Italian classical pianist and researcher Sofia Tapinassi found herself unexpectedly mesmerized by the music of Czechoslovakian composer Pavel Haass when it played on the radio as she drove to the Conservatory of Florence.
She felt drawn to him and began to look into the past of the musician. She discovered that he had played that very same piece she had listened to in the early 1940s, while he was a prisoner of Terezin, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Of the 150,000 Jews who were sent to Terezin, approximately 88,000 were deported to death camps like Auschwitz.
Some of the most famous European Jewish artists were imprisoned at Terezin and they escaped into their art while they were there, never knowing which performance, painting or piece of music would be their last. When Tapinassi learned of this, she was so moved that she traveled to the town of Terezin and across the world to meet with survivors.
These documented experiences have been turned into a film, We Left the Camp Singing, directed by Tapinassi and New Take Films.
“I’ve made it my mission to explore how such beautiful music and art can be produced from within such darkness,” said Tapinassi.
Subjects of the film
One of the subjects of the film is actress and writer Zdenka Fantlova, who passed away last year at 100 years old.
Fantlova was deported to Terezin from Czechoslovakia when she was 17 and began her acting career at the camp, where she starred in plays and musicals. At first she was excited to go to Terezin because her boyfriend had also been deported there but four months later he was sent to Auschwitz and she never saw him again.
“When you listen to music, you are in a different place. You are not in Terezin.” Fantlova says in the film.
“She was such a wonderful and inspiring person,” Tapinassi told The Jerusalem Post, “...extremely positive with a big love for music and she was extremely generous and open in her heart... It was a really sad story because she was the only one to survive, not only of her family but I think of her entire village.”
AFTER TEREZIN, Fantlova was sent to Auschwitz, where someone gave her a green ball gown adorned with pearls and sequins because she had been stripped of all her clothes. She wore it for the next six months at four more concentration camps, including on death marches. She was saved by a British soldier at Bergen-Belsen, who came to liberate her at the end of the war. She continued to act in the years to come.
When asked how she was able to survive such personal tragedy, Tapinassi says, “I think it was a combination of being lucky and having such a positive attitude.”
Author, lyricist and retired chemist, Inge Auerbacher, is another survivor featured in We Left the Camp Singing. Auerbacher was just seven years old when she and her parents were deported to Terezin from her small hometown of Kippenheim, Germany. She describes Terezin as a huge brick army barracks completely closed off from the rest of the world and surrounded by barbed wire and wooden fences. She says it was “overcrowded with very little food. Many people died there of diseases... We were kept there only to die there or to be sent to the east (Auschwitz)... Some people jumped out of the windows.”
The film shows unsettlingly realistic illustrations of the sordid conditions at Terezin. Since the prisoners were not allowed cameras, they secretly drew the fearful events they witnessed and hid the evidence in the walls, ceilings and mattresses.
Auerbacher remembers seeing performances like the children’s opera Brundibar, which “everyone wanted to see even if we didn’t understand one word. It was just good to be in the place.” Glowworm was another children’s musical production she enjoyed but she adds, “Most of the kids (who were in the play) were gone by then. They went on the transport to Auschwitz. Most of the kids in Brundibar, too, were gone....my best friend was on a transport. Where they were going to, nobody knew.” Most of the approximately 13,000 children at Terezin were sent to extermination camps, leaving behind only several hundred child survivors .
Auerbacher was liberated from Terezin three years later with her parents. She has co-written songs like “Who am I?” which was performed at the 2019 United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony with children from the PS 22 Chorus.
Michael Gruenbaum, an engineer and author, was 12 years old in 1942 when he was shipped to Terezin from Prague with his mother and sister. His father, a prominent attorney, was killed by the Nazis the year before. In We Left the Camp Singing, he tells of how he was in the children’s choir. “Brundibar was performed 55 times. They didn’t have to wear a star when they were performing, so it gave them a little feeling of liberation,” he says, “The organ grinder, who had a mustache just like Hitler, was defeated and that’s what made everybody happy.”
THE ARTISTRY of prisoners was also used against them by the Nazis, who forced them to put on shows for organizations like the Red Cross as part of a propaganda campaign. Gruenbaum remembers when he was in the audience, watching a soccer game for footage that was being filmed to dispel “the nasty rumors that they were killing off all the European Jews... the culture at Terezin was thriving so they decided to make a film about it. They put in a German Jewish filmmaker to make (it) and when everybody who participated in that film was finished, they were sent to Auschwitz.”
Gruenbaum’s mother saved her own life and the lives of her children by using her artistic talents to sew teddy bears at Terezin. When she saw they were on a transport list to Auschwitz, she explained to the head of the art department that if she left, she wouldn’t be able to make teddy bears for the SS guard who liked giving them to his kids and his friends’ kids. She also said that if her children were sent to Auschwitz, she would go with them. The SS guard pulled all of their names off the list. When he was 15, Gruenbaum and his mother and sister were liberated from Terezin.
Tapinassi was so inspired by the stories of these survivors that she enrolled in a Holocaust education course at the University of Florence. Because she is not Jewish, she says, “Sometimes people ask me why am I so interested in this. This was a huge tragedy that touched humanity... you don’t need to be Jewish to be sad about what happened.” She discloses, “This altered every part of me. Three years ago, I was somebody completely different.”
The film has been presented in Italy, Germany, Finland and the UK and will be shown at the Austin Jewish Film Festival on January 27, for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It will also be available to view online from January 27–February 6 at https://austinjff.org/events/wltcs/.
The production was made possible by The Blue Card Foundation and the European Foundation for Democracy.