An 18th-century fortress town an hour north of Prague, Terezín provided the Nazis with a convenient transit center and the venue for a sham “model” camp. It was famously spruced up for an inspection by representatives of the Red Cross in June 1944, a charade that tragically succeeded in convincing the organization that there was substance to Nazi claims of humanity and tolerance at that camp and others. Terezín detained a significant number of Central Europe’s Jewish cultural elite. Despite the camp’s harsh and desperately overcrowded conditions, these talented prisoners produced and staged hundreds of events and performances. Musical productions between 1942 and 1944 included recitals, chamber-music concerts, and even operas. Their repertoire and organization were the responsibility of the Freizeit-gestaltung (Free-Time Organization), run by a select group of inmates but answerable to Terezín’s S.S. Kommandant. Jewish composers such as Rafael Schächter, Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas all played a key role in Terezín’s cultural output. But as Terezín’s true purpose was that of a way station to death camps farther east, all were ultimately murdered at Auschwitz.
The performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, written in 1874, were among the most ambitious of the Terezín projects. The Requiem provided the soloists and choir, who were obliged to memorize their parts, with a monumental musical challenge—although some prisoners resisted undertaking it, especially those Jews who felt that in staging a Catholic funeral mass for the benefit of the exterminators of Jews, the inmates of Terezín were being compelled to participate in their own cultural destruction.
For the last several years, these Terezín performances have been celebrated and memorialized, in Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; and Terezín itself. The driving force behind the enterprise is the conductor, Murry Sidlin, whose objective is to have audiences experience the Verdi Requiem through the lens of Terezín. Venues are chosen (or “dressed”) to approximate the camp’s bleak conditions. The audience is provided with less than comfortable seating, and an out-of-tune upright piano—the sole accompaniment in the original Terezín performances—augments the large orchestra called for in Verdi’s composition. The liturgy is interspersed with narration, the words of Terezín survivors, the infamous Nazi propaganda movie, Der Führer Schenkt Den Juden Eine Stadt (“The Führer Gives a City to the Jews”), additional musical fragments, and, not unexpectedly, a train’s whistle. It has been given a new title: the Defiant Requiem.
Its promoters have approached their project with great seriousness of purpose, proclaiming its value as both an educational tool and a tribute to the memory of Rafael Schächter, the conductor of Terezín’s Verdi performances, and his singers. The costs of mounting the piece, even in its regular form, are formidable. The project has had willing backers since its first iteration in 2002.
Despite the enthusiastic reception afforded the Defiant Requiem, it is a deeply troubling cultural touchstone. The promoters of the reconstituted Requiem insist that their version encourages audiences to experience the “true environment” of Terezín. This is not only “authentic” performance gone mad; it is manipulative and (possibly inadvertently) dishonest. For starters, the Terezín Requiem musicians performed without an orchestra. The singers were of mixed ability, and they were exhausted and undernourished. They lived in an uninterrupted state of unspoken terror, fearful that they and their families would be on the next list of passengers bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. These are impossible circumstances to approximate. Attempts to do so evince levels of voyeurism and kitsch impressive even by the exceptional standards of Shoah projects. As for patrons of the Defiant Requiem, most enjoy the predictable post-concert rituals of dinner, drinks, and a comfortable bed. No one will wind up in a foul cattle truck journeying east to his or her own death.
Aesthetically, the project makes a hash of the Terezín performances as well. Those who staged the performances in the camp surely had been moved by the pull of the Requiem’s original theatricality, form, pacing, and musical substance—as well as its considerable musical challenges. To perform Verdi’s Requiem as they had to, rather than as they wished to, is to obscure the attraction it originally exerted on Schächter and his musicians. To do so also raises an unsettling question: As intelligent, compassionate beings, are our imaginations so depleted that we require an extrinsic narrative of prose and pictures to appreciate the extraordinarily evil circumstances of the Terezín concerts?
Neither artistic nor critical freedom was permitted under the Third Reich. Today, Jews and others living in the countries in which the Defiant Requiem is being performed enjoy such freedom. Anyone is allowed to stage anything, short of sedition and incitement to violence. The state has no power to choke off creative expression. Fortunately, the same is true of criticism. And it must be said that nearly 70 years after the Nazis’ hell on earth, the Defiant Requiem amounts to a mawkish piece of Holocaust exploitation, Verdi-abuse, and plain bad taste. It is a fine example of the deficiency and laziness of the contemporary imagination.
It would seem that books, documentaries, and museums are no longer sufficient to understand the Holocaust. Today’s students and observers seem to need a sensational multimedia shortcut in order to get at its meaning. It must be animated, set to music, amplified, and produced in the manner of a reality-TV show.
Verdi, not a religious man in any traditional sense, composed his Requiem to honor the memory of the poet and Italian nationalist Alessandro Manzoni. Although it has theatrical elements, the work was intended for the concert stage, not as the soundtrack to a state-of-the-art media extravaganza. To re-title this canonical piece, recast it as a Terezín Show, and layer it with new associations and emotions displays stunning arrogance and a jaw-dropping absence of humility. New works that draw on the Holocaust are all latently exploitative, but there is something doubly offensive about turning an existing masterpiece into Shoah business. Rather than plumbing emotional depths, this piece of musical poaching turns tragedy into a purgative, feel-good opportunity.
There is an extraordinary catalog of music written between 1942 and 1944 by the musicians incarcerated in Terezín. Once the preserve of individuals like the late Israeli musicologist David Bloch and the violinist Joža Karas, these works are now regularly programmed as part of Holocaust memorial concerts. Many have been recorded: there are six versions of Gideon Klein’s String Trio and three of Victor Ullman’s Fifth Piano Sonata.
Alas, the circumstances of their composition have led to the exclusion of these pieces from mainstream concert life. Like the Defiant Requiem, the context of their creation and performance has become their defining element. Audiences at Holocaust concerts are expected to reflect on the fates of their composers and to search for extra-musical messages of resistance, hope, or resignation.
The best of these compositions, like Viktor Ullmann’s Third String Quartet and the Klein Trio deserve to be appreciated for what they are intrinsically: works of great substance that deserve outings in settings other than special memorial concerts. The hunger for musical completism—the practice of recording or broadcasting every single note of a composer’s oeuvre–has brought initiatives that aim to catalog, publish, and record every note composed in a concentration camp. The problem is that the qualification for inclusion depends not on quality but on where the notes were composed. This does a disservice to the significant works composed under the terror of National Socialism, both by Jews and non-Jews.
The plain truth is that once wrapped in the Shoah, most memorial ventures become bulletproof, and their authors know this. For a Jewish sponsor or philanthropist to deny funding is to diminish the Holocaust’s significance. To criticize a project’s principle or content is to risk charges of insensitivity, callousness, or even anti-Semitism. On the other hand, supporters of and apologists for Shoah-inspired projects will always command great esteem. Indeed, the most interesting questions surrounding present-day Holocaust projects are the ones that relate to motive and benefit. They are rarely asked.