Requiem is a lyrical memorial to Holocaust choir

prague | Most Holocaust memorials range from somber to heart-wrenching to depressing.

In a different vein, the discovery of humanity’s need to create within horrific conditions provokes an entirely different emotion: relief that no amount of misery can quench the artistic thirst.

Such is the case with Murry Sidlin’s “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” which pays tribute to the efforts of Czech conductor Raphael Schachter to channel Jewish suffering into music.

Sidlin, the Jewish dean of the Catholic University School of Music, has resurrected wartime prisoners’ choral performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Terezin transit camp in Czechoslovakia.

The 130-member choir performed the requiem 16 times from 1943-44, once for an audience of Nazi officers.

The requiem received a dramatic staging last month at a former Nazi warehouse at Terezin, now a museum. About 500 people showed up for the performance, including several survivors of the original choir.

“It was a very touching experience — it honored the memory of Raphael Schachter,” said Eva Roucek after watching the performance. Roucek, a native of Prague now living in the United States, sang in the original Terezin choir at age 15 before being deported to Auschwitz.

Sidlin’s re-enactment is a multimedia piece featuring Nazi film footage, survivor testimonies and actors reading the diaries of those who sang the requiem at Terezin, sometimes called by its German name of Theresienstadt, more than six decades ago. “Defiant Requiem” will be premiered in Israel by the New Haifa Orchestra next April.

“Defiant Requiem” is, above all, homage to Schachter, who smuggled a piano into Terezin, convinced the Nazis to allow the performances. A professional pianist and choral conductor, Schachter had one piece of sheet music for the entire choir.

By the 15th performance only half the singers remained. Schachter was eventually transported to Auschwitz and killed there.

What most fascinated Sidlin, who learned about Schachter after picking up a book at a garage sale about the Terezin performances, was why he wanted a choir to perform the Catholic piece for the Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, who was at the last concert.

The riddle was solved when he got in touch with Edgar Krasa, a former choir member now living in Boston who was Schachter’s roommate in the camp.

“Through Edgar, I learned that the requiem was a code. It talks about the end of the world and what happens to those who commit evil,” Sidlin said. “Even as they were facing their own destruction, the Jews in that choir were telling the Nazis how the Third Reich was doomed.”

Krasa, 86, who survived Auschwitz and came back to Terezin to see “Defiant Requiem,” said that Schachter also wanted to find a way to restore the prisoners’ dignity. “He thought we could escape the prisoners’ mentality by singing, rehearsing and performing. He was right. And the message is there in the music if you want to hear it.”

The Nazis missed Schachter’s message, but that didn’t matter to the choir participants. “It was a wonderful relief after working in the fields to go to rehearsal in a school basement,” said Roucek.

Legend has it that initially the Jewish Council of Elders in Terezin upbraided Schachter for selecting a Catholic prayer for his concerts.

But Roucek said this was not a problem for most of the singers. “We Prague Jews were so integrated, I used to go to evening Mass with my friend. We even had a Christmas tree.”

One of the most striking aspects of “Defiant Requiem” is the role the audience plays. They are asked not to clap at the end, but to remain silent, in honor of the victims.

It was hard for Krasa to watch. “At the end the singers go off in a row toward the place from which my parents were deported to their death,” he said.

Still, he prefers to think about the message of Sidlin’s tribute. “We sang because it gave us a spiritual uplift.”

What some musicologists have called the “ecclesiastical opera” is one of Verdi’s most challenging compositions. Czech historians have often pondered how Terezin inmates, most with no musical training, could have performed it like a professional singing group, as reports from the era suggest.

Krasa adds with wonder, “How did he get all us Czechs to learn Latin?”