As a Nazi prisoner in the Terezin concentration camp, Edgar Krasa said he and other Jewish prisoners were forced to work all day and to survive on little food. What kept him and others going was the camp’s secret chorus.
“After work we went to a basement where we were encouraged to sing Czech songs we all knew,” recalled Krasa, who lives in the Boston suburb of Newton Center. “This was spiritually uplifting. And for those who [later] heard us sing in concerts, it reminded them of the life they had lived.
“For the 60 to 90 minutes we sang, we didn’t think about our new lifestyle. And the next day at work, we hummed the tunes and looked forward to singing in the evening again. … The chorus was a terrific benefit to us.”
The chorus was founded and conducted by Rafael Schachter, an accomplished musician before the war. Initially kept secret from the Nazis, the chorus was later encouraged by the camp leadership, which permitted its members to rehearse and give concerts.
Although the chorus performed many different pieces of music, Schachter is best known for his selection of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, a Latin Mass that at first was greeted with an uproar by the inmates.
“The Jews said it is a Catholic Mass for the dead and as Jews in a Jewish ghetto we should sing music with Jewish themes,” Krasa recalled. “But he transformed the Mass for the dead into the Mass for the Nazis, because it talks about the coming of the day of wrath, when the Supreme Justice sits in judgment and no one will escape.
“This is something we all wanted to say to the Germans, and we thought that if we sang it to them in Latin we could get away with it.”
They did, and performed it 16 times, the last for a visiting delegation of the International Red Cross and senior Nazi officials.
The Requiem will be performed again Oct. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A 150-member chorus and the Washington National Opera Orchestra under the direction of Murry Sidlin will present it as a concert/drama. A large screen between the chorus and orchestra will project interviews with Terezin survivors as well as a never-released Nazi propaganda film about Terezin, and actors will portray Schachter and others who tell the story of the Requiem at Terezin.
The Nazis actually tried to destroy the film when they realized that the prisoners in it looked unhealthy and unhappy and it thus did not achieve the goal of depicting Terezin as a model city for the Jews.
The chorus was formed shortly after Schachter arrived in Terezin in November 1941, hidden from the Nazis because “the original commandant wanted bleakness,” Sidlin said. “He believed that if you kill the soul, the body will follow.”
But a later commandant encouraged the chorus’ activities “to keep their minds off the horror and terror and disease,” Sidlin said.
Sidlin, dean of the school of music at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has done extensive research on Schachter and put the program together nearly 10 years ago. Called “Defiant Requiem,” this will be its 12th performance in North America and Europe — the first in the nation’s capital.
Stuart Eizenstat, the State Department’s special adviser on Holocaust-era issues, brought it to Washington after seeing it in June of last year at the concluding ceremony of the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference. Making it all the more powerful was that it was staged in Terezin.
“My wife and I were so overwhelmed and moved that we said we have to bring it to Washington and present it in front of survivors, members of the administration and members of Congress,” Eizenstat said. “My wife ran up to Murry and said we will bring this, but it will not be a one-night event but rather the launching pad for the teaching of the Holocaust in a different manner.”
Eizenstat said he raised more than $1 million to stage the concert/drama, finance a two-hour PBS documentary about the chorus at Terezin, develop a free Holocaust curriculum (six detailed lesson plans) that will be available to all teachers on the Internet and establish the Schachter Institute of Arts and Humanities on the grounds of Terezin.
“The Holocaust curriculum will allow teachers to teach the Holocaust in a different manner — to teach about courage and defiance,” Eizenstat said. “I got $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We said to them that this has a universal message for all of those oppressed today. The arts can create hope for those in prison, and people under oppression can have the strength to defy their captors.”
The Schachter Institute at Terezin is slated to open next summer. Eizenstat noted that Terezin was a concentration camp where the Nazis placed artists, scholars and musicians before sending them to the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Sidlin pointed out that more than 1,000 concerts were performed at Terezin. Between 1942 and 1945, he said, 530 prisoners who were scholars and professionals delivered 2,400 lectures on every conceivable subject.
There are eight members of Schachter’s chorus still alive and four, including Krasa, plan to attend the Kennedy Center performance. Another is Marianka Zadikow May, 87, of upstate Pine Bush in Ulster County.
“I was in the chorus since its beginning in the fall or winter of ’42,” she said. “We sang some Mozart operas, including “The Marriage of Figaro’. We sang it in German, which the Nazis liked very much.”
“Since it was a necessity to work eight, 10 or 14 hours, it was much appreciated that we did not have to think of what tomorrow will bring if tomorrow brought a rehearsal,” May said.
Rehearsals for the 150-member chorus were generally every other day, Krasa said.
But it wasn’t easy. The music was often difficult to learn. There was only one copy of the piano score of Verdi’s Requiem, so the chorus had to memorize it and sing it accompanied by one piano that was played by two people.
Making it even more difficult for Schachter were the transports that regularly shipped prisoners to Auschwitz. On three separate occasions the chorus had to be rebuilt after its numbers were decimated by the transports.
“He would stop people on the street [to recruit them],” May recalled.
By the time the chorus was ordered to perform Verdi’s Requiem for the International Red Cross in June 1944, its membership was down to 60.
“In the audience there were some Nazis in uniform,” May recalled. “The girl next to me told me that if I moved the curtain in front of us, I would see [Adolf] Eichmann.”
May said that after the war she saw pictures of Eichmann, and that he was indeed the man she saw sitting in the audience.
Those who have heard Verdi’s Requiem after learning of the Terezin performances say they will never be able to hear it the same way again.
Pamela Thomas, a soprano with the New York City Opera Company who performed “Requiem Defiant” with Sidlin at Terezin and is to sing it with him in Washington, said the experience has “forever changed our lives.”
Thomas, 60, who is not Jewish, said: “As an actor you think who would be out there listening and you imagine you are singing this beautiful music to those Nazi bastards. And it had a message. The Nazis were so arrogant and had such a feeling of superiority — I don’t think they had a clue. … I hope this story gets out there. It is life affirming and life altering. When someone mistreats you, it is very hard not to send back hate. What these folks did was not so much hate as it was justice.”
Within days after the performance for the International Red Cross, most of those in the chorus — including Schachter — were transported to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. It is believed that Schachter died on a forced march outside of Auschwitz.
Until 1978, May said she was unable to speak about her experiences during the Holocaust. Since then, she said, she has spoken many times to schoolchildren.
“There is always applause after I speak, but I tell them I want to thank them for giving me the chance to keep my promise to the nameless hundreds of people who either died near me or in my arms … and who said not only hold me but also please promise not to forget me,” May said.
Sidlin said he is presenting these performances in the hope that Schachter will become “known for the hero he was,” and that people will forever associate Verdi’s Requiem with the prisoners of Terezin.
At the end of each performance, there is a train whistle. A violin soloist plays the music to the last line of the Mourner’s Kaddish while one by one members of the orchestra and chorus silently walk off the stage to symbolize the deportation that awaited those at Terezin.
“I don’t want the audience to think the Mass is over, what a beautiful performance.” Sidlin said. “The Mass is over, now comes the deportation. On the screen we ask that in lieu of applause please observe a moment of silence. When the stage is empty, the violinist finishes, leaves the stage and the curtain comes down.”
Defiant Requiem, which is at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 6 at the Kennedy Center, is sold out. To be placed on the wait list, contact Louisa Hollman at DRTerezin@gmail.com.