Beauty amid the horror

"But when I came across what happened in Terezín, everything changed for me"

Hours of Freedom conductor and initiator Murry Sidlin presents works by Holocaust victims and survivors (photo credit: JOHN CAMPBELL)
Hours of Freedom conductor and initiator Murry Sidlin presents works by Holocaust victims and survivors
(photo credit: JOHN CAMPBELL)
 One of the most fascinating, and horrifying, chapters of the Holocaust is the Nazi-tailored sham that was Theresienstadt. The Czechoslovakian concentration camp was designed to fool the Red Cross and possibly the Allies by presenting it as some sort of artists’ colony or model Jewish settlement.
The most amazing aspect of Terezín was that it housed intensive artistic activity, and some of Czechoslovakia’s most promising classical composers and instrumentalists spent varying periods of time there.
Most were subsequently moved to Auschwitz, where they were killed; some perished in Theresienstadt; and a few survived.
The naive Red Cross officials who visited the camp in 1944 would have been impressed by the floral gardens, which the Jewish inmates were ordered to spruce up a month before the delegation arrived. They were also treated to a rousing rendition of Verdi’s Requiem, overseen by conductor Raphael Schächter, with only a piano and a choir. The choristers had to learn the very complicated text by heart, and it was their way of standing up to their oppressors and telling them that their spirit could not be bowed, even by Nazi barbarism. The Red Cross representatives duly applauded and went on their way, satisfied that the Jews were clearly being cared for. It was the 16th and last time Schächter would perform the work. Shortly afterwards he was sent to Auschwitz, survived it and another camp before he eventually succumbed.
It was Schächter’s incredible fortitude and his ability to produce more than worthy readings of the piece in such harrowing circumstances that ultimately inspired Murry Sidlin to establish the The Defiant Requiem Foundation, which sponsors concert performances of Verdi’s composition at Theresienstadt.
It is also the driving force behind the Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezín Composer concert, which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater on June 2 (8:30 p.m.) as part of this year’s Israel Festival. The 76-year-old Sidlin will occupy the conductor’s dais for the multidisciplinary program that comprises works by 15 Jewish composers imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp. The roster of composers includes Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Zikmund Schul, Pavel Haas and Rudolf Karel. All but two of the composers perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Sidlin’s journey to the composers and their works began 15 years ago. “I came across a book called Music in Terezín in 2001,” he explains. “It talked about the amazing number of [musical] events that took place [in the concentration camp] – there were over 1,000 of them – and the diversity of the concerts. There was chamber music and choral music, cabaret, light music, opera and opera scenes and religious music,” he says.
Not only that, but it seems that Terezín was something of a hotbed of envelope-pushing endeavor. “The book also mentioned that there was a lot of contemporary music,” Sidlin continues. “There were about 20 composers that were active in Terezín, and they had their music played by singers and pianists. They found a piano and were able to resuscitate it to a certain degree, and some of the musicians who were imprisoned were able to bring instruments with them.”
Necessity was the mother of invention there. “A couple of them even had cellos with them, which they had taken apart and managed to fit them into their allowed luggage.
Can you imagine how inventive they needed to be to manage that?” he says.
Sidlin believes that the camp inmates’ zest to generate as vibrant a musical scene as possible at Terezín was partly fired by their desire to resume their hands-on engagement with their skills. “I began to see that for a lot of these people, it made sense that they would try to resuscitate something of their musical lives because most of them had not worked as performers since 1939.”
The terrible hardship at the camp notwithstanding, Sidlin says that Terezín was soon buzzing with creative intent, come what may. “While these people were at Terezín, this absolutely astonishing – and I do mean miraculous – society of great culture sprang up.”
On June 2, Sidlin will once again salute the valor and sheer tenacity of some of the great artists who passed through Terezín between 1941 and 1945. The Hours of Freedom lineup includes solo works, duets and works for three, four, nine and 13 players, four singers and narrator.
The repertoire features excerpts from Ullmann’s Seventh Piano Sonata and his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which contains hidden sociological and patriotic messages; Haas’s Etude for Strings, which will be performed by a string ensemble accompanied by a film clip from the 1944 performance by the musicians in Terezín; a number of highly emotive songs by Hans Krasa; and Karel Svenk’s Everything Is Possible, which a taste of the cabaret music of Terezín, written by one of Europe’s most gifted young composers of the day.
It has clearly been an emotional journey for Sidlin, as he dedicates his time and energy to sharing works by Terezín composers with the world and giving them at least some of their due.
Over the years he met as many of the survivors of the camp as possible, including instrumentalists, choir members and inmates who attended concerts there. “Once I stumbled on the story, I began following through to find out more about what took place while the people were there,” Sidlin explains. “I met Edith Steiner Kraus, who lived her last 30 or 40 years in Jerusalem. I was fortunate enough to meet her before she passed away at the age of 100. She was a member of the chorus; she sang in all 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Interestingly, I recently met [now 93-year-old Vienna- born] Fred Terna. He was in the audience for three performances of the Verdi Requiem.”
Sidlin never got to meet Alice Herz-Sommer, who was the oldest Holocaust survivor until she died a couple of years ago in London at the age of 110. Herz-Sommer was already an acclaimed concert pianist from Prague before she was sent to Terezín with her husband and son. Sidlin said that despite not having met her in person, he was left with a pearl of wisdom from the ever-optimistic Herz-Sommer.
“I have seen lots of interviews with her, and she had a wonderful comment about the music at Terezin that is etched onto my psyche forever. She said that in Terezín it was the music that prevented hatred. I thought that was extraordinary.”
Sidlin says his introduction to the musical gems of Terezin changed him irrevocably both as a person and a professional. “Before that, I was a traditional conductor and had a good career. But when I came across what happened in Terezín, everything changed for me. You begin to understand why you became a musician. These people [in Terezín] sent us the strength of their characters and the beauty of their souls.”
For tickets and more information about Hours of Freedom, The Story of the Terez ín Composer: *6226;; (02) 560-5755;;