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An act of defiance: How the music of Verdi inspired courage and hope

PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTISAN PICTURES | Scene from the documentary film ‘Defiant Requiem.’

PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTISAN PICTURES  | Scene from the documentary film ‘Defiant Requiem.’

In 1941, a young Czech conductor named Rafael Schächter was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt (Terezín) Concentration Camp outside of Prague. Like other concentration camps in Europe, tens of thousands of people died there during World War II, either killed outright by the Nazis or through starvation and disease.

But what made Terezín different from other concentration camps was the sheer number of creative individuals who were sent there. Many prisoners had been musicians, writers and artists in their previous lives and they continued to create during their imprisonment, either secretly or with the approval of their captors who used Terezín as a propaganda tool and even touted it as a “model camp” to Red Cross representatives during a tour in 1944.

As a composer, Schächter understood the power of music and because of the brutal living conditions at Terezín, he felt it could be a source of hope and courage for his fellow prisoners. So with just a single score of Verdi’s Requiem and a broken down piano, he recruited 150 of his fellow prisoners and taught them to sing the piece by heart in a dank cellar at the camp, rehearsing for hours after their grueling days of forced labor.

Schächter and the singers eventually performed Verdi’s Requiem 16 times for fellow prisoners at Terezín. The final performance on June 23, 1944 was for high-ranking SS officers from Berlin and Red Cross representatives who were fooled into believing that the prisoners were being treated well and flourishing at the camp. A few months after this performance,  Schächter was transported to Auschwitz where he died.

On Thursday, April 5 at 5:30 p.m., the Shelter Island Library will present “Defiant Requiem,” a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Verdi’s Requiem at Terezín and Schächter’s leadership in helping the prisoners of the camp to experience freedom through music. The screening is taking place in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day April 12 and following the film, there will be a discussion with Holocaust survivor Marion Ein Lewin, a board member of The Defiant Requiem Foundation.

“What strikes me so much about the film is it leaves you uplifted,” said Jonnet Abeles in a recent phone interview. A part-time Shelter Island resident, Ms. Abeles is a cousin of Ms. Lewin. “It’s just beautiful. Schächter had the prisoners sing the Requiem in order to make a community and give them something hopeful and beautiful at the end of work day.

Actor Petr Louženský as Rafael Schachter in the film 'Defiant Requiem

PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTISAN PICTURES | Actor Petr Louženský as conductor Rafael Schächter in the film ‘Defiant Requiem.’

“The lyrics of Verdi’s Requiem can be heard ironically as a protest against the Nazis. As they’re singing it, they’re making a statement,” she added. “There’s also the irony of the Requiem, which is a funeral mass, being performed in a death camp.”

The documentary features actors in period costumes recreating the events at Terezin along with current testimony of survivors of the chorus. The film also utilizes archival footage.

“It’s beautifully done,” said Ms. Abeles. “It makes it easier to understand what this chorus meant to the prisoners.”

As Rafael Schächter once told his choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

“Defiant Requiem” comes to the library courtesy of Ms. Abeles who bought a screening of the film at a silent auction for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

“I decided I don’t need to show it in New York to my friends, and thought wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful to do it at the Shelter Island Library?” she said. “I love the library, there is a wonderful tradition of watching movies and having discussion groups there.”

MICHAEL J. LUTCH PHOTO | Marion Ein Lewin and her twin brother Steven Hess may be the only living twin survivors of the Holocaust. Ms. Lewin will speak at the Shelter Island library after the film screening.

MICHAEL J. LUTCH PHOTO | Marion Ein Lewin and her twin brother Steven Hess may be the only living twin survivors of the Holocaust. Ms. Lewin will speak at the Shelter Island library after the film screening.

After the screening, the copy of the film will become part of the collection at the Shelter Island Library. But it turns out that the film “Defiant Requiem” is only one aspect of the Rafael Schächter story. There is also “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín” a concert-drama created by The Defiant Requiem Foundation’s president Maestro Murry Sidlin. It combines the music of Verdi with video testimony from survivors of the original chorus and footage from the Nazi’s 1944 propaganda film about Theresienstadt. The live performance also includes actors who speak the words of Schächter and others. It will be performed next in Budapest, Hungary on May 28.

“Marion heard the piece performed live in Berlin, and is intimately tied to the material because she’s a Holocaust survivor,” explained Ms. Abeles.

Ms. Lewin and her twin brother, Steven Hess, were born on January 14, 1938 in Amsterdam and were interred at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. They are among the few sets of twins who survived the concentration camps during World War II. At this point, they are possibly the last twin Holocaust survivors who are still alive.

“She’ll speak about the film, introduce it and take questions,” said Ms. Abeles.

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