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During Holocaust, why did Jews sing Verdi’s Requiem to their captors?

Note: For upcoming performances of Verdi’s Requiem, TFO is partnering with The Florida Holocaust Museum to tell the haunting story of how Jews in the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp learned the 85-minute Requiem from a single score and sang it as a message to the Nazis, accompanied only by a piano. Phrases in Latin took on new meaning: “from the ashes, the guilty man to be judged … how great will be the terror, when the Judge comes.”

The story will be explored in the pre-concert conversation that starts one hour before each concert April 20-22, with the museum’s Executive Director Elizabeth Gelman and TFO’s President & CEO Michael Pastreich.

Here is the story behind the miraculous Terezin performances, as provided by the museum:

Located 30 miles north of Prague, Terezin/Theresienstadt was turned into a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp by the Nazis after their occupation of Czechoslovakia. The camp was unusual in that inmates included highly educated Jewish scholars and scientists as well as internationally renowned artists, musicians and actors including Czech composer Rafael Schächter and the famous German rabbi Leo Baeck.  After grueling hours of forced labor, the malnourished prisoners would crowd together to hold discussions on philosophy and religion, to draw, to write poetry and to sing and play music. Baeck recounted that “all those hours were hours in which a community arose out of the mass and the narrowness grew wide. They were hours of freedom.”

In 1943, Schächter recruited 150 singers who met for months in a dimly lit basement to learn the Verdi Requiem. Using a single vocal score, he taught the complex music through rote and repetition, accompanied only by piano. Schächter conducted 16 performances of the Requiem for audiences of other prisoners. Replacements for choir members were needed at least three times, as prisoners were continually sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

After the deportation of Danish Jews to Terezin, King Christian X of Denmark demanded information on how the Danish deportees were treated.  Seeing the opportunity to spread disinformation and augment their propaganda efforts on a worldwide stage, the Nazis decided to allow a visit by the International Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross.  Over 7,000 people were deported immediately to Auschwitz-Birkenau to combat the overcrowded conditions, public areas were cleaned up, gardens planted, and fake shops and cafés were created to give the impression that the Jews had a good life in Terezin.

The Red Cross inspection was held on June 23, 1944. Compelled by the Nazis to give what would be their final performance, the singers hoped that the inspectors would hear the theme of the Requiem and understand their plight. Instead, the inspectors were completely taken in by the Nazi efforts. Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann was later quoted as having said, “Those crazy Jews — singing their own requiem.” Schächter was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 16, 1944. He did not survive the Holocaust.

The actions of the prisoners of Terezin to hold onto their humanity through the arts and sciences were in direct defiance to the Nazi plan to degrade, deprive and dehumanize them. Terezin Survivor Edgar Krasa explains, “We sang to the Nazis what we could not say to them. These performances allowed the performers and the audiences to immerse themselves into the world of art and happiness, forget the reality of Ghetto life and deportations, and gather strength to better cope with the loss of freedom.”

Verdi’s Requiem
With the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
Fri, Apr 20, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Apr 21, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Apr 22, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall
Tickets: $15, $35, $45
Note this concert is performed without intermission.

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