The Concentration Camp Choir

WSJ 8/4/2018 by Bryony Clarke

In the summer of 1944 a delegation of Nazi officials, including Adolf Eichmann, hosted representatives from the International Red Cross at Terezin concentration camp. The visit had been meticulously planned: gardens planted, barracks renovated, streets cleared. Thousands of prisoners were deported eastward to reduce overcrowding. The elaborately staged tour, held on June 23, culminated with a performance by Terezin’s inmate choir. Conductor Rafael Schächter chose to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem.”

“When the music stopped, the Nazis sat there in silence,” recalls Zdenka Fantlova, 96, a survivor of Terezin. “Then Eichmann murmured, ‘Interesting, very interesting.’ ” Following his cue, nervous applause trickled through the hall. Ms. Fantlova adds, “The Nazis thought, why would Jews perform a Christian prayer for the dead? But Schächter had his reasons.”

Verdi’s nearly 90-minute masterpiece features a fearsome evocation of fire and fury, promises of posthumous punishment, and dire warnings of God’s wrath. While other settings of the Latin text omit the unsettling sequences and emphasize only eternal rest and serenity, Verdi accentuates the themes of judgment, justice and vengeance.

The apocalyptic hymn “Dies Irae” is repeated throughout. “Therefore when the Judge takes his seat, whatever is hidden will be revealed: Nothing shall remain unavenged.”

“Rafael said we would sing to the Nazis what we couldn’t say to them,” says Marianka May, 95, a Terezin survivor who sang in Schächter’s choir. “The Latin words remind them that there is a judge, and one day they will answer to that judge.”

Terezin was a ghetto and transit camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. It usually housed around 60,000 inmates, most of whom would in time be deported to extermination camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. Terezin became a hub for the Jewish intellectual elite—titans in politics, music and academia. A vibrant cultural scene flourished amid the desperation, with lectures, concerts and plays performed within the barracks.

In the spring of 1943, Schächter, a Czech conductor who led the camp’s choir, decided to teach his singers Verdi’s “Requiem.” Ms. May says, “At one rehearsal, Schächter made an announcement. He said, ‘I have a dream to put on some very special music by Verdi, that has never been sung in such a place as this before.’ ” It was no easy task, and the choir faced many challenges. A transport to Auschwitz in September 1943 wiped out nearly all 150 members. Schächter had to start from scratch with new singers. Music was learned by rote from

Its performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ left Nazi officials speechless.

a single score sheet, smuggled in by Schächter. They had only a piano for accompaniment. After long days of hard labor, beset with exhaustion and malnutrition, singers had to grapple with one of Verdi’s most demanding compositions.

Murry Sidlin, a professor of conducting at the Catholic University of America, says he was in disbelief when he discovered what Schächter had done. “I have conducted the ‘Requiem’ all over the world. There are passages that are treacherously difficult. It is enough of an achievement even in optimum conditions— where the singers are experienced, well-rested and healthy. The ‘Requiem’ demands all your concentration and energy. To come to rehearsals after a cup of gruel and a day of slave labor—I don’t know how they did it.”

Ms. May’s answer: “Being in the choir gave us the wonderful ability to think about the next rehearsal, the next performance—it reminded us we come from a normal world. It was soul-saving. I survived the war and I still have a soul.”

They gave 16 performances between September 1943 and June 1944. On Oct. 17, 1944, a transport took almost the entire choir, and its conductor, to Auschwitz. Ms. Fantlova sat opposite Schächter on the way to the camp. “There were about 130 of us locked in the same truck,” she says. “The doors were bolted, there was no air. The journey took three days, and no one knew where we were going.”

She recalls Schächter pulling a tin of sardines from his sock and asking her to mix it up. “This will be my last supper,” he told her. “I thought he was being a bit of a pessimist,” says Ms. Fantlova. “After all, we didn’t know what was going to happen—it might not be so bad.”

Schächter perished on a death march in the spring of 1945—only one month before the liberation of Czechoslovakia. Of the more than 150,000 Jews sent to Terezin, only about 17,000 survived the war.

For the choir of Terezin, singing the “Requiem” was an act of moral resistance. The condemned sang in defiance of their captors and the fate that awaited them. “We rehearsed without sufficient food, clothing or sleep,” says Ms. May. “But those in the choir had a reason to stay alive.”

Ms. Clarke is a copy editor at the Guardian.


Leave a Reply