Music of hope and resistance featured at Melbourne concert
By Joseph Toltz
MELBOURNE, 26 July – A special performance of the music of the Theresienstadt Ghetto (Terezin) was presented in Melbourne on Sunday, July 25.
Terezin, a small garrison town built in 1780 by Emperor Franz-Josef II, lies peacefully among
meadows and gardens, 38 miles northwest of Prague. To us, its German name is well known:
Theresienstadt, one of the most infamous Nazi ghettos, a place where 148,000 people lived.
Eighty-eight thousand passed through on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death and labour camps, while 33,000 died of disease and malnutrition in the camp. On May 8, 1945, the Soviet army liberated 17,247 people on the verge of starvation.
Terezín was the holding camp for Bohemian and Moravian Jews proud, sophisticated communities who had existed in the Czech lands for more than 800 years, embracing full emancipation under the enlightened rule of President Tomás Masaryk’s First Czechoslovak Republic. Joining the Czech Jews in Terezín were 57,000 ‘privileged’ German and Austrian Jews the elderly, decorated war veterans, prominent Jewish intellectuals, community leaders and famous musicians.
In time, Jews from Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark arrived to add to the mix. The intensity of artistic ability that came to Terezín was harnessed by the inmates, for the inmates,
through the organisation of ‘leisure time activities’ music, theatre, cabaret, sports,
art classes, lectures by academic experts. The cream of Central European intellectual life,
those who could not escape the Nazi talons did not sit idly by in this ghetto they created,
formed and breathed life into the most unique and amazing creations.
On July 25, I directed and performed in a concert presented by the Jewish Museum of
Australia that was inspired by the cultural life of Terezín; it complemented the museum’s current exhibition “Theresienstadt: Drawn from the Inside,” a series of intimate artworks by Paul Schwarz and Leo Lowit bequeathed to the museum in 1980 by Regina Schwarz. What made the concert unique was that it was not just a presentation of the music created in Terezín, but it provided a diverse journey into the musical lives of survivors, discussing the importance of music to maintaining hope, providing distraction and entertainment,
offering an opportunity for spiritual resistance, as well as providing an outlet for processing
what was happening to them at the time.
For the past four years, my doctoral dissertation has involved interviewing survivors of the
Holocaust about musical experiences in ghettos and camps. My journey began 12 years ago, with survivors of Terezín, who discussed the place of Brundibár a children’s opera composed by Hans Krasa, a Czech Jew in their hearts and minds. They referred me to other survivors from soloists from the children’s opera all the way to the two most esteemed pianists in the camp, the 96-year-old Edith Steiner-Kraus (in Jerusalem) and the 104-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer. Two years after our interview, Alice is still playing piano three hours a day, living independently in London. Over the course of four years, 25 Terezín survivors spoke to me of their incredible journeys in music in those years of hardship and trial, and their observations coloured our concert.
SO what was music in Terezín? It was an entire world of creativity, from the Jazz of Coco
Schumann and the Ghetto Swingers, to everyday pub songs and work songs. The first musical revues in 1941 were directed by the choral conductor Rafael Schächter and the Czech cabaret artist, Karel Svenk; in time they were joined by German cabaret artists such as Kurt Gerron (co-star in the 1920s with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel), Willi Rosen and others who had escaped Berlin to Holland in 1938 sadly, not far enough away from Germany. Our concert featured some of these cabaret and jazz works.
There were four orchestras, including a famous Terezín string orchestra conducted by Karel An erl. An erl survived Auschwitz and other camps, and following liberation, rose to become
conductor of the Czech Philharmonic until his escape to Toronto in 1968. The concert featured a recorded performance by An erl’s orchestra, filmed as part of the 1944 propaganda
film made by the Czech Aktualita company.
Music became an essential part of children’s pedagogy through the opera Brundibár, the musical play Brou ci (the Fireflies) and participation in the children’s choirs. Adults also formed choirs all male, all female and mixed. Such choirs were devoted to Zionist or Socialist songs,
others sang Yiddish lider (many of the residents singing the language of their grandparents for
the first time) or Jewish liturgical works, and the larger choirs undertook the great oratorios
of the repertoire. At our concert, the King David School Chamber Choir presented excerpts of some of this choral repertoire, including a small section of Brundibár.
There were hundreds of chamber music recitals, from baroque and rococo repertoire, all the way to completely new music composed and performed in the ghetto by students of Janá ek and Schönberg, and former members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Concertgebouw (a concert hall in Amsterdam) and other orchestras. The
brightest stars of new Czech composition Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann all were featured in our concert, performed by Anne Gilby, Eidit Golder and the A La Corda Quartet.
Music was not enough to help one survive though. If you were lucky enough to be in demand, then you could avoid resettlement (i.e. transport to Auschwitz), but by September 1944 this protection had evaporated and the vast majority of Terezín’s musicians were deported and murdered in the months of September and October.
In my discussions with survivors from Terezín here, in the UK, in Israel and the USA, I have
learnt one very important fact: music was an aspect that preserved the humanity for many
living in the appalling, conditions of the ghetto. Even if you weren’t a performer, music
provided an outlet, be it escape, hope, anger, and helped you process and adapt to the
conditions. It played a vital role for some in keeping their humanity alive, and it was the
preservation of that humanity that they carried throughout such terrible times, clinging to it, in order to remain sane.
Our concert was not just some missing link, providing the continuity in Jewish artistry and creativity in middle Europe. Nor was it a dry academic exercise, presenting an odd set of compositions that survived beyond all probability. Instead, it brought back to life the
humanity that existed in Terezín, against all odds. A humanity that we rarely think of when
considering life in the camps and ghettos, but a humanity that must have existed in order for our parents and grandparents, our uncles, aunts and cousins to have survived, to be able to build new lives and contribute so much of their own, rich musical culture to a place 12,000 miles away from the land of their birth.
This concert brought back to life the voices of the composers of Terezín. For the first time
in Australia, the Terezín polka sounded, forgotten by all except those interned in the camp, but notated by the sister of the composer who migrated to Tasmania after the war. The heritage of Czech Jewry lives in our Australian musical experience. Rudolf Pekarek, one-time
conductor of the Prague Radio Orchestra migrated to Australia with his wife after the war and
became the first conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and later the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Coco Schumann moved to Melbourne in 1950, where for four years he played successfully with Leo Rosner and his Gypsy Band. Karel An erl toured the Czech Philharmonic to Australia in the 1970s, to great acclaim. Hundreds of Czech survivors made their home in Australia, ordinary people who brought with them a love and devotion to music and the arts. This concert was dedicated to them and their memory and
also as a legacy to those who died, whose music carries a unique voice for future generations to hear.
Joseph Toltz is a professional singer and academic.
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