May it go to the heart

Rafael Schächter formed a choir of Jewish prisoners that committed Verdi's choral Requiem to memory and performed it 16 times at the Terezín concentration camp. Hearing their story taught conductor Murry Sidlin just how powerful music can be.

Bret McCabe / Winter 2012 Posted in Voices+Opinion, Politics+Society, Arts+Culture Tagged murry sidlin, defiant requiem, holocaust, terezín, music, alumni

Image: Max Hirshfeld

This sign above a gate in the Terezín camp reads, “Work will make you free.” Prisoners worked 12 hours a day, says Sidlin. Image: Marta Tobolova / Shutterstock

In 1994 Murry Sidlin, Peab '62, '68 (MM), was walking down Minneapolis' Hennepin Avenue past the Bryn Mawr Bookstore when an outdoor display of $3 books caught his eye. One was Joza Karas' Music in Terezín, 1941-1945, a primer about the musical life in the military fortress north of Prague that the Nazis turned into a concentration camp. One of its two-page stories concerned a Jewish conductor and pianist named Rafael Schächter, who during his three years at the camp organized a volunteer choir of 150 prisoners and taught them to perform Giuseppe Verdi's choral Requiem by memory 16 times. It floored Sidlin, who knows the choral Requiem is difficult to mount under ideal circumstances.

He bought the book, and Schächter's achievement boggled his mind: Sixteen performances in a concentration camp? It was staggering to consider. Who was this man and why did a Jewish conductor turn to a choral requiem of a Catholic mass in the face of the Nazi Final Solution? The mystery occupied the next decade and a half of his life, during his time at the Oregon Symphony in Portland and as a faculty member at Catholic University. He learned Schächter was deported to Auschwitz and then sent to three other camps before dying on a death march about a month prior to Czech liberation in April 1945. He sought out Schächter's relatives and Terezín survivors who either sang in the choir or heard the work performed. As he began to see this as an act of obdurate resistance, Sidlin was inspired to create Defiant Requiem, a concert drama that weaves the story of Schächter and his choir into a performance of Verdi's Requiem. He debuted the piece in 2002, and when, a few years later, he traveled with orchestra and choir to perform the work at Terezín, he was accompanied by a film crew. Director Doug Shultz's ensuing documentary, Defiant Requiem, debuted in August as part of the International Documentary Association's DocuWeeks festival. Since then it has played the Reel Music Film Festival in Portland, Oregon; the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival; the St. Louis International Film Festival; the Big Apple Film Festival; the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival; the Jewish Film Festival in San Antonio; and it is scheduled to be broadcast nationally on PBS in April.

"What kind of people were they? What kind of people were they that they could respond to the hideous nature of the worst of man with the best of man?"

Murry Sidlin

It's a story in which every chapter illuminates a sublime display of humanity. Consider the time Schächter and the choir were forced to perform for the Nazis, on June 23, 1944. SS officers escorted an International Red Cross team inspecting Terezín; in the weeks prior to this visit, the Nazis had forced the inmates to make the camp look upbeat and happy. Flowers and gardens were planted. A playground was built for children. A soccer match was staged. Parks that Jews were not allowed to use were beautified. A film crew followed the Red Cross delegation around, and the footage was turned into the propaganda film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt. Translation: "The Führer gives the Jews a town as a gift."

This visit lasted six hours, and Schächter was ordered to assemble his choir and perform for them. SS officers and other Nazi handlers were in the audience. In the face of this choreographed lie, Schächter and his choir were going to stand up and sing an act of defiance in the face of their oppressors. And then the Red Cross representatives left. That October Schächter was deported to Auschwitz.

Getting to know Schächter, the creative people imprisoned at Terezín, and the role music played in their lives has forever altered Sidlin's relationship to his art. "It was the most profound lesson I have ever received in music, which always leads me back to the damned schools of music that are teaching [music theory's] secondary dominants—and not what music can be, what it must be, how to get there, and what it's all about," he says. "It's the circle that envelops the technical. And it's not how we teach it. I think that to leave kids in practice rooms where the accomplishment is all that matters instead of the meaning behind it, I'm afraid that is not why we signed on as their teachers."

Johns Hopkins Magazine sat down with Sidlin, a 2010 recipient of Johns Hopkins University's Distinguished Alumnus Award, at his Chevy Chase, Maryland, home to talk about what he's learned from people who know music in ways most people never will.

In 2006, you went to Terezín with orchestra, chorus, and film crew and performed Defiant Requiem. What was it like to present this piece of music in a place where, for no small number of people, it was quite possibly the last piece of music ever heard?

It was staggering. It was humbling. It was a privilege. And it was heart wrenching. None of which, when you're the conductor of an army of performers, are you allowed to exhibit. We had our final rehearsal just a couple of hours before the performance. Then in my dressing room there were a lot of people, and I just said, "Everybody get out of here. I need a half-hour by myself." So I sat down and looked out, and there was the top of the building that was the little apartment that Rafael Schächter shared with Mr. [Edgar] Krasa, who was in the chorus and at the performance. And so there was no way to disassociate yourself from the reality: This was a place where people were murdered. This was a place where one group of supposedly cultured and civilized human beings decided to annihilate another. And part of that annihilation scheme was to put them in here, and the response of those people was, among other things, 2,400 lectures, 16 performances of the Verdi Requiem, 38 performances of [Czech composer Bedrich Smetana's opera] The Bartered Bride, 50 performances of [Czech children's opera] Brundibár, and performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah and [Puccini's opera] Tosca and [Mozart's opera] The Magic Flute, and so forth. And you sit there and you think, "What kind of people were they? What kind of people were they that they could respond to the hideous nature of the worst of man with the best of man?"

Do you think Nazis in the audience understood what they had just been hit with?

No, I don't. Even though there was a lot of wishful thinking—Can the Red Cross understand? Can they read between the lines?—I think it was not very realistic to think they would have gotten it. What was more important than the Nazis getting it was the Jews doing it. It was so critical for them to stand up and to shake their fists figuratively through the "Dies Irae" [section of the Requiem, corresponding to a liturgical rite in the requiem mass], through everything else. It was so important for them to say to the Nazis in the front row that you simply can't succeed. You may be our captors, but we are free. We are energized, we are valid humans and see through your unspeakable behavior and respond to it with the best of mankind.

How did this journey begin for you? You first came across this story in a book. What came next?

The first thing I did was look for corroborating statements. What I found was essentially the same paragraphs paraphrased in several different sources. [Note: Soon after this he moved to Oregon, where he had become resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony. While there, he was offered a position at Pacific University, a small college outside of Portland.] Pacific University has two Holocaust scholars. Neither is Jewish, and they made a point of telling me that because, they said, everything they read about the Holocaust is fraught with too much emotion. There cannot be any mistakes, they said, there must be no invalidation. So they became coaches for me. I went to them and I said, "I'm striking out."

They taught me how to post on a Holocaust website. [I posted] that I'm looking for either relatives of Rafael Schächter, people who sang in the choir, or people who attended performances. Well, time went on and no response. And then I do get a response from Israel that simply said, "What do you want them for?" That's all. So I came clean and said, "I don't know. I'm a conductor in Portland, Oregon. I came across this and I cannot believe there isn't more to the story." Another 10 days or so pass and nothing. And then, whoever that was must have contacted this woman in Jerusalem who was the niece of Rafael Schächter. Her mother, his sister, was still alive and in Israel. She had been in Terezín for a very short time. The niece writes to me and says, "My mother thinks that my Uncle Rafael may have had a companion in the camp who would have been in the chorus. She thinks his name is Krasa, and I warn you, that's a very common Czech name. She wants to say initial E, and she says she thinks she heard a story that he went to Israel but he may be in the States. He kept talking about Boston." I mean, this was never going to work out.

I called area code 617 and asked for information and asked, "Do you have an E. Krasa in the Boston area?" They said, "I have an Edgar in Newton." So I called the number. [affects a deep voice] "Hello?" I thought, Oh my God. Right accent, right age. "Mr. Krasa, this is the craziest phone call you've ever got. I'm calling from Portland, Oregon. . . . Does the name Rafael Schächter mean anything to you?" After a pause, he says, "Well, I named one of my sons after him." I started to shake a little bit and I was beginning to perspire and I said, "May I assume that you were interned in Terezín?" And he said, "Yes, Rafael was my bunkmate for three years." This was on a Tuesday. I said, "Mr. Krasa, if I came to Boston, could I take you to lunch this Friday?"

So I went to Boston and he picked me up at the hotel. I'm a complete stranger and he puts me in his car and drives to Newton, where his wife greets me like a long-lost relative, and I was there for six hours. I said to him, "I had a kind of bolt-upright epiphany some nights ago that I thought may give me a clue to all this. So at 4 o'clock in the morning I ran down to my studio and took out the Verdi Requiem plus an English translation of the Latin to be certain and I'm just wondering if there isn't a double meaning in everything." And he said, "Yes, of course. That was the whole point." I said, "So 'libera me' is 'liberate' and 'day of wrath' is to the Nazis and 'everything will be avenged'—this was all you people singing this to the Nazis?" And he said, "With raised fist."

So that's how it began.

How important was it to visit Terezín? There's a difference between reading and hearing about something in the abstract and seeing it with your own eyes.

I know where they rehearsed, I've been there. And when they went into rehearsal at whatever time they had gotten back from work and had some gruel if there was any that day, they would come out and they said it was very common to walk over bodies—people who had, in the meantime, collapsed and died in place. So no matter how much they escaped through the Verdi and how important that was for them to get to know music in a way that most of us will never understand, still they came out and they were immediately brought into a reality.

There was one thing that I would like to share with you. Schächter himself became my teacher in absentia because I began to understand what he did. Krasa told me that [Schächter] was merciless—he used that word many times—in rehearsal. He would pound his fist and say, "Don't take your eyes off me." That was not being a lunatic conductor. It was that he could not allow them to go back into their hunger, into their illness, into the place where they begin to cry for the lost people, to worry, Where are my children? Where is my wife? He could not allow that. The purpose of [the Verdi] was to get past all that and do something bigger and broader and more life affirming. After all, they worked 12, 13 hours a day. They're tired, they're sweaty, their clothes are dirty, their hands are dirty, they can't brush their teeth, they can't do the things that just make one feel at least basically civil. They can't—and yet he was making them be that kind of focused human being for a larger purpose.

"Springsteen says, 'Empty the tank.' That's what we must do. We must empty the tank every time we go out."

Murry Sidlin

The other great teacher was a pianist, and she was in the camp. Her name was Edith Steiner-Kraus. I met Edith in Jerusalem, and I had a wonderful conversation with her. It started like this: "My years in the camp were the most wonderful years of my life." She must have used that line before because she smiled and said, "Yes, I know what you're thinking, The old lady is batsy." She said, "Here's what I mean. When I went into the camp, I was 18, 19. My career had just started to take off. I was attracting attention. What did that mean? It meant critiques, contracts, contact with conductors, engagement, re-engagement, recordings, and all the business of music. I go to Terezín. Every day for those years I played for somebody—for three people, 10 people, 30 people, one person—and I reminded myself why I became a musician. I was free of all that nonsense of the business. I remember Terezín because I know what music can be. I saw that when people came and sat down; when I finished they walked with a little bit stronger step."

So I said to her, "Edith, you're such an urbane musician, tell me: When you heard the chorus of the Verdi Requiem, what did they sound like?" And she gave me one of those penetrating looks that must've lasted all of three seconds but felt like a weekend and she said, "You know, you would've been proud of this chorus in any urban setting, but the superficial nature of that question troubles me terribly." And so I began to—you know the Yiddish word schvitz?

To sweat? Yes.

OK, I began to schvitz, but this is not a schvitz in the ninth inning with a no-hitter going. This was like Niagara Falls. She said, "You want to know about all those musicianly things. Did they sing in tune? How about the choral balances? What about the rhythmic precision? Was there good phrasing? Choral color? Was there an understanding of the text? Was there a relationship between the performers and did it get to the audience? All that stuff, as if any of that matters." And then, here's the line, this is what the late nights would call the punch line. She said, "We were so deeply inside the music that we had returned to Verdi's desk." And at that moment I realized with all my wisdom, with all my artistic elocution and elegance and profound performances, I had never even been close.

How has this experience changed your relationship not just to Verdi's Requiem but to understanding music and what it can do?

The Verdi Requiem, next to [Handel's] Messiah, must be the most-performed oratorio in the world. Audiences know it and love it. But this gives context to it. There's context and psychology to every piece. When you listen to music you're listening to a mind, heart, and vision. You're listening to the experiences of the person for whom common language no longer can serve, so art begins. In this case, here is one of the great works of all time in concert hall compositions. And it was borrowed by people—you know, the Catholics borrowed the Songs of David to construct the mass, so these people are borrowing the mass back. And they've found a way that this work can serve them. I kid you not, from what we know about Verdi, he'd be on bended knee with tears to know that those people—oppressed as they were—reached out for his music. And so what changed me about it is to realize, this is the way to communicate about music—to tell these stories.

You said that Schächter became a teacher for you in absentia. What did you learn about him as a man and, being a conductor, could you talk a bit more about what he did, given this volunteer choir of prisoners committing a piece of music to memory?

One of the major things [for me] was that when instructions were given to Jews who were deported to Terezín of how much they could bring with them, 110 pounds, when he filled up that suitcase, he went to his shelf and he put in a couple of scores. Now, there was no chance in the world at that time that he could know that this was going to be possible. So he selects The Bartered Bride because it's the Czech national opera. And then he takes the Verdi Requiem. Like every conductor he probably had shelves end to end of scores and he looks and he reaches for the Verdi Requiem. He makes a choice.

Why Verdi? Because he can't be without it. My guess is that if he could have he would have cut himself open and put this score next to his heart and then fixed himself back up, that's what it meant to him. At night, he could look at it for reassurance. He didn't know what they were up against, but he did know he was being resettled and relocated—that can't be good. That can't be good. They had no idea where they were going or what was up ahead. So he gets there and he's glad he's got it because he's amidst degradation and filth and attitudes that are hideous and inhumanity and all the things, all the adjectives that we can use to describe what loosely is called the Shoah. We have no words. We have Shoah, Holocaust, genocide. Does any one of those three words suffice? It's because language was not meant to go there. But he could open this score up at night and get solace and get reassurance that humans can create this and recreate it and co-create it. This is his Shakespeare.

Could you talk about the difficulty of what he did—16 performances in a concentration camp?

Yes, 16—and there were three choruses. After the first performance, two-thirds of the chorus is deported [to Auschwitz]. With deportations come importations, so he recruits again. Now he's got a third of the chorus from the first time, so it goes a little faster. Then x number of performances, [and members are] sent to Auschwitz again, and now he's left with the final 60. And he doesn't want to do it anymore because he's lost the power of the sound but he was ordered to do it so they gave one hell of a performance and those who sang it said the Verdi was incredible. It was smaller, yes, but it was incredible.

So what does it teach me? It teaches me that every night when you go out to perform there are going to be several different people in that audience. Some are going to hear this work for the first time, and their impression of it forever is going to be what you gave in those few moments. Some are there at enormous sacrifice. They had to go through all kinds of leaps and bounds to get to this concert, and they deserve your utmost. And then there are those who are hearing a performance for the last time. Nobody knows who they are, but they're there. And their last musical event is your performance. You owe a thousand percent. Beethoven said, "From the heart may it go to the heart." That was complete passion. Springsteen says, "Empty the tank." That's what we must do. We must empty the tank every time we go out.

Since I've learned about Schächter I've become a little bit familiar with the number of creative minds who came through Terezín. What did we lose culturally from this intentional extermination of a generation?

We lost the next generation of Czech composers, and that's the line that was from [Bedrich] Smetana and [Antonín] Dvorák through [Leoš] Janácek and [Bohuslav] Martinu into the current, and that would have been [Viktor] Ullmann, [Pavel] Haas, [Hans] Krása, and Gideon Klein. If Gideon Klein had lived, he would have been the Leonard Bernstein of Eastern Europe. There's no question about it. A, he was handsome to beat the band. B, he was a brilliant pianist starting to conduct and already a recognized composer. He had everything. And he was murdered at 25.

So that's the kind of talent that's gone. But it's not only in the musical arts. It's in the visual arts. Peter Kien. Phenomenal man. In addition to being a librettist and a poet, what a painter. Fortunately, in Terezín, in the museum, they have several of his paintings—and he also was not 30 when he was murdered. So these painters, these poets and writers—the professional level of [Terezín] was astonishing. In many ways, it was one of the most vibrant and active artistic centers in occupied Europe because of the number of places the Jews couldn't perform and halls were shut down and so forth.

So what's next for you? You're bringing Defiant Requiem to Peabody in the spring.

Yes, we're going to perform it at Peabody [April 23 and 24, 2013] and then a few nights later we'll do it at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. One of the things that Schächter said to his chorus many times was that all of this is a rehearsal for when we sing Verdi in Prague in a beautiful concert hall with a grand orchestra in freedom. OK, so we've done it on Terezín grounds three times, but we have not done it in Prague. And now Cardinal [Dominik] Duka of the St. Vitus Cathedral, which was the site and setting of the Velvet Revolution, has asked us to come to the cathedral to do Defiant Requiem this June.

Congratulations. That's very cool.

Yes. He's that kind of guy. He's a beautiful man. Someone told him about [Defiant Requiem], and his immediate reaction was, "I want to talk to this person." He was here at the Czech Embassy maybe a year or so ago, and he gave me the Medal of St. Agnes because of my work in illuminating the legacy of Terezín, which moves him very deeply. That's when he said to me, "Let's talk about bringing this to Prague." I said, "From your lips to God's ears." And he said, "That can be arranged."

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.

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