Current Affairs Czech premiere of Song of Terezin marks Holocaust Remembrance Day

27-01-2004 | Ian Willoughby

Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked around Europe on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Here in Prague the day has been marked by the country's first ever performance of the Song of Terezin, an oratorio written by the German-American composer Franz Waxman which is based on poems written by children imprisoned at the Terezin ghetto (known in German as Theresienstadt). The performance, co-sponsored by Czech and Austrian agencies, took place on Tuesday afternoon at the State Opera. A day before the premiere I spoke to Tomas Jelinek, the chairman of Prague's Jewish Community, and began by asking him how the idea of putting on the first Czech performance of the Song of Terezin had come about.

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The oratorioThe oratorio "About six months ago we were approached by Maria Berger, who is an Austrian member of the European Parliament, and also a member of the Mauthausen Committee in Austria. She came with the idea of doing this performance in the Czech Republic. Originally she wanted to do it at Terezin, but because the Prague Jewish Community and other Jewish organisations, and Roma organisations, decided in 2002 to celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, we were thinking [putting on the Song of Terezin in Prague] would be a very nice and appropriate cultural event which should accompany this day."

Who do you expect will go to the performance? I know it's on at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

"We've already invited people so we know exactly who will come. We will have a few hundred Holocaust survivors, people who have personal experience of the Terezin ghetto and many other camps in Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe. We invited hundreds of pupils from schools and high schools. We also invited members of Parliament and members of the government, and we will have important guests from Austria. Heinz Fischer, the president of the Austrian Parliament, will come and speak on behalf of Austria."

Are they ordinary school kids from ordinary schools or are they Jewish kids, or Roma kids?

The concentration camp in TerezinThe concentration camp in Terezin "We also invited kids from the Jewish school, the only Jewish school in the Czech Republic, but most of the kids will come from schools which in the past had some contacts with Holocaust education programmes, with the Terezin Initiative, with Terezin memorial programmes and with the educational centre of the Prague Jewish Museum."

When you say you started marking Holocaust Remembrance Day two years ago, was it a difficult thing to start organising, to start marking it here in the Czech Republic?

"No, it was very natural. Because [the liberation of] Auschwitz connected the tragic history of the Czech Jews and the Czech Roma community. We saw it as a very natural event. Also in the year 2000 the Auschwitz Committee in the Czech Republic appealed to the Czech Parliament to recognise this day as a special day on the Czech calendar. Unfortunately, we have not been able to see that this day would be already recognised for this special event which will happen tomorrow. But we hope it's an issue of a few months, that the day will be recognised for the year 2005."

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