WOSU TV Presents Defiant Requiem: An Interview with Murry Sidlin
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Verdi’s Requiem brought us into another world. Our world, without the Nazis.
Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Murry Sidlin. Listen to the interview through the audio player above. A transcript of the full interview is below.
Defiant Requiem airs on WOSU TV April 19 at 10 pm.
Against horrible odds, performances of Verdi’s Requiem were given by the prisoners of Terezin concentration camp in 1943 and 1944. There were 30 performances. Choristers would be lost to transports to Auschwitz and replaced by new arrivals. There were three different choruses. The final transport to the death camps on October 16, 1944 took all the musicians, children and thousands of others.
Terezin was a “model work camp” 40 miles from Prague. It was later known as the waiting room for hell. This was the camp to which the Nazis invited Red Cross inspectors, with the camp suddenly spruced up and called “The Town the Fuhrer Gave to the Jews.” Thirty thousand people died in the transport.
Rafael Schaecter was a Romanian musician who, on finding himself at Terezin, joined in the intense cultural activities going on around him. It’s hard for us to understand. Those imprisoned worked hard at giving lectures, presenting plays and making music as best they could. Schaecter led performances of The Bartered Bride, Tosca, Carmen, Elijah, and ultimately Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Mass for the Dead.
Why a Catholic Mass? How were such performances possible in the midst of such much despair?
The story is told in the documentary Defiant Requiem by conductor Murry Sidlin who went Terezin in 2007 to conduct the Verdi Requiem with an all volunteer orchestra and chorus, almost 70 years after the Holocaust.
I spoke with Murry Sidlin last month.
CP: Was Terezin a mini-city, or a barracks style camp?
MS: It was a town that actually was built in 1780 by Joseph II, whose mother Maria Theresa was the dedicatee. That’s how it got the name Terezin. Theresianstadt was the name the Nazis gave it. It was a town for military personnel. There was a small fortress adjacent to the the town for the military and about 6,000 people lived in the town. It always remained a fortress and a town for the military. The place we performed in the film was a riding academy built in 1860. You can still see on the walls small equestrian frescoes.
When the Germans came in they moved everybody else out, and made it in to a barren barracks type community. But there were older apartments and houses.
CP: What was the daily life in Terezin like in the Nazi era?
MS: Most people worked. There was not a contingent of Nazi soldiers walking through the streets. But people had to be some place. People worked 12 hour shifts. There were a number of Nazis surrounding the place. There were soldiers at every possible entrance, but it was not patrolled very heavily.
CP: So you never forgot where you were.
MS: One of the survivors put it this way. If something happened that was disagreeable, then the Nazis appeared like mushrooms after the rain.
CP: How can we understand the enormous cultural life maintained by the inmates amidst so much horror?
MS: Keep in mind that for a couple of years from the time of the invasion, Jews were excluded from practicing the arts and humanites. Teachers were fired, composers couldn’t get their music played, no creativity could function. Everything went underground. So they were ready to explode. They come to Terezin and begin to see a lot of people they know.
The place was overrun with artists, with scholars, with professional people of all sorts. The cultural life sprang up sub rosa, in the barracks. The first two commandants didn’t want any activity like this. The third was drunk all the time and didn’t care.
CP: Do we think that the first people arriving there as prisoners in 1942 knew that they were going to die?
MS: No. From what we know, they had no idea. They had no idea where they were going and how long they were going to be there. One survivor told me, “We thought we’d be there a couple of months, and then we’d be shipped home.” It was presented as a work detail camp.
I think there was this inevitable sense of optimism, in situations like this — it’s not going to be forever — we’re not going to be killed. They didn’t know what Bireknau was. They didn’t know about gas chambers until some time passed and news got out. The Jewish elders wanted to keep this secret to prevent panic.
I think they were in a state of suspended animation. I imagine that this created its own terror. The fact that they didn’t know. They maintained dignity and hope and courage through the arts and humanities. Rabbi Leo Beck who was a survivor wrote that these hours, these lectures, these concerts were hours of freedom; they transported them into the life they knew and the life they hoped would be theirs again.
CP: Tell me aobut Rafael Schaecter.
MS: He was quite a character. Apparently an extraordinary musician. He was born somewhere near Bucharest. He was one of seven children, most of them were musical. He had a sister who was assitant concert master for the Bucharest Philharmonic all through the war. She was exempted from any problem at all by the king.
Rafael makes his way to Brno to enroll in the Janacek Conservatory, and eventually he goes to Prague where he gets a job at a small but very adventurous opera company called the Burian. Mr. Burian was a Kurt Weill sort of character; he’s a transformative person about music. It’s not a cabaret, it’s not classical, it’s a new kind of voice combining many different elements. And Schaecter loved that.
Schaecter was a very elegant classical musician who worked well in all kinds of styles. He starts to attract attention and goes to the Prague Opera, and he starts to conduct. It’s clear to the people who knew him then that he was on his way. He was going to be a major voice. The people he hung out with most at Terezin: Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas were the next major voices, and they considered Schaecter to be on their level.
(Note: All died in Auschwitz)
He’s working in Prague but then Jews were kicked out, so he teaches privately until he’s arrested. He’s sent to Terezin early on. They put him on construction squads, and he meets Hans Krasa and he starts immediately organizing sing-a-longs. Mostly folk music. Barber shop quartets. As more people come in he starts to branch out to music they know and love.
He realized there’s a spirit to be lifted here. He’s aware of the malaise setting in from the uncertainty. People just don’t know how long this is going to be, what it all means. Nobody knew what to pack, what to bring. Schaecter brings a couple of scores.
CP: What was Schaecter’s path to Verdi’s Requiem?
MS: For a couple of years what was percolating in the camp was the establishment of one of the most important cultural centers in all of Nazi occupied Europe. There was something every night. One or two or three events every night.
Schaecter eventually conducted 38 performances of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. He would conduct scenes from La boheme, Tosca and Carmen. Almost all of Fledermaus and Magic Flute. Plus contemporary works. And he has his singers and his choruses, he’s trying Elijah…at one point he prepared for another great conductor, Karel Ancerl, who survived and became a very famous conductor…the finale of Beethoven 9th, just with piano accompaniment.
Its astonishing. This blossoming of an artistic cultural humanities center is growing. Finally Schaecter decides there needs to be one mountain top, one culmination, one final statement about the arts, about humanity and about diginity and courage and hope. He had brought with him the score to the Verdi Requiem.
Why did he bring it? He didn’t bring it becuase he knew he was going to conduct it. He brought it because he couldn’t be without it. This score meant that much to him. This and The Bartered Bride are the two scores he made sure he brought along. At night when he had no books and a little bit of light, I think he would turn to these scores and and be moved deeply. The Verdi score offered him a kind of reassurance about future and about revenge.
The Verdi Requiem had everything. It had beauty, it had drama, it had Italian opera. It was one of the greatest religious evocations as well.
The town had everything. Twenty-four hundred lectures by 530 prisoners over three years.
Almost a thousand concerts. They needed one grand statement to identify them and place into the memory of all people there the quality and capacity of all these people to function, to respond to the worst with the best.
CP: There’s always the question of why he chose the Catholic liturgy, but there are parts of the text that are very angry, and he was flinging this Day of Wrath in the faces of the Nazis.
MS: Yes, I think so. This is what the survivors told me. That he said in rehearsal, “We can sing to them what we cannot say to them.” Marianka (survivor) said that the word ‘defiance’ did come from his lips.
Now the council of Jewish asked what is this. A big Catholic liturgy? The members of the Council of Elders were afraid, and rightfully so. They didn’t want the camp to return to bleakness.
The elders discouraged a requiem, so Schaecter took it to the chorus. That night he said, “They want us to abandon this project. They think it will give off bad signals to the Nazis, but I’m going ahead with this and if you don’t like it, there is the door. No hard feelings.” Four of the survivors told me this.
Once people undesrtood this was a work of art, okay, so Jesus is mentioned, but understood we will lie with the sheep and not the goats. We will be written in the book of life. No act will go unavenged. There’s no greater work that says exactly what it is we have to say out loud.
It didn’t matter whether the Nazis attended any of the performances. They did. It was that they were doing it. They were raising their fist and clutching their hearts. They knew they were standing before God, and that this was a work of great dignity and offered them a kind of consolation and strength.
Marianka said he never heard of a mass, but it got into their blood. A 16-year-old Catholic girl had converted from Judaism. It was she who taught the choir the Latin and translated it back into Czech for them first.
If you look at the text of the mass as a prisoner you will see exactly what they were doing. This was a way for them to stand up and be counted and to fight back. This music was defiant, resistant and reassuring of dignity, beauty and spirituality.
CP: What’s especially horrible is that transports to Auschwitz began in September 1944 and almost nobody came back. But the performances continued. They began replacing people!
MS: By now, it was beginning to be clear what was up ahead. That had to be suppressed because what could they do about it? It was too awful to contemplate.
Every the time there was a deportation there was also importation, and Schaecter kept on recruiting. He did this three times. Replaced three choruses. You know there were no scores, no parts. People had to learn by note. He knew it by memory. The one piano vocal score went to Gideon Klein who was the pianist. No orchestra. The soloists either knew it or copied their own parts.
CP: When you first walked into that space in Terezin where those performances took place 70 years ago, what kind of reaction did you have?
MS: I almost fainted. It’s hard to talk about. Certain things happen to you there. When I went to the unmarked graves, 1,500 bodies were in one grave and nobody knows who they are. It’s very dignified now. You put your hand to the top of that marker of the 1,500 grave sight and I tell you, you feel vibrations, you feel a lack of resolution.
The same thing when I went into that cellar for the first time. I touched the walls and I felt it. There was something palpable about being in that space. I could hear the voices. I’m not saying I was sane at that moment. True, I’d lived with this story for a long time, but now I was seeing where it took place.
I could feel the passion and the energy to find some means by which they could continue to be human beings. They did not accept the degradation. They would not accept it. Somehow after 12 or 14 hours a day of slave labor they found the strength to come into this cellar and learn the Verdi Requiem.
The choruses I work with now in this project, we all come to rehearsals in our cars, and we’ve had a nice dinner and we go home to clean beds. I’m transported back to the enormity of will that these prisoners had in order to sing something that was reassuring and beautiful. Not just for them but for the people around them.
So who gave a damn if it was a Christian work? It’s a spiritual work. And their mission was to share all this. And Schaecter was the leader. This work meant more to him than we could possibly imagine. I’m sure if he could have possibly cut himself open and taken that score and taped it to his heart, we would get close to what this piece meant to him.
CP: And Verdi weeps in heaven.
MS: Verdi, I’m sure would be on bended knee.
Raphael Schaeter, Viktor Ullman and Hans Krasa were among the thousands sent to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944. All were sent to the gas chambers immediately on arrival.