republic, the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II, was “the most emotional event of my life,” said Stu Eizenstat, special advisor on Holocaust issues to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After being so moved by this multimedia performance, which includes testimony by Holocaust survivors who performed the piece while they were being held at Theresienstadt (the piece is now known as the Defiant Requiem), Eizenstat joined the board of directors of the Defiant Requiem Foundation to help this show continue its journey around the world.
He is coming to Israel to see a multimedia performance of the Defiant Requiem performed today at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem as part of the Israel Festival.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said in an interview from his Washington office at the law firm of Covington and Burling, where he heads the international practice.
Verdi’s Requiem was performed at the Theresienstadt camp during World War II by the inmates. These inmates were formed into a chorus by fellow prisoner Rafael Schächter, and, in spite of the hardships, they performed Verdi’s Requiem 16 times.
Schächter and many of those inmates were eventually sent on to Auschwitz and other death camps, from which they did not return. But the memory and spirit of their music lives on through Defiant Requiem, both a recreation and enhancement of their achievement.
The Defiant Requiem was created by Murray Sidlin, who will conduct it at the Israel Festival performance. Sidlin is dean of the School of Music at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. The piece will be performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Kühn Choir of Prague, soloist singers Ira Bertman, Yotam Cohen, Assaf Levitin and Bracha Kol and actors Sasson Gabai and Yona Elian.
There will soon be a film of the work, so those who cannot attend the concerts can see it and learn more about it.
Eizenstat has had a distinguished career working for the US government, including stints as chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter; US ambassador to the European Union; and deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration.
But no matter what position he held, he has always been involved in issues relating to the Holocaust, particularly in making sure that survivors are compensated for what they endured.
“As a special representative to the secretary of state, I negotiated the return of $8 billion in Holocaust-era assets from Swiss banks,” explains Eizenstat, who also secured compensation for survivors who worked as slave laborers, and drafted legislation that helped return stolen art to its rightful owners.
But although throughout his career Eizenstat has spoken to dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Holocaust survivors, he was not prepared for the Defiant Requiem.
“I knew that Theresienstadt had been a transit camp for thousands of Jewish musicians, scholars, artists and rabbinical experts. There was a remarkable profusion of culture there.
And the Defiant Requiem is the best example of that,” he said.
Although the performances at the camp during the war were not an armed rebellion, “the survivors said ‘it was our act of defiance.’ They said, ‘We’re going to sing to them what we can’t say to them.’” Eizenstat, who is the author (with Elie Wiesel) of Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor and the Unfinished Business of World War II, says that while every performance of Defiant Requiem has been special in its own way, it is especially critical for the piece to be performed in Israel.
“It’s important that young Israelis understand that resistance and courage can take different forms. There are different ways of defining courage.
In their own way they [those who performed at the concentration camp] were showing courage and defiance – underground defiance. It was a spiritual and artistic rebellion. People say it kept them alive. It nourished the soul.”
To find out more about the Israel Festival and to order tickets, go to the festival website at http://www.israel-festival.org.il.