May 20, 2024
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“We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them,” Gabriel (Gabi) Schacter insisted. He was conducting many of the world’s greatest musicians in the most unlikely setting, Theresienstadt. There was opposition from the leaders of the ghetto-labor-transit camp that the Germans operated outside Prague from November 1941 until its liberation on May 9, 1945.

Along with ordinary Jews, Theresienstadt contained some of the most brilliant and talented people in the world. During its existence, 530 inmates gave 2,300 lectures. Rabbis taught, led services and gave sermons. Musicians performed 1,200 concerts. Cabarets were operational and the communal library housed 60,000 books on numerous subjects and in numerous languages. Writers, artists and composers continued their work, and many people kept diaries. All this was done under the most difficult conditions. Some of it was hidden or buried, and as result that camp has one of the biggest archives of testaments to the Holocaust by eyewitnesses to that history.

After a day of grueling slave labor, starving inmates would attend lectures, readings, religious services, plays, concerts and cabarets. Some of these programs took place in crowded barracks, others in larger venues. Some were clandestine, others public. All had overflow attendance because these were not merely entertainments and social events that reminded them of their previous lives; they were also invigorating distractions that evoked the will to retain their humanity and innate dignity, and to resist their German rulers’ efforts to dehumanize them.

To some degree, such activities occurred throughout all ghettos and camps. This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. It inspired many other uprisings and continued to be an inspiration in Israel’s War of Independence five years later.

On February 2, 1943, the defeated Germans surrendered to the Soviets in what would spell the beginning of the end of the Nazi scheme to dominate the world. The International Red Cross finally felt pressured to send a delegation to inspect the camps. Theresienstadt, in its bucolic setting, was designated for their site visit. Germans had mastered the art of deception, and the newly created Potemkin Village, cleaned and freshly painted, would serve to continue the lethal hypocrisy.

The Requiem Mass originated as a Christian funeral service. Offered in Gregorian chant (which was based on Torah trope), it was later set to music. Beginning in the 16th century it evolved to much longer and larger musical compositions, more like dramatic oratorios and less suitable for funerals. The churches weren’t necessarily pleased, but increasingly secular audiences enjoyed them and performances began to take place in concert halls.

Prisoners in Theresienstadt, so many of whom were musically sophisticated, were aware of the Requiem but questioned whether a Requiem performed by a mostly Jewish prison population was appropriate.

Schachter, however, considered Verdi’s Requiem the perfect vehicle for delivering a message to the Nazis, most of whom would have been quite familiar with the liturgy and its texts which warn of the disasters evildoers will face on Judgment Day. The Requiem also contains the plea “Liberate me….” The conductor hoped the power of the words and music might actually stir the Nazis to better behavior, and didn’t mind if they considered it a taunt.

No doubt, it appealed to him that the Requiem was composed by Giuseppe Verdi, the composer of “Nabucco,” a hauntingly beautiful opera based on texts from Jeremiah and Daniel about King Nebuchadnezzar. The opera ends with the destruction of the Babylonian idol god (Bal), the embrace of Israel’s God by the king and eventually the return of the Israelites to their homeland.

Adamant, Schachter prevailed. No one forced 150 inmates to join the chorus and orchestra. With only one score that had been smuggled into the camp, his musicians had no choice but to learn it by rote. They did, and despite the many challenges were invigorated by the process of learning and rehearsing to the conductor’s exacting demands. They performed 16 productions in the camp, some for Nazis officers and the Red Cross delegation that did a perfunctory inspection and left satisfied by the sights they had seen in the Disney-fied version of Theresienstadt the Nazis had constructed.

What is important for future generations is that Schachter’s amazing achievement has taken on a life of its own. Although he did not survive the Death March from Auschwitz, his heroic work has been memorialized, and not only in the hearts of those who performed or heard it. Edgar Krasa, Schachter’s friend and barracks-mate who sang bass in the productions, survived the war and named his own son Rafi.

After meeting Murry Sidlin, a highly respected conductor and professor, both men determined to recreate the Verdi Requiem as both a memorial and a lesson. The first multi-media production took place at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in other major cities, always to sold-out houses. In 2013, the chorus went to Theresienstadt and performed it there. It was filmed, and unlike the Nazi film of the camp, this one has not been lost. It will remain as a testament to the human spirit and the power of music to solace and save.

In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Defiant Requiem was shown at the Alex Aidekman Family Campus in Whippany. Conductor Sidlin and the film’s producer, Patti Askwith Kenner, were on hand to introduce and discuss the film.

By Barbara Wind

 Barbara Wind is the director of the Holocaust Center of Greater MetroWest.

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