'Requiem' in the park - and in Theresienstadt

The performance of Verdi's masterpiece this Thursday night in Tel Aviv is an opportunity to recall an earlier production.

la scala 88 (photo credit: )
la scala 88
(photo credit: )
The gift Milan is offering Tel Aviv on its 100th anniversary, a free presentation of Verdi's Requiem, is of truly breathtaking dimensions, and not only because a monumental masterpiece produced by perhaps the greatest opera house of all times, La Scala of Milan, will be performed under the baton of one of the greatest conductors of our time, Daniel Barenboim. This in itself is noteworthy. But there is a profound Jewish angle to this production, and it is not at all certain that the creators of the unusual evening in Tel Aviv are acquainted with it, so the gift gains a special poignancy. Verdi's Requiem was the greatest musical production of the Holocaust era. It emerged as a form of resistance - no less impressive than any undertaken in the face of the Nazi beast - in the concentration camp of Terezin. Hoping to fool the world with the creation of a "model ghetto," the Nazis deported the cream of Jewish intelligentsia to Terezin (Theresienstadt), 35 miles from Prague. The sad fact is that, for those who did not die of starvation, dysentery and torture in the camp, it became a one-way funnel to the death factories of Auschwitz and Birkenau. In the course of three and a half years nearly 150,000 Jews passed through this ghetto. Of these, 98,700 later perished in gas chambers; 35,500 died of hunger and disease, 520 fell under Gestapo torture. In all, only 14,000 out of 150,000 inmates survived the war. Living under constant threat of deportation "to the east" (Auschwitz), surrounded by the stench of death, trampled upon, humiliated and tortured, conductor Raphael Schachter and a group of inmates undertook to prepare a presentation of Verdi's Requiem, an enormous undertaking under the best of conditions. Barenboim is bringing 180 seasoned performers from La Scala. At Terezin the group that assembled nightly in the basement of one of the barracks after back-breaking work numbered about 150. Their numbers were continually uncertain because some were snatched without notice for transport "to the east." Schachter had a single score in hand, and one legless piano. The group had to learn the Latin text of the 90-minute performance by heart. Eventually, by a near miracle, they came on a hoard of musical instruments. BUT THE technical difficulties were only part of the obstacles. Qualms developed in the camp as to whether this was the right composition to perform under the circumstances. Here they were, Jews exposed to inhuman treatment, doomed to suffering, with the end never far from sight, singing a Catholic hymn to the dead, in Latin, written by an Italian! There seemed to be a bitter irony to it, something bordering on blasphemy. Eventually, however, most of the objectors were made to understand that this Catholic ode to the dead, sung in the voices of Terezin inmates, would become a triumphant paean of Jewish defiance. When the performance began, with the declaration "Dies Irae - Day of Wrath," it was understood as a reference to the wrath that would befall the wicked then exercising the power over life and death, rather than the wrath suffered by those whom they put to death. And when the performance ended with the powerful "Libera Me - Free me, Lord, from eternal death, when You come to judge the world by fire," it was a splendid statement of Jewish faith that no matter what our foes do, we endure in the radiance of our God. Verdi's Requiem in Terezin turned out to be, in the words of Murry Sidlin (dean of the Catholic University's School of Music) "the triumph of the prisoners... the best of mankind conquering the worst of mankind." Victor Ullman reveals his personal conviction when he states that "the condemned sang the Requiem for those who condemned them, and their damned Third Reich" (Belated Glosses to Verdi's Requiem). The inmates gave 16 performances, some to Gestapo personnel and Wehrmacht officers. A number of the Germans were knowledgeable in music and found it entertaining that the Jews were singing an ode to death when they literally stood on the threshold of eternity. It is reported that Adolph Eichmann roared with laughter when he attended the performance, bellowing: "Jews are tolling their own death knell in a Christian performance!" It is reported that the concluding verse, the "Libera Me," which is meant to be sung pianissimo twice, was sung the first time fortissimo, and after a perceptible whistle presumably signaling a deportation train, continued in the expected pianissimo. It is further noted that at one point Schachter slightly changed the score, turning a musical phrase into three staccato and one longer note (perhaps comparable to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, ta-ta-ta-taaa), which in Morse code stands for the letter "V," indicating victory. The singers and musicians are reported to have looked the Germans defiantly in the eyes without a flicker of fear. Verdi's Requiem performed in Terezin thus became a triumphant declaration of Jewish immortality in spite of the fires of hell. It is fitting and proper that the first all-Jewish city in modern times - a symbol of revitalized Israel in its own homeland - continues in the same spirit. Surrounded by enemies, the city of Tel Aviv and the State of Israel shall not flinch. The writer, author of Politics of Compromise, In the Shadow of the Struggle, and The Islamic State of Pakistan, is the Founder and Director of Shearim Netanya, Israel's first Russian Outreach Program.