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Defiance in music: honoring a Holocaust-era pledge

Wednesday - 6/26/2013, 1:03pm  ET

Felix Kolmer, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps in Terezin and Auschwitz, clasps his hands during an interview at his home in Prague, Czech Republic on Friday, June 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Associated Press

PRAGUE (AP) -- In a concentration camp designed by the Nazis to eradicate Jewish cultural life, among 120,000 of its inmates who would ultimately be murdered, a rising young musician named Rafael Schachter managed one of the miracles of the Holocaust.

Assembling hundreds of sick and hungry singers, he led them in 16 performances learned by rote from a single smuggled score of one of the most monumental and moving works of religious music -- Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass.

"These crazy Jews are singing their own requiem," Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the genocide, was heard to remark after attending one of the performances at the unique and surreal camp of Terezin, in what was then German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

But for Schachter and his fellow prisoners, this Mass for the dead became not an act of meek submission to their fate, but rather one of defiance of their captors, as well as a therapy against the enveloping terror.

For Schachter would tell the singers: "Whatever we do here is just a rehearsal for when we will play Verdi in a grand concert hall in Prague in freedom."

Seven decades later, in the capital of what is now the Czech Republic, his promise was finally fulfilled -- the Roman Catholic Mass played in memory of the remarkable Jewish man and his fellow musicians who perished, among them brilliant composers, artists and intellectuals from across Europe.

"Rafael was not able to do it, so tonight we will play the requiem on his behalf," said Murry Sidlin, an American conductor and educator who explains that his life's mission is to illuminate the legacy of Terezin. He spoke before the event which took place this month, staged in St. Vitus, the magnificent 14th century cathedral which towers above the city from its hilltop location within the compound of Prague castle.

Filling the seats and pews beneath its soaring Gothic vaults, mingling among the tombs of Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, were Prague citizens, young and old, Catholic clergymen and members of a Czech-Jewish community which numbered more than 350,000 before World War II and is now reduced to fewer than 10,000 in the Czech Republic.

Also gathered together were several relatives of the dead. Terezin survivors present included Felix Kolmer, who last saw Schachter at Auschwitz as the two were separated on arrival into two lines by Dr. Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," an SS officer and doctor who conducted horrific medical experiments on inmates.

Schachter was herded into the line of those condemned to immediate death, and perished in 1945 at the age of 39, one month before the liberation of his country. The 91-year-old Kolmer, who still teaches physics and works on behalf of camp survivors, escaped death at Terezin and two other camps. But some 50 members of his extended family did not.

"What Rafi -- that was his nickname -- did, strengthened us," Kolmer said. "The cultural life to which he belonged gave us the power to better resist our own fates, not just in Terezin but later in Auschwitz so we didn't go to the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter."

Kolmer and Schachter were among the first of some 140,000 sent to Terezin -- Theresienstadt in German. Described in Nazi propaganda as a "spa town" built by Hitler for the Jews, in reality it served largely as a collection camp for deportations to the killing centers of Eastern Europe. The inmates included some of the finest talents and minds of European Jewry, uprooted not only from Czechoslovakia but Germany, Holland, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere.

The Nazis initially kept it secret, but gradually began to tolerate an incredible flowering of intellectual and artistic life. Enough instruments had been smuggled in to form the Terezin Orchestra and a jazz group called the Ghetto Swingers. Cabarets, an opera and operettas, complete with printed handbills, were staged. Inmates gave more than 2,400 lectures on subjects ranging from physics to the cinema.

Conditions were nonetheless appalling. Survivors of Schachter's chorus recall emerging from a dark, airless cellar where they rehearsed after hours of grueling forced labor to step over the skeletal bodies of inmates who had in the meantime succumbed to starvation and disease. Their own chorus of some 150 had to be replenished twice as members were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

A brilliant conductor and pianist, the normally mild-mannered Schachter was described as "like a crazed man on a mission," determined to realize the Requiem despite the hardships and even strong opposition from some rabbis and elders who wondered why Jews should be performing a Christian Mass and worried that their captors might see it as an apology for their Jewishness and react with brutality.

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