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Moving music of the ‘Legacy of Terezin’

Mark E. Rondeau

 

Bennington Banner: Saturday,  May 14, 2011

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Set in the midst of the colossal horror we now know as the Holocaust, the cultural, intellectual and spiritual legacy of the inmates of Terezin defies easy description.

 

How can this story be described as a "bright spot" when the vast majority of the artists, musicians and thinkers at the camp soon went on to be murdered by the Nazis? Terms such as "triumph of the human spirit" take on an unintended irony when juxtaposed with the dark side of the human spirit, particularly the twisted, demonic spirit of the Third Reich.

 

A richer, more profound language is needed to describe what happened with the inmates of Terezin. I heard this language on Saturday night at Skidmore College, where the Battenkill Chorale presented "Voices of Hope and Remembrance: Honoring the Legacy of Terezin."

 

The voices were of adults and children; the words were in Hebrew, German, English, Latin, and Italian. Pieces ranged from classical works written in the 19th century, to music and words written at Terezin, and to music written afterward in remembrance and tribute.

 

History of a ghetto

 

Terezin (or Theresienstadt in German) was a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp, whose inmates included Jewish intellectuals, musicians and artists rounded up from throughout Europe.

 

"The Nazis may have imprisoned the people, but they couldn't contain their souls," the excellent concert program states. "A cultural revolution of monumental proportions blossomed, as distinguished scholars, scientists, painters, sculptors, actors, instrumentalists, and opera singers continued their intellectual and artistic pursuits for the benefit of their fellow prisoners. Chamber, solo, choral, operatic, folk, jazz and orchestral music flourished in spite of the horrific conditions."

 

Wishing to create the fiction of a "Jewish spa"-- and to warehouse intellectuals to stave off uprisings or objections to the genocide from the outside world -- the Nazis established the camp in a walled, garrison town, which had been the home of about 5,000 people before the war. The camp held upwards of 55,000 Jews at any one time during the height of World War II.

 

In all, 139,654 people passed through the gates; of these, 88,934 were deported to death camps; 33,419 died at Terezin, from causes including starvation, disease, exposure and suicide. More than 17,000 prisoners were liberated as the war ended. Of 15,000 children under 15, only about 1,000 survived.

 

"In the midst of this nightmare, a vibrant artistic and musical life was born. Less than two weeks after the initial transports, the first musical program occurred," the program notes. "What began as clandestine musical activity became not only tolerated but encouraged by the Nazis to further their propaganda."

 

The Battenkill Chorale's musical selections were diverse and rich; the solos each well-performed. The lyrics celebrated life, love, nature, freedom, music, work and defiance against injustice. Additionally, the pieces drew heavily upon the Psalms and upon Jewish liturgical works.

 

The children and youth of Terezin created many drawings and wrote many poems that survive. Composer Charles Davidson selected some of these poems for his 1968 work, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly." The Bennington Children's Chorus, under the direction of Kerry Ryer-Parke, sang four poems from this work, including "The Butterfly."

 

Written by Pavel Friedman, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, its poignant closing lines read: "For seven weeks I've lived in here/Penned up inside this ghetto/But I have found what I love here/The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut branches in the court/Only I never saw another butterfly."

 

Venerable works in the concert included "He, Watching Over Israel" by Mendelsshon (1846) and "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," from "Nabucco" by Verdi (1842).

 

Of works written in the camp, "Al S'fod" -- "Do Not Lament" -- one of three surviving Terezin compositions by Pavel Haas (1899-1944), was part of the concert, as was "Herbst" -- "Autumn" -- by Viktor Ullmann, (1898-1944), the most prolific composer at Terezin.

 

A recent work, "Five Hebrew Love Songs," (2001), by Eric Whitacre, featured brief, sweet poems such as "A Picture." Translated from Hebrew, this is the poem: "A picture is engraved in my heart/Moving between light and darkness/A sort of silence envelopes your body/And your hair falls upon your face just so."

 

Composers present at concert

 

Two living composers were present and acknowledged at the concert. The chorale commissioned and premiered that night Alfred Fedak's "Musica Dei Optimi" -- "Music, a gift of God," written in a modern madrigal style. Conductor Janet McGhee also introduced Thomas Oboe Lee, whose "The Flowers of Terezin" (2004) includes poetry by Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver. The Terezin Chamber Music Foundation commissioned this work.

 

As noted, many of the lyrics carried Jewish religious themes. One such was the song "Avinu Malkeynu" -- "Our Father, Our King" (1967) from the Reform High Holy Day Liturgy, music by Max Janowski. Chelsea M. Law, mezzo soprano soloist turned in a powerful performance of this.

 

As Law began, I choked up a bit when I read this about her in the program: "This concert is especially important to Chelsea after the recent loss of her father, who was a proud Jewish man and an important musical role model in her life. She will be dedicating ‘Avinu Malkeynu' to him."

 

As the performance drew to a close, I noticed in the program that the very last words of the concert were from Psalm 150 -- the final Psalm in Scripture -- translated from the Hebrew: "May every living being praise God."

 

While "Voices of Hope and Remembrance" was by no means a religious concert in any strict sense, still it spoke of transcendence. The concert accomplished this song by song by celebrating goodness and love and creation asserted amidst great evil, hatred and destruction.

 

And, for me at least, the religious language of a people long familiar with exile and persecution spoke of the hope that somehow life gets the last word, even in a world that seems at times in love with death.

 

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Mark Rondeau - Writer, Editor, Photographer