Late 1943. The cold barracks of the Terezin ghetto stand against an autumn sky. Although deportations to the camp had come to a standstill earlier in the year, the overcrowded conditions, disease and hunger still remained. As did the ever present threat of the gas chambers. But on this occasion the usual sounds carried through Terezin's bleak corridors were interrupted by very different strains.
One Rafael Schaechter, using just a legless piano and with one single copy of the score, gathered over 150 fellow prisoners in a basement beneath the camp to rehearse a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. On Sunday, 63 years on, the camp was once again the venue for Verdi's masterpiece, performed by musicians from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in remembrance of those who lived their last days in the grounds of Terezin. As part of the Prague Spring music festival, the performance incorporated dramatic onstage re-enactments and interviews with Terezin survivors, along with Verdi's moving score, to bring to life once again Schaechter's great musical achievement. Murry Sidlin, the Dean of Music at the Catholic University of America, is the man responsible for Sunday's event.
"For more than three years Rafael Schaechter inspired the Terezin population until his deportation to Auschwitz on October 16th 1944 from which he did not return. And now we honour his blessed memory by bringing back to Terezin his belived Verdi score. For him, his many singers and their prisoner audiences this music was simply affirmation of their incalculable need and thirst and determination to go one. We know what Rafael did and what he meant, and now in his name and memory, we shall sing!"
Indeed what Schaechter accomplished in Terezin was a momentous feat. Not only did he have to deal with the looming threat of the gas chambers, but even within the Jewish community at the camp there was unrest regarding Schaechter's project. The Terezin Jewish council, which monitored prisoners' activities in the camp, saw the piece, which took the form of a Christian mass, as an apology for being Jewish. They feared that it may anger the SS, limiting the prisoners' few remaining freedoms even further. After the concert, Sidlin described just how great the obstacles faced by Schaechter's choir were:
"Edgar Krasa who was in the front row today said to me that they would work many, many hours a day as slave labour and then they would go down to the basement near the museum and they would rehearse, at night, even though they were sick and they were hungry. It was just devotion and dedication. I heard that these prisoners were preparing the Verdi Requiem, and that they were learning it by rote because there were no scores, only one score. I thought this was a miraculous kind of event."
Sidlin has organised a number of similar events across the United States in the past few years to honour those who suffered in concentration camps across Europe, not just in Terezin. "Defiant Requiem" was first performed under Sidlin's direction in 2002, by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. But this latest performance in the camp itself constitutes his culminating work about Schaechter's musical struggle and achievements in Terezin. Sidlin explained why Schaechter's story is so significant.
"He was a hero because he shared his love for music with people who needed it at a time when they needed it very badly. This was a place that treated people in the worst possible way that mankind can invent. And his response to that was not to go down to their level but to rise above and show the best of mankind, to respond to the worst of mankind with the best of mankind. So he took great music, great art and he tried to inspire all of his people to choose life, to be determined, so in that was he was a hero. He himself was a victim and yet he led others to the highest heights. I think he was a great hero and it is my mission to make sure that everybody knows he is a hero."
Also present at the performance were a number of Terezin survivors, some of whom well remember the underground rehearsals and the painstaking task of learning Verdi's 90 minute long piece by heart. One such survivor is Edgar Krasa, a cellmate of Rafael Schaechter at Terezin, who has attended a number of Sidlin's commemorative performances in the United States. He talks about his memories of one of the camp's most famous musicians.
"Schaechter's legacy is only in the memory of those who sang with him or listened to him, and it was very interesting then that he taught the Czech Jews Mozart's operas to uplift their spirits. That was his drive. I think that 24 hours a day he helped people to forget their misery, in either doing what was helping them or at least looking forward to the next time when they would. So it gave you strength to carry on."
In true keeping with the conditions afforded to Rafael Schaechter in 1943, Sunday's performance took place in one of the old storage buildings in the Terezin camp. Krasa explains why he believes this provided an appropriate setting for the performance of the "Defiant Requiem":
"The other performances that Sidlin made in Washington and in Portland were never in a concert hall. They were always in something like this building; an expo hall where the beams were exposed and the pipes and the benches were even less comfortable than this to bring it close to the Terezin environment. I think it helps to create the true environment in which it was performed originally."
Indeed, Schaechter's endeavour proved key for many prisoners at Terezin, and has been described by many as lifesaving, providing at least a little alleviation of the harsh conditions at the camp. With the Latin text of the work speaking of God's liberation and justice, it allowed people to express through music what could never be discussed in words. Krasa recalls the significance of Schaechter's music for those imprisoned in Terezin:
"When we sang in the chorus we felt defiant like him. For us this was also an act of defiance, and that helped too, as you couldn't rise up and fight them but in this way you could show your defiance. And today, it's about the memory, we're now free. But this, at the end I was shaking."
Sidlin's production of the "Defiant Requiem" marked a milestone in the commemoration of the plight of the prisoners of Terezin, and ensures that music made during the Holocaust period will remembered for years to come.
"I wanted to bring it home. In my own way, I wanted to tell the people who are underground here or those who died in Auschwitz but who came from here and those who still survive. I wanted to tell them that we heard them, that we understand what they did. And I want them to be aware that they may be gone or that they may be old, but that at least one small person, in my own way, I'm going to take their message. I will continue to try to persuade people to know about Terezin, to know about Schaechter, what a great hero he was and the value and the message and the lessons that they were giving us, and to continue them."