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Remembering the Unimaginable


Terezin Legacy Award winner Khzir Khan (Michael J. Lutch photo)

The theme for Friday’s Terezin Music Foundation Gala Symphony Hall concert, “Do not forget me,” came from a letter written by Gideon Klein to his family after he was interned in the “model” concentration camp of Theresienstadt, or Terezin in Czechoslovakia. Terezin served as a way station as Jews were deported from the Nazi conquered lands, before they were sent on to extermination camps such as Auschwitz. So many well-known artists were interned there, that over time, musical performances, theater groups, and other leisure time activities grew up, and a propaganda film was made to delude the Red Cross and the Allies of the true intent of the Final Solution. Of the 87,000 people held at Terezin, only 5% survived.

One of the odd cruelties of the Nuremberg Laws forbade Jews from owning instruments; at one point, Prague held some 23,000 confiscated instruments. Musicians smuggled instruments into the camps, even sawing their cellos in pieces and gluing them back together in order to have the comfort of music.

As composer Viktor Ullman wrote “Our will to create has always been as strong as our will to survive.”

TMF exists to promote performances of music by composers lost in the holocaust, to commission new works in their honor, and to recognize individuals who further understanding and tolerance. It is a mission sorely needed in these troubled times.

The afternoon began with a pleasant reception at Symphony Hall, where Executive Director Mark Ludwig introduced Mayor Martin Walsh, who spoke of the need for support of immigrants, the rights of immigrants to safety and security, and the richness they add to our culture. He then introduced the recipient of this year’s Terezin Legacy Award, Khzir Khan, who spoke so fiercely in defense of the Constitution at the most recent Democratic Presidential Convention. He spoke with the kind of eloquence derived of transcending suffering, with grace and humility, and with hope, saying that “This time of darkness will not last. Our pluralism, our values, will survive.” What a welcome message when the news brings word of humiliation and fear, every day worse than the last.

Jim Braude placed each piece in historical context with slides of the composer in better times, water color sketches of life in Terezin, and excerpts from the Nazi propaganda film, showing a large audience enjoying a concert. Knowing that most of these people would not live long past the making of this film, your eyes search out the faces, wondering ….

Viktor Ullman was pictured at the 50th birthday party of his teacher and mentor Arnold Schoenberg. His Third String Quartet (Terezin 1944) opens with a lush romanticism reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Tranfigured Night). Its transformation, though, is not to transcendent joy, but to fear and despair. Imagine it as a sinister waltz, a bit askew, like the angles in a Carroll Reed film, then a dark fugue started by the viola leads back to the lush opening theme, transformed and feverish. Violinists Glen Cherry, Miguel Perze-Espejo Cardenas, violist Kathryn Sievers, and cellist Joel Moerschel gave a tremendous reading.

Gideon Klein’s String Trio (Terezin 1944), which would stand up on any program of Czech music, was reminiscent of Martinu in its rough rhythms and melodies. He was only 25 when he died.

“The Moon is Far from Home,” one of Pavel Haas’s Four Songs on Chinese Poetry (Terezin 1944), used a single bass line in the piano which evoked the Dies Irae chant. Then “A Sleepless Night” declared, “I am thinking of when we will meet again”. Tenor Fran Rogers found something deeply and beautifully sad.

Ilse Weber, the night nurse for the children of Terezin, wrote poems and songs, which were sung by soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, joined at times by the Boston Children’s Chorus. The BCC was outstanding, and one couldn’t help appreciating the intensity of the history lesson the students would be absorbing along with their musicianship.

Before the final work, we saw an excerpt of the film of the children’s choir at Terezin performing Hans Krása’s opera, Brundibar (Bumblebee). As the camera panned over the young audience, they all looked like they should have stepped off the set of a Shirley Temple film, or the Little Rascals. One of the Terezin survivors, who participated in the film, Ela Weissberger, wrote “When we sang, we forgot where we were. We forgot hunger, we forgot all the troubles that we had to go through. When we sang Brundibar, we didn’t have to wear the Jewish star on our clothing …the Nazis didn’t realize that the Victory Song at the opera’s end had a double meaning. In our eyes, Brundibar was Hitler…We wanted a victory over a terrible man.”

Michael Gruenbaum, who had performed in Brundibar at Terezin, was there on stage, still singing. Hearing today’s lively children sing this very work with a very old man, while remembering him as a very lucky survivor from among the lost children of Terezin, was just gut wrenching.

Though the concert ended with a jarring standing ovation, no one in the room could forget the murdered millions or fail to speak up against injustice in our own lifetimes.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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