Several members of my family–including my grandmother, Otilie Hellerova, and my best friend and great-grandfather, Gustav Neumann–made their way through this gate. The sign above it informed them that “work will make you free.” Instead, it was a gateway to hell. Terezin, a concentration camp located in the Czech Republic, was a stopping point on the way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other killing places.
Last week, my wife Sue and I, along with our friends, Donna Stienstra and Tom Strikwerda, attended a dramatic tribute to Terezin prisoners who defied the Nazis through music. Created and conducted by Maestro Murry Sidlin, and performed at Strathmore in Rockville, Maryland, it was one of the most moving experiences I have had in a long time.
Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin is a concert-drama which commemorates an amazing event which took place at the camp. Rafael Schachter, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory of Music, used a smuggled score and an old piano, and recruited 150 fellow Jewish prisoners to form a choir to perform Verdi’s famous Requiem. Unbeknownst to the uncultured and godless Nazis, the Requiem is a liturgy of the Catholic Church, sung in Latin. Performing it constituted an in-your-face, courageous act of defiance. In one section of the long Requiem the Jews, who knew what fate awaited them, sang: “nothing shall remain unavenged.” Schachter told the choir: “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”
The prisoners performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times with their oppressors in the audience failing to realize that they were witnessing an act of defiance. When the Germans “dressed up” Terezin as a phony show camp for a group of International Red Cross representatives, the choir performed the Defiant Requiem for the visitors. It was June 23, 1944, and it was the last performance. Four months later, Schachter and most of the choir were deported to Auschwitz, where the majority was murdered in the gas chambers. Schachter survived, but later–a mere month before the liberation of Czechoslovakia–died in a death march.
During these Days of Remembrance, it is important to honor not only those innocents who died, but also those who found many ways to resist–some even through music.