Arts The Song of Terezin: the remarkable story of how poems written by children in the Terezin ghetto became a moving oratorio
Tuesday this week was Holocaust Remembrance Day in many countries. To mark the occasion the Czech premiere of the oratorio the Song of Terezin was held at Prague's State Opera. The Song of Terezin was written by Franz Waxman and is based on poems written by children interned at the Terezin ghetto, around 60 kilometres north of Prague. The Nazis tried to portray Theresienstadt as it was known in German as a model camp, though less than one in ten of the Jews sent there survived. Among those who did was Alena Munkova-Synkova.
"The children who were in Terezin were mostly alone and had to adapt to what was really a new life. Some of them had their parents there, and for some it was just a transit station. When they remembered life at home and they were hopeful they would return, they were inclined to reflect on their situation, in either words or pictures. Their art wasn't organised by adults in any way, it was always an individual thing."
And Alena Munkova-Synkova would know, because she herself was in fact one of those child poets. Deported to Terezin in 1942 at the age of 16, she was put in Girls Home L 410, which was under the supervision of a young man called Willy Groag. She explains the major part he played in saving the children's poems and pictures.
"When the end of the war came Willy Groag, who was the head of one of the Girls Homes at Terezin, collected everything that had been written by the children and was left there after they had gone. And all of their writings - if the poems' authors had not survived (which was rare) and hadn't taken the poems back - were collected by Mr Groag and he gave them to the Jewish museum in Prague. That's how they came to be saved."
Willy Groag went on to live a long life in Israel with his wife Madla and daughter Eva, who was born at Terezin. The work he collected at the end of the war was later published, eventually reaching a wide audience under the title I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Alena Munkova-Synkova is the only child whose poem appears in the book still alive today. She takes up the story.
"In 1964 the first book of poetry and pictures by Terezin children was published. I think it was called Poems and Drawings from Death Station. Then in the following years such books were published abroad, in many different languages. Naturally there was a great reaction to them, and Mr Waxman wasn't the only musician to work with them. A lot of musicians worked with those poems and put them to music, either individually or as part of a larger work."
Franz Waxman was a Jew who fled Hitler's Germany and settled in the United States, where he became a respected composer, principally of film scores. In the audience at Tuesday's performance in Prague were his son and granddaughter. John Waxman told me about the part his multilingual aunt played in the genesis of the Song of Terezin.
"My father received a commission from the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest music festival in the United States, for a composition for chorus and children's chorus and he was looking desperately for a work that would fit the requirements of the commission. And one day my aunt, a German refugee who was working in New York for the McGraw-Hill publishing company...her job was to find European books that were appropriate for publication in the States. And one morning she called my father and asked him to order her a sandwich for lunch, because in a package from Prague, she said, had arrived a book which she was sure would be a subject that he would compose. And it was of course the first publication of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which at that time was published by the state museum here in Prague."
The book I Never Saw Another Butterfly was named after a poem written on June 4, 1942 by a boy named Pavel Friedman. He died at Auschwitz in September 1944. There is also a stage play of the same title based on the book. The Song of Terezin was originally written in English, though there is also a German version: that is what was performed in Prague this week by almost 300 singers and musicians from the Czech Republic and Austria. John Waxman attended the first ever performance in 1965, two years before his father's death. Here he describes the work.
"The work is a song cycle of eight songs. The eight songs are each based on a poem. Many of them of course are serious and reflect the conditions at Theresienstadt. A couple are very light-hearted and joyful, because after all children don't sit around contemplating their fate all day - they're children. The Little Mouse for example is a piece that is not tragic at all."
Franz Waxman was an Oscar-winning composer who scored almost 150 films. Despite the many successes of his career, would it be fair to say the Song of Terezin - his last great work - was a labour of love?
"Yes, yes it was. At the time of the commission my father got the flu and was confined to his apartment. And over a ten-day period the majority of the piece was composed. Later in life, in fact five months before he died, he made a trip here to Prague because he wanted to see for himself Theresienstadt, and frankly he should have been seeing doctors and had an operation rather than coming here. But this was such a part of him by that time that he felt that fate had taken a hand, and he had to actually come here and see for himself. And he said it was one of the most moving experiences of his life."
Tuesday's Czech premiere of the Song of Terezin was also very moving, ending with the simple but extremely powerful words "Don't Forget Us" projected on a screen at the back of the stage. There were several bows afterwards, with the loudest and longest cheer for Alena Munkova-Synkova, the only surviving child poet of the Terezin ghetto.