Category Archives: Terezin Musicians

5 Essential Holocaust Teaching Resources for Middle School Students

While there are plenty of Holocaust teaching resources for middle school students, teaching the Holocaust to this age group is still very challenging. How do you make the Holocaust relevant to them? And what are some ways to guide them through this incredibly upsetting subject?

Here is a list of five resources that can help you teach middle schoolers about the Holocaust.

The Butterfly Project

This incredible project uses the arts to educate students about the dangers of intolerance. It makes the Holocaust accessible to children, and presents the subject matter in a way that is poignant but not overly graphic or frightening.

The way it works is as follows: schools order kits containing ceramic butterflies, painting supplies, and cards with biographies of children who died in the Holocaust. After learning more about the children, each student receives a butterfly to paint in memory of them. The school or a community center then install the butterflies as a permanent memorial to the children who died in the Holocaust. The hope is one day there will be 1.5 million butterflies on display around the world, one for each Jewish child the world lost.

Visit their website to learn more about The Butterfly Project or to order a kit.

Inge Auerbacher’s I Am a Star

The story of Inge Auerbacher, a young girl who survived the war in Terezin, is a compelling way to bring the Holocaust to life for your middle school students. Inge is the author of several best selling books, including I Am a Star, which details her childhood and her time in Terezin. The book can be purchased on Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

I Am a Star is available in many languages and an 30th anniversary edition will soon be released. The book was also adapted into award-winning play, “The Star on My Heart”, which premiered in Ohio in 2015. Her story has also been featured on Butterflies in the Ghetto.

Paper Clips

This documentary tells the story of a Holocaust memorial project started by teachers and middle school students in the small town of Whitwell, Tennessee.

As part of a Holocaust education project the students began collecting paper clips. Their goal was to acquire 1.5 million to represent each child lost in the Holocaust. The project took off and ultimately the entire community created a remarkable Holocaust memorial outside the school.

The Whitwell community built the memorial in an authentic cattle car from Germany. The result is a starkly beautiful memorial to the children of the Holocaust, and a powerful message about tolerance and acceptance of others.


Composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister created the children’s opera Brundibár in 1938. Incredibly, Krása was able to stage a production of the musical in Terezin.

The musical was later performed when the Red Cross visited Terezin and featured in a Nazi propaganda film. Tragically, Krása and most of the child performers were later sent to Auschwitz. Very few of them survived the war.

In more recent years, the children’s opera has become more popular. It is certainly a great play to bring to a middle school if possible. There are also videos of the production on YouTube that are worth viewing and discussing with your class.


Vedem is a literary magazine produced by the teenage boys of barrack L417 in Terezin. Fourteen-year-old Petr Ginz established the magazine, and he published a new issue almost every week. Petr created much of the content himself and the other boys contributed to it as well.

The magazine featured pieces on daily life in Terezin, satirical essays, poems, and short fiction, as well as artwork. Tragically, Petr and most of the other boys from barrack L417 died in Auschwitz.

Their legacy lives on in the writings and drawings they left behind. You can read more about Petr Ginz and Vedem here.

I have also created a free Vedem study guide for teachers. The guide is available to all subscribers to Butterflies In the Ghetto.

These are just a handful of resources teachers can use to help their middle school students better understand the Holocaust. I’ve found these to be particularly powerful in bringing stories from the Holocaust to light.

Have you used any of these in your teaching, and what have you found to be helpful? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Artists’ Affair Part 1: Leo Haas

On July 17th, 1944, a group of artists were summoned to the office of Terezin Commandant Karl Rahm. Their names were Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Bedrich Fritta and Felix Bloch, and they worked in the drafting office at Terezin. Their crime: drawing and painting the true nature of the ghetto. They were interrogated by Rahm, and SS officers Captain Moes, Captain Hans Gunther and the infamous Colonel Adolf Eichmann. The officers wanted to know why the artists painted what they did, and accused them of being part of a Communist plot. The artists denied the Communist accusations, and stated that they simply drew and painted what they saw, the reality that surrounded them. The men were then brought to the damp cellar of a barrack, where they were again interrogated and questioned about their alleged Communist ties. Ultimately the officers stopped questioning them and transferred them and their families to the Small Fortress, where they endured more interrogations, beatings and torture.

Enrtance to the Small Fortress at Terezin

The interrogation and subsequent imprisonment of these men and their families in the Small Fortress of Terezin would come to be known as “The Artists’ Affair”. What follows are the stories of these men, beginning with Leo Haas, the one member of the group who survived the war.

Leo Haas was born in 1901 in Opava, Czechoslovakia and was interested in art from a young age, showing promise in painting and as a piano player. As a teenager, an art teacher recommended that he continue his art studies, and Leo moved to Karlsruhe, Germany to study at an art academy there. To fund his studies, Leo played the piano in local bars and restaurants – and painted the scenes he observed around him. In 1921 he moved to Berlin where his finished his studies and began working in a graphic design studio. He spend time in Paris and Vienna before marrying Sophie Hermann in 1929 and settling in his hometown of Opava. Haas became an established portrait painter and director of a local printing house, and was also known as a caricaturist.

Leo’s first encounter with the Nazis came in 1937, who declared his caricatures “degenerate” and “Communist”, which foreshadowed the events that would happen at Terezin. Haas, his second wife Erna, and her family were sent to Terezin at the end of September 1942. Haas was soon transferred to the graphic department of the ghetto, where his primary task was making architectural charts. Other well-known artists also worked in the department, including Otto Ungar and Bedřich Fritta, who would become a close friend of Haas. The men were often able to visit other parts of the ghetto, and they secretly began to paint and draw what they observed. Haas depicted transports, scenes from the ghetto café – where no food or drinks could be found, performances, bread rations being transported in a hearse, and many other aspects of life in the camp. He was known for being very politically minded, but known for his compassion and unflinching depictions of ghetto life in all its brutality.

He created a secret compartment in the paneling of the wall of his barrack where he hid many of his works. The works remained hidden during Haas’s interrogation and imprisonment in the Small Ghetto of Terezin, where Haas was sentenced to hard physical labor. After three and a half months, Haas and Fritta were again interrogated and accused of distributing Communist propaganda.

At the end of October they were sent to Auschwitz for their supposed crimes. Fritta was ill with dysentery and died a week later. Haas was soon transferred to another camp called Sachsenhausen where he was put to work in a counterfeiting unit due to his artistic talents. He was transferred twice more before being liberated by the Allies on May 5th, 1945. His wife survived the war but was in very poor health, and would remain sickly for the rest of her life. They adopted Fritta’s son Tomáš and moved to Prague, where they lived until Erna’s death in 1955. Haas then moved to East Berlin where he remarried, and worked as a caricaturist and cartoonist. He also exhibited his art around the world, up until his death in 1983.

Not long after the war, Haas bravely returned to Terezin in the hopes of recovering the paintings he had hidden in a wall panel of his barrack. He found all the paintings he had hidden there, as well as some of Fritta’s works, works of art that showed the world the truth of Terezin.

Further Reading
The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

Zuzana Ruzickova: the Gifts of Music and Life

A young girl takes a scrap of paper and carefully draws a series of musical notes. The notes are a small part of Bach’s English Suite Number 5 in E Minor, one of her favorite musical compositions. She doesn’t know where she is going or if there will be music there, and she wants to carry a piece of her beloved music with her. She tucks away this small scrap of paper. Knowing she has it gives her a certain strength as she boards the cattle car and is sent away to the unknown.

The girl’s name was Zuzana Ruzickova, and she was born in Czechoslovakia on January 14, 1927. She came from a wealthy and loving Jewish family, and from an early age, Zuzana was in love with music. When she was nine years old, her parents bought her a piano and paid for lessons. Zuzana progressed rapidly, and developed a deep appreciation for the works of Bach. As Bach’s works were primarily written for the harpsichord, Zuzana began to study that instrument as well. Her teacher, Marie Provaniokova, recognizing Zuzana’s talent and passion, secured her acceptance at a prestigious music academy in France to continue her harpsichord studies. Sadly, Zuzana was unable to attend due to the Nazi invasion of Czecholovakia and the Nuremberg laws.

In January 1942, Zuzana and her parents were transported to Terezin, where Zuzana was sent to work in the ghetto’s vegetable gardens. After work, Zuzana would attend the concerts and musical productions at the camp. She also managed to continue her musical education by taking lessons with the pianist Gideon Klein and joining a children’s choir.

Zuzana suffered a terrible loss when her father died in the spring of 1943. She became even closer with her mother and when her mother was assigned to a transport in December 1943, Zuzana chose to go with her. They were taken to Auschwitz, and both survived the initial selection. Years later, Zuzana could still remember the smoke from the gas chambers, and how terrified she was. On June 6, 1944, Zuzana and her mother were chosen to be executed but, possibly due to the D-Day Invasion, they were instead sent to a factory in Germany. Eventually, Zuzana and her mother were sent to Bergen-Belsen, were they were ultimately liberated. Seriously ill and suffering from starvation, they were transferred to a hospital and were able to return to their hometown in July 1945.

Zuzana was reunited with her old piano teacher and was determined to continue with her studies. At this point she had missed four years of formal instruction and her hands were battered from years of hard labor. To make up for all the time she had lost, Zuzana practiced up to twelve hours a day and managed to gain acceptance to the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1947. She specialized in the harpsichord and the music of Bach. Zuzana later became an instructor at the Academy, and married a fellow musician, Viktor Kalabis. But the couple were to face many challenges as musicians, for in 1948, Czechoslovakia became Communist. She and her husband remained in the country during the 40 years of Communist rule, and against the odds, Zuzana managed to establish a successful career as a harpsichordist. The government gave her special permission to perform worldwide, and Zuzana became the first person to record the complete works of Bach on the harpsichord.

In 2006, when her husband died, Zuzana decided to stop performing publically. She continued to play the harpsichord, but after undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment, the resulting nerve damage to her hands prevented her from playing. Sadly, Zuzana is no longer able to play her beloved instrument. Yet Zuzana’s impact is enduring, and her story is told in a documentary called Zuzana: Music is Life, which is scheduled to be released this year. And in honor of her 90th birthday, Zuzana’s complete works of Bach have been reissued. Zuzana not only survived the Nazi camps, she thrived as a musician in spite of tremendous obstacles. And she shared with the world an incredible gift: the music of Bach that had given her strength years earlier.

BBC Feature on Zuzana:

More information on the documentary Zuzana: Music is Life


Karel Ančerl and the Golden Age of Czech Music

Karel Ančerl was a renowned conductor who contributed to the cultural life of Terezin and ultimately, the entire Czech Republic. He was born in 1908 in a south Bohemian town called Tučapy to wealthy Jewish parents, as his father owned a successful liquor business. His family wasn’t known to be musical, but Karel began to study violin at a young age and later piano, and showed promise as a musician. As a young adult, Karel studied composition and conducting at Prague Conservatory. While still a student there, Karel participated in performances with the Czech Philharmonic orchestra where he had the opportunity to work with and observe various influential conductors of the time. In 1930, on his graduation, Karel conducted a performance of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, which was widely acclaimed by critics.

In the year following his graduation, Karel was hired as an assistant conductor for the Munich premiere of Alois Haba’s opera Mother, and he conducted many concerts all over Europe. Ultimately he was hired to conduct performances that were broadcast by Radio Prague and also conducted several concerts by the Czech Philharmonic. All his successes came to a halt when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, and he was dismissed from his position. In 1942, Karel and his wife Valy were transported to Terezin, and their son Jan was born in the camp, not long after their arrival. At Terezin, Karel conducted the Terezin String Orchestra and organized many concerts at the camp. He also appeared in a propaganda film that was used to deceive the Red Cross delegates during their June 1944 visit to the camp. In the film, Karel was shown conducting a performance by the composer Pavel Haas, who was a close friend of his.

In October 1944, Karel, his wife and son, Pavel Haas, and thousands of others were transported to Auschwitz. Karel survived the camp, but his wife, son and friend Pavel were sent to the gas chambers on arrival. Karel later recounted the moment that he and Pavel were examined by the infamous Dr. Mengele. Initially, Mengele directed Karel to join the line of prisoners to be executed, but Pavel began coughing and Mengele sent Pavel to the gas chambers instead of Karel. It is difficult to imagine how this moment must have haunted Karel for the rest of his life. After the war, he met Pavel’s brother Hugo and told him the story.

Karel returned to Radio Prague after the war, and remained there until 1950, when he was appointed artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra. His first months there were challenging, as the members of the orchestra adjusted to the long work hours and high standards Karel required. The difficult work quickly paid off, as the orchestra was invited to perform in many countries and achieved great success worldwide. Karel brought the orchestra on tours throughout Europe, Asia and North America, and was often invited to conduct other national orchestras. It is notable that Karel often promoted Czech music, cultivated a distinct Czech sound and showcased the works of Czech composers, and brought greater awareness of Czech music to the world.

Karel stayed with the Czech Philharmonic for 18 years, when he emigrated to Canada following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He took up a new position as conductor of the Toronto Philharmonic, where he remained until his death in 1973. Karel did return to Prague to conduct his last two performances with the Czech Philharmonic in 1969 at the Prague Spring Festival. His 18 years with the Czech Philharmonic is widely regarded as the orchestra’s golden age, which makes his decision to leave his homeland during the Communist era all the more poignant. Though he lost so much in his life, his family, friends and even his homeland, Karel Ančerl is known for his tremendous dedication to his orchestra, and for bringing the gift of Czech music to the world.


Further Reading


Pavel Haas: A Composer Behind Ghetto Walls

Pavel Haas was one of the better known composers and musicians who was sent to Terezin, and is often mentioned alongside the celebrated composers Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullman, and Gideon Klein. He was born in 1899 in the Czech city of Brno, where he began to study the piano at a young age and attended the Brno Conservatory from 1919 to 1921. He then spent two years studying under an esteemed Czech composer named Leos Janacek, and was one of Janacek’s most successful students.

Over two decades, Haas composed over 50 works, including symphonies, chamber music, film scores and operas. Haas was known for being very critical of his work, and many of these works were never performed. His greatest success was his opera, The Charlatan, which debuted in 1938 in Brno and received widespread acclaim, earning an award from the Smetana Foundation,

In 1941, when the Nazis began to deport the Jews of Prague, Haas divorced his Christian wife, Sonia, in the hopes that she and their daughter would be spared. Soon after, he was deported to Terezin, where he fell into a deep depression. Fellow composer Gideon Klein befriended Haas and eventually managed to convince him to begin composing again. Haas produced at least eight compositions in the camp, including Study for String Orchestra and Four Songs on Chinese Poetry. Haas’s String Orchestra was performed in Terezin, conducted by his friend Karel Ancerl. Footage of one of these performances appears in a Nazi propaganda film made at Terezin, and Haas can be seen taking a bow at the end of the performance.

After the Red Cross visit in the summer of 1944, Pavel Haas and about 18,000 other prisoners were deported to Auschwitz. His friend, conductor Karel Ancerl was with him when they were lined up for selection upon their arrival. Ancerl later recounted that Dr. Josef Mengele was about to send him to the gas chambers when Haas began coughing, and Mengele chose to send Haas to the gas chambers in his friend’s place. Ancerl managed to survive the Holocaust, as did Pavel’s brother Hugo, who later became a successful character actor in American films. The two men reunited after the war and Ancerl told Hugo the story. I can only imagine how incredibly emotional and painful that meeting must have been.

In addition to his brother Hugo, Pavel’s wife and daughter survived the war. As Haas had hoped, his wife and daughter were not threatened or arrested by the Nazis. Of the 8 known compositions Pavel wrote during his time in Terezin, only 3 survived. Karl Ancerl discovered parts of the score for Study for Strings and managed to reconstruct the rest, and this score remains Haas’s best known work today. It has been featured in both live performances and on a number of recordings. Still, Pavel Haas remains somewhat in the shadow of other Terezin composers like Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein, and his works are not as well known. I was grateful to find some videos of his music being performed,  two of which can be viewed below.

Alice Herz-Sommer: A Musician Until The End

Professional pianist and Terezin survivor Alice Herz-Sommer played her beloved aliceinstrument daily until her death at age 110 in 2014. She fell in love with the piano at an early age and her love for music quite literally kept her and her young son alive during the years they spent in Terezin. Alice, originally known as Aliza Herz, was born in Prague in 1903. She was a member of a well off German-speaking Jewish family, and her parents sponsored a cultural salon that attracted some of the most gifted minds of the time. Young Aliza met Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, among other writers, intellectuals and composers. In time, she too would become a prominent pianist in her own right.

Alice first learned the piano as a child from her older sister, Irma, and even at a young age, was a dedicated pianist, practicing hours each day. A family friend and composer named Artur Schnabel expressed his belief that Alice was suited to be a professional musician. Alice later decided that this was the career she wanted and entered the Prague Conservatory of Music, where she was the youngest student in the school.
In 1931, at the age of 26, Alice married a businessman and musician named Leopold Sommer, and they had one son, Raphael. Alice established herself as a concert pianist and became known throughout Europe. She was forced to stop performing after the Nazis took control of Prague and forbade Jewish musicians to perform in concerts and music competitions.

Most of Alice’s family managed to flee to Palestine, but her elderly mother was unable to travel and Alice, her husband and Raphael stayed behind to help care for her. Alice’s mother was sent to Terezin in 1942, and Alice accompanied her to the train station. On this journey, Alice realized just how dire the situation had become, and she found solace in music, teaching herself the incredibly challenging 24 Etudes of Frederic Chopin, often up to eight hours a day.

In July 1943, Alice, along with her husband and son were sent to Terezin, where she performed in over 100 concerts. She continued to find strength in performing her music, which helped to free her from the daily horrors of life at Terezin. Alice also did all she could to provide stability for Raphael, and together they survived the war in Terezin. Alice’s husband and mother were transported to Nazi extermination camps and murdered, and Alice never learned the details of their final moments.

After the war, Alice and Raphael moved to Israel, where they reunited with their relatives. Alice continued to perform and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory for 35 years, until she moved to London in 1986. Raphael also became a highly accomplished concert cellist, but he died tragically and suddenly in 2001. Alice continued to live on her own in a London apartment, where she continued to play the piano for hours each day, up until her death at age 110.

Alice’s life inspired several books and documentary films, most recently, The Lady in Number 6, which won an Oscar in 2013 for Best Short Documentary. The documentary, filmed about a year before Alice died, is a remarkable tribute. We hear Alice’s story in her own words and learn of her natural optimistic and joyful personality, which the Nazis failed to take from her. It was clear that her passion and love for music and her family were the driving forces in her life, and her ability to see the beauty in music and life is deeply moving, especially after all she endured at the hands of the Nazis. I encourage you to see this film, so that you may see for yourself this gifted, passionate, resilient woman named Alice Herz-Sommer.

Gideon Klein and the Terezin String Trio

The Vltava River in Prague. The Conservatory where Gideon Klein studied is only a short walk from the river.
The Vltava River in Prague. The Conservatory where Gideon Klein studied is only a short walk from the river.

Born in 1919 in Prerov, Moravia, Czechoslovakia to assimilated Czech-Jewish family, Gideon Klein showed talent for music at a young age. His supportive parents decided he should move to Prague to get the best musical education available. Klein moved to Prague and lived with his older sister, Eliska, who was a student there. By 1939, Klein was studying musicology at Charles University and composition at the Prague Conservatory with renowned composer Alois Haba. In 1940, however, the Nazis closed many Czech universities and restricted Jews from higher education. Over the next year, more prohibitions were passed against Jews, who had to wear a yellow star badge and were forbidden to leave the country. Jewish composers were forbidden to give public performances, but Klein and some other composers attempted to circumvent these laws. For a time, Gideon did find a way to give public performances, by posing as a Christian, with the use of a pseudonym. When it became too dangerous to continue, he instead performed in secret venues and taught music classes to children at the Prague Orphanage. Gideon was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London during this time, but had to turn it down because the Nazis would not let him leave Czechoslovakia.

Gideon was in one of the first transports to Terezin, in December 1941. The people on these transports, many of them young men, were tasked with preparing the camp for the arrival of thousands of more prisoners. When the later transports arrived, the children were separated from their parents and made to live in homes, and Klein took it upon himself to teach music to these children. At this time, such activities were forbidden in Terezin, but Klein was undeterred and continued to secretly teach the children about music, poetry, and literature. Over the next few years, he became one of the prime organizers of cultural activity in the camp. He also composed a variety of musical works, including his String Trio, String Quartet and a piano sonata. In addition, Gideon performed at numerous recitals and chamber music events at Terezin.

Gideon was transported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 and survived the initial selection. He was later sent to a forced labor camp, and as the Allies began to advance, Gideon and about 1,000 other prisoners were taken by the SS on a death march toward the west. It is certain that he did not survive the war, but the exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.

Gideon’s Terezin works still survive, preserved by his girlfriend at Terezin, Irma Semtka, who survived the war. Irma reconnected with Gideon’s sister Eliska in Prague following liberation and gave her the compositions. Academics only had access to these works for many years, leading to the misconception that Klein only developed as a composer during the war. Then, in 1990, a family friend discovered a suitcase which contained numerous compositions that Klein wrote before the war. The works included chamber music for strings and woodwind, piano sonatas, and vocal pieces. Klein’s works are still performed to this day, and the act of performing them sustains the legacy of this gifted musician and composer whose life was tragically cut short.

Hans Krasa and Brundibar: A Children’s Opera

Hans Krasa was born in Prague on November 30, 1899 to a Czech father and a German Jewish mother. He began studying the piano and violin as a child and his musical gifts became evident at an early age. Hans later studied composition at the German Music Academy in Prague and after graduation he worked at the New German Theater as a pianist and vocal coach. While working there, he met an Austrian-Jewish conductor and composer named Alexander Zemlinsky, who became his mentor. In 1927 Krasa accompanied Zemlinsky to Berlin, where he continued his studies and was introduced to prestigious composers of the day. Krasa was terribly homesick for Prague, and returned to his former job at the New German Theater. However, Hans also made his debut as a composer during this time with his work Four Orchestral Songs. Several other works followed, the most successful being his opera Betrothal in a Dream, performed in 1933.

Composer Hans Krasa
Composer Hans Krasa

His most notable work, however, the one which would become his legacy, was a children’s opera called Brundibar, the final work he completed before being transported to Terezin on August 10, 1942. In Terezin, he produced an arrangement of the opera which became wildly successful, performed a total of 55 times. The premise was straightforward: two poor children, a brother and sister named Pepicek and Aninka, go to the market one morning, hoping that by singing they will be able to raise enough money to buy milk for their sick mother. A cruel organ grinder named Brundibar bullies the children and prevents them from singing. Pepicek and Aninka are joined by a dog, cat, and brave sparrow and the children of the town and together they prevail over the tyrannical organ grinder.

The message of triumphing over a tyrant resonated strongly with many people imprisoned in Terezin, which may have contributed to its popularity. It also provided a creative outlet for the children in Terezin, and those who survived remember how participating in the opera offered them a temporary relief from the horrors of their daily life in the camp.

Brundibar was involved in the Terezin deception, as it was performed for the Red Cross and featured in a propaganda film shot at the camp. This is by far the darkest aspect of the opera, the way in which it was exploited by the Nazis. At the same time, Brundibar should be remembered for the respite it provided for the children of Terezin.

Hans Krasa continued to compose in Terezin but Brundibar is by far his best remembered work. In October 1944, Krasa, along with other composers and many of the children who performed in the opera were put on a transport to Auschwitz where most were murdered upon arrival, including Krasa. He is memorialized by the opera Brundibar, which continues to be performed to this day.

Below: Clip of Brundibar performance at Terezin

Below: This video tells the story of the children’s opera Brundibar, and follows a present-day staging of the opera.


Picture of Hans Krasa from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

More on Hans Krasa and Brundibar:

We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)

Rafael Schachter: Conductor of a Defiant Requiem

One of the most dramatic instances of art being used as a form of resistance against the Nazis was arranged by a conductor and pianist named Rafael Schachter, also known as Rafi or Rafik. Born in 1905 in Romania to Jewish Czechoslovak parents, he studied piano as a teenager with the esteemed instructor Vilem Kurz, and ultimately relocated to Prague to study composition and conducting at the Prague Conservatory. He later performed in the theater and established his own ensemble which performed chamber and baroque music.

Rafael was described as mild-mannered by those who knew him casually, but when it came to his music, he was passionate, determined and strong-willed. He also was a perfectionist who held incredibly high standards for himself and the members of his ensemble. All of these qualities would prove essential to his work at Terezin. When he was placed on a transport to Terezin in November 1941, Rafael brought with him several musical scores. One of these scores might seem an unusual choice: a requiem, or music for a Catholic funeral Mass, by the Italian composer Verdi. Yet this would be the vehicle for sending a message of defiance to the Nazis.

Defiant Requiem documentary poster
Defiant Requiem documentary poster

At Terezin, Rafael discovered an abandoned piano in the cold dank cellar of one of thebarracks. In the evenings, after a long day of physical labor, Rafael would go down to this cellar and rehearse his music. He invited other inmates to join him, and they would sing popular Czech songs as he accompanied them on the piano. Then Rafael decided to pursue an incredibly ambitious task: to take a chorus of more than one hundred amateur singers and train them to perform Verdi’s Requiem, widely considered one of the most difficult choral works in the world. Furthermore, the lyrics were in Latin and the only copy of the score was the one Rafael brought with him. The lyrics describe a day of judgement where God’s wrath is poured out on sinners, where all the powerful institutions that man has created are crushed to the ground. Rafi envisioned this score as a requiem for the Nazis, as he believed that one day they would face judgement for their crimes. To express this sentiment too explicitly would result in certain death, but Verdi’s Requiem was a way they could express it safely. There is also the hope of deliverance in the Requiem, which resonated with many singers.

After several months, the chorus had not mastered the Requiem to Rafael’s standards, but a pending transport threatened to take away many of the singers. And so, Rafael decided to go ahead and stage a performance of the Requiem for the Terezin inmates. By all accounts, it was a triumphant success, and gave the prisoners precious moments of freedom from the horrors of their surroundings. Tragically, the next morning, nearly half of Rafael’s singers were put on a transport to Auschwitz. But Rafael was determined not to surrender, and he found more singers to replace the ones he had lost. He ended up staging the Requiem about fifteen times, despite losing so many of his singers to transports. The final performance of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Rafael Schachter occurred during the Red Cross visit to Terezin, at which many Nazis were in attendance. This was a powerful moment where the prisoners could look their captors in the eye and sing of their downfall. Tragically, the Nazis’ downfall failed to come soon enough.

Soon after the performance, the rest of the choir, including Rafael, were placed on a transport to Auschwitz. Most were murdered immediately on arrival. Rafael managed to survive Auschwitz, and several other camps, only to die on a death march in the spring of 1945, shortly before liberation. His legacy is his incredible contribution to the cultural life of Terezin, and most of all, his legendary performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

To learn more of Rafael Schachter and his Terezin singers, I recommend watching the powerful documentary Defiant Requiem, available on Netflix and Amazon. The documentary tells his story and follows a present-day choir which returns to perform the Requiem at Terezin, sending the message that the legacy of Rafik and his singers lives on.

Defiant Requiem Trailer

Anna Flach: A Caged Bird Who Sang Anyway

The second woman from Room 28 I have chosen to profile is the singer, pianist and professor Anna Flach. During her days in Terezin, she was given the nickname Flaska, meaning “little bottle.” Many of the girls in Room 28 were known by whimsical nicknames while in Terezin, a tradition that children in other homes participated in as well. By all accounts, Flaska was outgoing, compassionate and imaginative, and a very talented singer. Her musical talents were cultivated in Terezin, where she participated in many musical performances. The Girls of Room 28

In the cellar of her Girls’ Home, the famous composer Rafael (Rafik) Schacter often rehearsed with his choir and Flaska would slip down to the cellar to listen. She auditioned for a Mozart opera and was thrilled when she was selected to perform. Things didn’t go as planned, however, as Rafik had incredibly high standards and the young singers struggled to meet his expectations. After two weeks of rehearsal, Rafik decided to present it as a concert with adult singers, and Flaska and the other children were dismissed.

Though disappointed, Flaska did not give up on her dreams of being a singer. She continued to perform with the girls’ choir, and with two other girls as a musical trio. The three girls would sometimes go to the quarters where the elderly lived to sing for them and to assist them in any way they could. This arrangement was set up by a Terezin youth organization called Yad Tomechet (helping hand). The elderly were often neglected, struggled to get enough water and food, and many could not get to the washrooms. In these wretched conditions, many lost the will to live and some even committed suicide. The youth group was created as a way to help these older people. Flaska and the other girls helped to bring meals to the elderly, accompany them to toilets, bathed them, cleaned their rooms. They also helped in any other little ways they could, such as singing to them, and bringing small gifts for birthdays.

Even as a young girl, Flaska was compassionate and desired to help others. Serving others was a value that was instilled by her mother and Flaska’s own experiences in Terezin further sensitized her to the suffering of others. She wrote about her great happiness when she was released from the hospital and was able to visit her father and brother bearing a gift for them – a piece of bread she had managed to save. She strongly desired harmony with others and tried to be on good terms with all the girls in her barrack.

Flaska was one of four girls of Room 28 who were spared the transports to Auschwitz. She and some of the other girls would sneak to the Hamburg barracks, where people waited to board the cattle cars. There, the girls tried their best to comfort them. This action was certainly risky, since it could have easily resulted in Flaska being placed on a transport, but she undertook it anyway. Her compassion and bravery in such circumstances is a real testament to her character. I can only hope I would be able to act like Flaska if I were in her place.

After the transports, the room was empty with only four girls remaining. They took down a flag that the girls had made for their home and divided it into four pieces, promising each other that they would meet again after the war to sew it back together as a symbol of their friendship.

Anna Flach, her parents and her siblings survived the Holocaust but most of her other relatives did not. She and her family returned to Brno, their hometown, and she later became a singer, pianist and professor of music at the Brno Conservatory. She married an oboist named Vitselav Hanus and together they performed in many concerts all over the world. Their son Tomas is an esteemed conductor of the Prague Chamber Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Anna remains an educator and advocate for music and is committed to preserving the memory of the Terezin composers. She feels it is her responsibility to speak out about their experiences to preserve the memories, especially since there are those who still deny the Holocaust.

Further Reading
The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope and Survival in Theresienstadt by Hannelore Brenner