A work of strength

All pieces of music have a history; the creation of a composition and the circumstances under which it has been performed bring a particular resonance to each concert.

Requiem (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
All pieces of music have a history; the creation of a composition and the circumstances under which it has been performed bring a particular resonance to each concert.
But there are few pieces that carry the history and significance of Verdi’s Requiem, which inmates performed at the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp during World War II. Fellow prisoner Rafael Schächter formed these inmates into a chorus, and in spite of the hardships, they performed the Requiem 16 times.
But although Schächter and many of those inmates were eventually sent on to Auschwitz and other death camps from which they did not return, the memory and spirit of their music lives on through a recreation and enhancement of their achievement called Defiant Requiem – Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin. The project’s creator, Murray Sidlin, dean of the School of Music at the Washington’s Catholic University of America, will conduct it at the 2012 Israel Festival on May 31 at the Jerusalem International Conference Center.
The performance will feature 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.
In addition to the piece itself, the multimedia event will include video testimonies from members of the original choir, Nazi propaganda and film footage made at Theresienstadt, and an actors’ recreation of the circumstances of the 1943 performances of the Requiem.
The Defiant Requiem has been performed around the world, including at the site of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, and in Budapest and Washington.
“It’s very emotional for us to bring this to Israel,” says Sidlin in an interview from his home in Washington.
“In many ways, bringing it to Israel has been more efficient and even more inspired than earlier performances because of the association with the Israel Festival.”
He brushes aside any suggestion that the logistics of mounting this complex production were daunting.
“We’re using the Jerusalem Symphony,” he says. “The soloists have sung the Requiem before. The actors have the scripts. I’ll come and we’ll rehearse individually and then together. It’s like building anything, you hope it all fits. But these are extraordinary professionals.”
Sidlin has been the linchpin of creating this piece and of bringing an important but relatively little-known story of the Holocaust to a wide audience.
Acknowledging that his determination to bring Defiant Requiem to life has amounted to a magnificent obsession, he says his only wish is “to honor the inspiring and breathtaking legacy of what took place at Terezin.”
Theresienstadt had an unusual history.
The Nazis described it and presented it to outsiders as a model for humane resettlement of Jews. But in reality, it was a concentration camp and was often used as a transit camp for Jews en route to Auschwitz and other death camps. Over 30,000 inmates died there from disease and harsh conditions, and the site generally housed between 50,000 and 70,000 Jews in crowded and unsanitary conditions. At Theresienstadt, there was a high number of inmates from the artistic and intellectual elites, and they used art and culture to fill their days with meaningful activities and to keep morale as high as possible.
“It’s a remarkable story of the Holocaust era, how these prisoners, living in this Godawful place, this unspeakable environment, under Nazi oppression, were able to create this accidental university of the arts and sciences. Here, 530 prisoners gave 2,400 lectures. Visual artists created. Cabaret artists performed. And of course, musicians played. It was the strength of these prisoners who would not allow themselves to go quietly to death. They chose collectively to enrich the environment and give themselves a way to stay stimulated and alive. It was their way of fighting back, to be stimulated by the best of mankind against the worst of mankind.”
Sidlin, a lifelong musician whose father lost family in Latvia during the Holocaust, learned of the Requiem performances by chance when he found a book in a used bookstore about the musicians of Theresienstadt.
One chapter was about the Romanian-born Schächter, who moved to Czechoslovakia, was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz.
“Schächter taught 150 prisoners the Verdi Requiem by rote because there was only one score. It’s an extraordinarily difficult piece of music to perform under the best of circumstances, even when you’re healthy and well-fed. It’s a work of great strength and a major part of the Catholic liturgy. But if you read the text in prison, it could have a different meaning. It’s a work of faith, like shaking a fist at those who defy God’s will.”
He emphasizes that the prisoners performed a number of other important musical works, such as the operas The Magic Flute and The Bartered Bride. “But such an important cultural society needed one crowning achievement to demonstrate the pinnacle of their determination.”
The prisoners at the camp performed the Requiem 15 times for the general population and once for the Red Cross (during a visit on which the officials were shown a trumped-up version of how well the inmates were treated).
“After the first performance, two-thirds of the choir were deported [to death camps]. It was the luck of the draw. Schächter had to teach it to new people. In all, about 400 inmates performed it.”
While at the camp, there was only a piano, “we use an orchestra because that is ideal,” he says. However, he starts each movement with a solo “slightly de-tuned piano” to connect with the performances in the camp.
The piece has been performed on the camp grounds in the Czech Republic three times, concerts that Sidlin says were “enormously emotional.” But all the performances have been emotional for him.
“Each place has its own meaning and spirit,” he says.
After the Israel Festival, he will supervise a production of Defiant Requiem in Prague in June 2013. “That was Schächter’s dream, to sing Verdi on a stage in Prague, in freedom.”
In spite of all he has done to bring this story and this music to the public, Sidlin emphasizes that while “it is a privilege to tell a story that needed to be told... this has nothing to do with me. I am in service to the story and survivors and those who perished, and their incredible deeds.”
For more information, and to order tickets, visit the Israel Festival Website at http://www.israel-festival.org.il.