Music lessons from the Holocaust

This performance in Berlin’s Konzerthaus is not in remembrance of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust but rather how 150 men and women and more – sick, hungry and overworked prisoners – challenged the Nazis

The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A half-hour’s metro ride from where Hitler sealed the death warrants of six million Jews, American conductor Murry Sidlin lifts his baton before a hushed audience.
Up near the crystal chandeliers and gilt-edged ceiling a giant video screen displays the gate of a concentration camp emblazoned with the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work Makes You Free.”
Then a chorus of 150 men and women, arrayed above him, intones the tranquil opening of Giuseppe Verdi’s great mass for the dead: “Requiem aeternam donaeis, Domine,” – “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord.”
But this performance in Berlin’s Konzerthaus is not in remembrance of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust but rather how 150 men and women and more – sick, hungry and overworked prisoners – challenged the Nazis even as the gas chambers loomed before them. The night’s message is how music can make one free.
It’s also part of what Sidlin says has become his life’s mission – to make better known and illuminate a “miracle” that occurred at Terezin, an almost bizarre ghetto camp to which the Nazis deported or enticed the elite of European Jewry from eight countries, even selling “vacation packages” to unwitting German Jews who arrived with evening gowns and white gloves. By war’s end some 120,000 – more than 85 percent of the camp’s inmates – had perished.
Sidlin stumbled on Terezin’s story by chance. Casually browsing through books at a University of Minnesota store, he came across a passage that beggared belief: prisoners in Terezin had learned the Requiem by rote from a single smuggled score and performed it 16 times, led by a Czech man named Rafael Schachter.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is impossible,’ knowing what it takes to produce the Requiem under optimum conditions. How is this possible when they are eating gruel and supposed to be working 12 hours a day? If there is any truth to this it is miraculous,” he recalls thinking.
Sidlin bought the book for $3 and contacted researchers but got little help. Only after posting a message on a Holocaust website in 2000 did he connect with Schachter’s niece, living in Jerusalem. She suggested a Mr. Krasa in Boston. Going through the city’s telephone book, Sidlin rang an Edgar Krasa. He had not only sung in all the performances but was Schachter’s roommate.
Sidlin flew to Boston, and the story unfolded.
In Berlin, the performance last month began with the spine-chilling whistle of a train, and Krasa on the screen remembering Terezin.
Sidlin had created a concert-drama, incorporating the survivors’ testimony, actors and film into Verdi’s score, which veers from tender pleas for mercy to the terror of the Last Judgment.
As Sidlin had earlier delved into what had happened at Terezin, he bolted out of bed once at 4 a.m. and combed Verdi’s text; “Who shall I ask to intercede for me, when even the just ones are unsafe... Nothing shall remain unavenged...”
“I could see that almost every line of the mass could have a different meaning as a prisoner,” Sidlin remembers. “‘Deliver me O Lord’ for them meant liberation. Nothing remaining unavenged was certainty a reference to punishment for their captors.”
Sidlin checked with Krasa and a half dozen other chorus survivors and all confirmed his insight into why Schachter and they were so drawn to this Catholic mass. Surely they hoped for liberation, but through the Requiem they could also tell their captors – who attended the performances – that they would one day be held accountable for their crimes.
“Schachter told his chorus: ‘We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say.’ This was their way of fighting back, their form of resistance, defiance,” Sidlin says.
Survivor Marianka May, who appears in the concert-drama, remembers how her stomach stopped growling when the cold cellar in which they practiced became “the protective wall of something good, something meaningful, something healing,” where they took their battle to a high moral ground, refusing to let their captors dehumanize them and rising from their own depths to the spiritual heights of Verdi’s music.
“This was not the world of the Nazis. This was our world,” she says.
Even Sidlin, after a lifetime in music, cannot quite fathom their experience. When he asked Edith Steiner-Kraus, a survivor then in her 90s, what the Requiem had sounded like, she appeared somewhat miffed.
“Don’t you understand? We had returned to the source of the music. You’ll never understand or get close to what music truly meant to us as a sustaining power,” she said. “We were the music.”
In 2002, Sidlin, then conductor of the Oregon Symphony, gave the first of now 20 Requiem performances, staged in the Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center and Terezin, Jerusalem, Prague and elsewhere.
Next year it will be presented in Hungary where anti-Semitism is on the rise.
Sidlin’s paternal grandmother along with her family were murdered in a Latvian ghetto, but earlier he had no unusual interest in the Holocaust, going on to conduct some of the world’s leading orchestras and hold prestigious academic positions. That day in Minnesota changed his life’s focus.
“I am attempting to give Schachter the career he was prevented from living,” says the 74-year-old conductor.
In 2008, he started the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which includes the Terezin-based Rafael Schachter Institute for Arts and Humanities, attracting participants from around the world to perform concerts and study not the Holocaust as such or the horrors of Nazism – he believes the potential for evil resides in us all – but the continued relevance of Terezin’s lessons.
“During the time they had left in their lives they spent it fighting the worst of mankind with the best of mankind,” says the quiet-spoken but passionate musician. “That’s heroism. And that’s the legacy of Terezin.”
The Requiem was hardly the only high point of Terezin, where Jewish elders incredibly persuaded the Nazis that they could show the world a humane face by permitting artistic and cultural activities. Hundreds of plays, operas and concerts were staged, professors gave lectures and a group of brilliant young composers – all later gassed in Auschwitz – continued to create.
For the visit of an International Red Cross delegation, gardens were planted, shops stocked with goods and some 8,000 old and sick executed prior to its arrival.
The delegation gave Terezin a clean bill of health following a six-hour visit, which included the last performance of the Requiem.
The chorus was now down to 60, already having been replenished twice following deportations of its members.
Not long after, most of the remaining singers were transported to Auschwitz along which Schachter who perished, aged 39, on a death march.
“O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest,” the soprano, mezzo- soprano and chorus sing in the Berlin hall as segments of a Nazi propaganda film made for the Red Cross visit are screened before the sold-out audience. Some are in tears, watching children singing, swaying on rocking horses and basking in the sun. All were put to death immediately after filming ended.
When the Requiem ends, the musicians and Sidlin exit silently, seeming to move toward a train on the screen above. A grainy film shows families being herded into windowless boxcars. The haunting face of a young girl appears briefly before a door is slammed shut. A whistle blows.
Only a lone violinist is now left in the orchestra pit, playing “Oseh Shalom,” the Jewish prayer for peace.
The author was born in what was then Czechoslovakia from which his family fled after the Communist takeover.
Educated at Yale University, he served in the US Army in the Vietnam War. As a correspondent for the Associated Press, he covered stories in Asia, Europe and Middle East, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other conflicts. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Thailand.