'Defiant Requiem': How prisoners of Nazis used Verdi to cope
By David Lyman
Murry Sidlin always considered himself a very worldly man. As a conductor, he had led orchestras all over the world. He had cofounded the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen and spent nearly a decade as resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. He was highly regarded for his concert dramas — presentations that added various media to orchestral performances to enhance the dramatic presentations of the works.
But sometime in 1994, while wandering along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, a book in an outdoor display caught his eye. It was called "Music in Terezín, 1941-1945," written by Czech-American musician and educator author Joža Karas.
“I’d heard of the town of Terezín,” says Sidlin of the small Czech town about 40 miles north of Prague. “I certainly knew something about Czech composers and the musical life there. But Terezín — it was not very well-known to me.”
There was a two-page entry about a young Czech conductor named Rafael Schächter who had been imprisoned at Terezín when it became a German concentration camp during World War II.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” says Sidlin. “In the last paragraph, it said that while he was in Terezín, he put together a chorus of 150 and taught them the Verdi ‘Requiem’ by rote. I thought to myself, ‘impossible.’ ”
You can still hear the disbelief in his voice now, more than 20 years later.
'An incredible culmination'
Within a few years, the unlikely story that Sidlin discovered that day would manifest itself in the 2002 premiere of a “concert drama” called “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín.”
Sidlin will lead the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Community Chorus of Detroit, and soloists Jennifer Check, Ann McMahon Quintero, Issachah Savage and Nathan Stark in three performances of the work Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
The first of the three performances takes place at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. It is one of seven hosts of the DSO’s William Davidson Neighborhood Concert Series.
“We began work on this more than a year ago,” says Wren Beaulieu-Hack, director of the Berman Center for Jewish Education at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, where the performance will take place. It is, she points out, just one piece of a series of Terezín-related programs that has included lectures, a film presentation, an art show and a recently added 7 p.m. Sunday performance by a DSO string quartet playing music by composers who were interned at Terezín.
“This performance by the DSO is an incredible culmination to everything we’ve done this past month,” says Beaulieu-Hack. “We have trouble teaching about the Holocaust. But this did it.”
Verdi’s score will be familiar to most classical music aficionados. In Sidlin’s production, as the “Requiem” wends its way through the traditional Catholic funeral liturgy, it is interspersed with clips from Sidlin’s 80-minute film, also titled “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín.”
The footage ranges from sobering to heartbreaking. We see Terezín’s children’s chorus, featured in a German propaganda film to show the world how very enlightened the camp was. There is historic footage from the camp and interviews with surviving chorus members, all examining why hundreds of Jewish prisoners, faced with almost certain death, would commit themselves so fully to learning and performing the Verdi “Requiem.”
No sinner will escape
It must have been a staggering undertaking. Schächter was working with a mixture of singers and non-singers, people who were unfamiliar with the music and its Latin text. And since there was just one copy of the music, they weren't able to study it at their leisure. They had to stand around in a dank basement and learn their parts note by note. Musically, the “Requiem” is a huge piece, lasting upwards of 90 minutes. Just learning that much music is a prodigious task, let alone trying to do it without having music to look at. Add to that their oppressive surroundings and the constant threat of death, and it’s a wonder that a single performance ever happened, let alone 16 of them.
For Sidlin, turning those two pages into a full evening concert work was far from an overnight process. To begin with, he still wasn’t convinced the story was true.
“So I set out to prove that this information was wrong,” says Sidlin. “I knew about the harsh conditions there, the lack of adequate shelter and nutrition. But the biggest thing was: Why would Schächter be performing the Verdi ‘Requiem’ — a work steeped in Catholic liturgy — in a place where everyone was Jewish?”
Despite the passage of so many years and the fact that less than 12% of the 144,000 Jews who were sent there survived, Sidlin was able to locate and interview survivors who had firsthand knowledge of Schächter and his chorus.
None was quite so moving as the conversations with Edgar Krasa, who died in February at age 92.
“As soon as I found Edgar, everything changed,” says Sidlin. Krasa proved to be an invaluable resource. Not only did he go to Terezín before it became a concentration camp — he went to install kitchen equipment — but he had been Schächter’s roommate for the three years the conductor spent at the camp.
“Edgar sang in all 16 performances of the ‘Requiem,’” says Sidlin. “And he was able to put me in touch with other singers who were still alive. But more than that, the lessons he was able to demonstrate for me were astonishing.”
Sidlin knew the musical complications of staging the work. But Krasa explained to him that this was not just some idle exercise in making beautiful music together.
“In his mind, he transformed it from a mass for the dead into a mass for the dead Nazis,” Krasa says in the film. “And he wanted to tell them about the day of wrath coming, and the Supreme Judge sitting in judgment, and no sinner will escape.”
Of course, the singers would never be permitted to perform if their captors actually understood all the lyrics.
“So he thought, if we can sing it in Latin, he may get away with it,” says Krasa.
Terezín had been conceived as a showplace to convince outsiders that prisoners weren’t being mistreated. So it had fewer of the harsh excesses found in death camps like Treblinka or Auschwitz, to which many of the Terezín prisoners would eventually be deported.
“They were cruel to the Jews who were held there,” says Sidlin. “But they allowed the arts and culture to thrive because they thought it would lead to things being calmer there.”
And to a certain extent, they were correct. Prisoners were allowed to give lectures — more than 2,400 of them — on everything from art to physics. There were recitals and art workshops.
Those who were imprisoned there had no illusions of finding a grand and enlightened life within the walls of Terezín. But faced with almost certain death, they found that music, literature and educated discussions could bring them some sense of normalcy. It offered them an opportunity to experience some aspects of the civilization they had left behind. Not just a veneer, but something of substance, something of extraordinary beauty.
If they needed a reminder of the harshness that awaited them, it came very quickly after their first performance. The next day, roughly half of Schächter’s 150 singers were among 5,000 prisoners loaded onto a train bound for Auschwitz. Far from breaking the spirit of those who remained, Schächter found that he was able to recruit replacements very quickly.
They would perform the “Requiem” 15 more times before Schächter himself was sent to Auschwitz. He died during a forced march during the final weeks of the war.
“I have a feeling this guy was a hero,” says Sidlin. “Whether the Nazis realized it, singing and hearing this music gave the people inside the prison the feeling that they were fighting back. It gave them strength and hope. If it kept them alive one more day, it was worth it.”