The Terezín Requiem (Terezínské Rekviem)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

THE TEREZÍN REQUIEM (Terezínské rekviem)

Memoir by Josef Bor, 1963

Music played an important role in concentration camp life, especially in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) ghetto. Musicians often survived much longer than their nonmusical counterparts and had specific functions in the camp that served the Nazis in a twofold fashion: they contributed to the cultural life of the camp, pleasing both the Nazis and the inmates, and they played as the transports left out of Theresienstadt, thereby creating a rather haunting image of culture mixed with the uncertainty of fate. Musicians saw friends, family, and acquaintances to their deaths, and it was for that reason that they also had a rather high suicide rate. The movie Playing for Time, starring Vanessa Redgrave, relates the life of musicians in a concentration camp most powerfully, becoming a worthwhile supplement to studies on cultural life during the Holocaust.

In The Terezín Requiem (Terezínské rekviem in Czech) Josef Bor illustrates the development of a true event in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Raphael Schächter, a first-rate conductor and Theresienstadt inhabitant, decides to take up a study of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, a multilayered, profoundly diffi-cult piece to play. For this performance he will need at least 500 musicians, no small feat in any normal circumstances; however, in a concentration camp where the configurations were constantly changing with every transport, Schächter needs a near miracle. Bor describes in intimate detail the trials and tribulations of Schächter. The setbacks that befall him are heartbreaking and frustrating. Just when Schächter has found the perfect bass voice, a transport whisks him away. He loses three of his top four performers in one day and must doggedly hunt for replacements. The absence of musical instruments alone is enough to topple the entire proposal. On top of this he meets a wizened old man who pointedly critiques his choice of performance material and calls him a fool for attempting a work in which too much is required, a work that calls for a Catholic, not a Jew, to fully interpret the work to its true potential. It is precisely at this moment that Schächter realizes that his interpretation will have to be something new, something different. His interpretation will incorporate the most vivid and finger-pointing sections toward the Nazis. The one satisfaction Schächter and his artists receive from this is that the Nazis will probably never see themselves in the interpretation.

The artists themselves are no less remarkable. Many have suffered so intensely that music has become their outlet in order to forget their predicament. Several risk their lives to smuggle musical instruments into the camp. One high point in the work is the discovery of a treasure trove of forgotten military instruments in the ramparts of Theresienstadt. Indeed, the work is a testimony to perseverance and the strength of cooperation. Inhabitants of Theresienstadt are also to be thanked for their participation in the entire affair, as Bor states, "A good audience; it wasn't everywhere you'd find one so well-educated musically. And surely nowhere else did the listeners look forward with such hungry longing to the first notes of a premiére. "

The final performance of The Terezín Requiem takes place with Adolf Eichmann as an audience member. He laughs perversely when he discovers that Jewish artists will be performing a Christian work. He realizes that the Jews will be tolling their own death bell. Only minutes before the performance, Schächter is told that he must shorten the performance to less than an hour. The intense description of the performance of the artists, Schächter's furious conducting, and the audience reaction is beautifully handled by Bor, an eyewitness to the entire event. It is to the credit of fellow survivors who encouraged Bor to write down his observations that this work exists today.

In the spring of 1945, all the musicians were transported out of Theresienstadt en masse, as the German commandant had promised to keep them all together. The Terezín Requiem has since been performed numerous times in the United States, most recently by the Santa Clara University Chorale. The emotional intensity of Schächter's artists can, however, never be matched again.

—Cynthia A. Klíma

More From