The view from my veranda

The Defiant Requiem in Jerusalem

31st May 2012
Shabbat shalom dear friends. It is almost midnight, nearly the first of June, but I had to write to you tonight and now when I am so full of admiration, emotion, hope, sadness and defiance.
We just got home from the most incredible, incredible evening. We went to the International Conference Centre in Jerusalem to hear Verdi’s Requiem but this was no ordinary performance, this was a performance of the DEFIANT Requiem.
The birth of this performance came out of a short comment in the history of Theresienstadt, a small comment about a Maestro who managed to bring people to song and music through the most extreme of dire straits, having reached the limit of human emotional endurance. Maestro Murray Sidlin, in far off America, put an advertisement on the internet asking for information on Maestro Rafael Schachter, the Maestro of Theresienstadt and received a response from the niece of Maestro Schachter in Israel. That led to lengthy and deep research on the part of Murray Sidlin and the formation of The Defiant Requiem Foundation and an incredible story began to unfold. This is not the first concert of the Requiem, indeed Maestro Sidlin took it to the Czech Republic, to Theresienstadt (today called Teresin) but tonight represents the culmination of Murray Sidlins dream as the Defiant Requiem played itself out on a Jerusalem stage, in the independent Jewish State with the soaring voices of the Prague Kuhn Choir, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Israeli soloists. It was everything one could expect and more! It was phenomenal! It was musically brilliant interspersed with film documentation and witness reports of survivors of the original choir, with narration by the Maestro, and Israeli actors Yona Elian and Sasson Gabbai, bringing to light the heroic story of one mans determination to give hope to the helpless and dignity to those who had the most basic of human dignity stripped from them in a place without hope. In the audience sat survivors of the original choir, watching their own lives play out in front of them.
They deep irony of Jewish voices soaring to the music written in defiance of the Catholic Church by an Italian in Latin is clearly apparent throughout yet, yet the very style of music tells us that even in this hell-hole the Jews were looking for a way to express their feelings to G-d. Maestro Schachter was a mild mannered man yet he demanded absolute attention and perfection from his choir. He taught them the massive piece by rote since he had but one score, one libretto, one possibility to draw the final vestiges of human pride in their achievement from themselves as a group, as Jews, and from each and every one of the singers. Under-nourished, sick, threatened daily, ill-treated and a truly sorry lot, he transformed them into great performers with a purpose in life – he gave them hope.
In 1944 the Germans seized the opportunity that the camp presented and decided to make a propaganda film to convince the world that this was a “Jewish Village, a retreat for the Jews”. Only the fittest were filmed and children who had no food were given candies and filmed relishing the prospect, sand pits and toys for those who had nowhere to lay their heads; adults given clothing and told to lounge around as if at a holiday spa and of course the orchestra and choir performed for the Red Cross who chose to believe the Nazis – as they do today believing our enemies against Israel.
When the heart wrenching power of the performance was reaching its end, Murray Sidlin asked the audience to remain standing in silence in honour of those perished and those who survived, some of whom were in the audience, rather than applaud. In silence the choir and orchestra left the stage one at a time, slowly filing out until just one violin softly played Oseh Shalom – please G-d make peace
What struck me so deeply tonight is the terrifying similarity to today’s world and the expendability of Jewish lives. We, Israel and the Jews, are today’s Czechoslovakia.
The magnificent Kuhn Choir, which filled the enormous hall with its elysian voices, came especially from Prague for this amazing performance. They were brought to Jerusalem by the Czech Government with a great deal of help from Czech Ambassador to Israel Tomas Pojar, whose late father was also a Czech Ambassador to Israel. In his short but moving speech after the performance Ambassador Pojar made it clear that we have at least one friend in Europe, one ally. Tomas worked diligently together with the amazing director of the Israel Festival, our dear friend and fine gentleman, Yossi Tal-Gan, to ensure the success of this project.
This message from Prime Minister Netanyahu reminds us of the close relationship between Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and Israel and the Jewish people.
I thought a great deal about the meaning of a friendship which comes out of a shared past indeed Jews lived in Czechoslovakia close to a millennium…………..
The Czechs understand what it means to be a small democracy, constantly challenged, constantly struggling to have its truth recognised and constantly struggling for the its freedom under enormous threat. These common challenges created a strong connection between the Czech people and the Jewish people………………
The connection between our two countries came to fruition tonight in this very special rendition of Verdi’s Requiem, The Defiant Requiem Concert honours the memory of those Jews who were taken to the Theresienstadt Camp and forced to take part in the pretence of normal life which almost convinced a willing world. In Theresienstadt they appeared to have a full cultural life, a library of 60,000 volumes, concerts and theatre, culture under the shadow of death. They played their instruments and sang until the Nazis chose to send them to their death in far more sinister camps
Culture and the Jewish Spirit flourished under the threat of the death camps but culture was not enough. The human spirit and artistic creativity of great artists could not deter death. For creativity and beauty to flourish we must retain the power to arrest the machinery of destruction, the power of our own destiny.”
Zvi and I sat in the auditorium in Jerusalem, Capital City of a Jewish State entranced by a performance of Verdis Requiem some 68 years after Eichmann sat and heard the Terezin Choir perform for him. Zvi and I sat in Jerusalem, where Eichmann came to justice, where the Jews built a phenomenal, innovative, generous, democratic country and watched the horror of Terezin, Teresin, Theresienstadt when Jews had no home.
Zvi, my husband, whose parents were the sole survivors of two fine upstanding Jewish families, was born in Jerusalem and brought to tears by the power of the music, the dignity of Maestro Schatcher and ever grateful to Murray Sidlin for honouring us with this magnificent performance.
Dear lovely friends, as Shabbat nears and we have time for contemplation, consider the implications of Maestro Rafael Shachter, a man who understood that only through the defiance of success could he bring hope to his people. His choir changed, time after time as members were sent to the death camps, but he persevered until finally this brave and proud man was taken to Auschwitz and put to death. He defied his detractors, he brought beauty where there was none. The relevance to today is excruciating, we must stand up and be defiant, not go like self-satisfied sheep to the slaughter of demonisation and dehumanisation. Be Defiant – do not succumb to the comfort of complacency, your children and grandchildren need you to stand up and be counted.
With all my love from Jerusalem, our Jerusalem, Capital of the democratic State of Israel.
Shabbat Shalom