Monthly Archives: September 2015

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

The Little Known Diarist

Hannelore Brenner’s book The Girls of Room 28 relates the experiences of ten women who survived Terezin. The book goes into detail about each of these women, and is a worthwhile read. For my blog, I decided to focus on two of the women whose stories resonated most strongly with me. The first woman is Helga Pollak, who kept a remarkable diary during her time at Terezin. Her complete diary has not been published in English, though segments of it are included in Brenner’s book.

Cover of Helga Pollak's published diary
Cover of Helga Pollak’s published diary

Helga Pollak was born in Vienna on May 28, 1930. Her father Otto was a disabled war veteran who owned a large concert café. When she was eight years old her parents divorced and Helga continued to live with her father. That same year, 1938, after the situation deteriorated for Jews in Austria, Helga’s parents sent her to Czechoslovakia.

Helga attended a German-speaking school in the city of Brno and had to live in a boardinghouse by herself. After Helga’s mother dropped her off in Brno, Helga watched her mother walk away and then went into a deserted room and sobbed. I could only imagine how terrifying and devastating this separation would be for a little girl. It is no wonder that Helga fell into a state of apathy and depression. Helga’s father ultimately arranged for her to stay with relatives in the town of Kyjov. She couldn’t speak Czech and had to repeat 2nd grade, but was much happier.

In 1939, Helga was supposed to travel to Great Britain as a child refugee, where she would join her mother, who had managed to emigrate there earlier. But after the German army invaded Poland and World War II began, the borders were closed, and Helga was trapped in Czechoslovakia. She would not see her mother again for nearly eight years.

Beginning in 1943, Helga recorded many of her experiences in a diary. Many Jews kept diaries during the war, but except for Anne Frank’s iconic diary, most are not well known. While Anne’s diary is exceptionally well-written, she is too often depicted as a symbol for the suffering of Jewish children during the Holocaust. That risks downplaying her individuality and the way she perceived what was happening to her, and I fear it may have resulted in other war diaries being ignored.

In the excerpts from Helga’s diary we see a sensitive girl who felt alienated from the girls in her barrack, and worried that they did not like her. We learn of her intense fears when her infant cousin Lea is seriously ill, and of her close relationship with her beloved father Otto. Helga also had moments of hope, of being deeply moved by the beauty of a sunset, for even Terezin’s walls could not block out the sky.

On October 23, 1944, Helga and some other girls from Room 28 were placed on a transport to Auschwitz. Helga survived the selection and vainly tried to search for her Lea, who she would never see again. She was sent from Auschwitz to different labor camps, and eventually returned to Terezin in late April 1945 where she was reunited with her father. The letter she wrote to him upon her return is deeply touching, as she so badly wanted to stay with him but could not because she was placed under quarantine.

Eventually she and her father were able to return to their surviving relatives in Kyjov, and the following year Helga went to England to join her mother. She completed high school and college, and later married a Prussian Jew who had fled to Bangkok to escape the Nazis. Helga and her husband lived in Thailand and Ethiopia until 1957, when they returned to Vienna with their children to be near Helga’s beloved father.

Though not published in its entirety, segments of her diary have been featured in the documentary films Terezin Diary and Voices of the Children and the main character of a play Ghetto Tears 1944: The Girls of Room 28 was based on Helga Pollak, the little known diarist of Terezin.

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

Behind the Scenes with the Terezin Storytellers

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak more with filmmaker Rich Krevolin about Making Light in Terezin. We discussed the significance of the story of the Terezin artists, the challenges of communicating such an incredible story and how to continue to spread the word about Terezin. The story of how many Terezin prisoners managed to create works of poetry, theater, music instead of giving into despair is an incredible story of resilience and is an affirmation of humanity in the midst of a regime that was committed to the destruction of humanity. These works of art and how they came into being are the powerful legacy of the prisoners of Terezin. This legacy is not so widely known, which is why we must continue to spread the word about it.

Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David
Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David

The way we communicate this story has its challenges, and both Rich and I shared the concern that by focusing on the creative pursuits of many Terezin prisoners, the horrors of the ghetto risk being downplayed. By no means do we wish to imply that the Terezin prisoners were privileged in any way. They were not able to create because conditions were better than in other ghettos, but rather they created in spite of the rampant disease, cold and starvation. Initially, people had to create their works in secret, as any artistic expression was forbidden. Gradually, over time the Nazis permitted such pursuits to an extent, primarily so they could exploit the works and build a façade of Terezin as a model ghetto. The reason that many of these works survive today is thanks to those prisoners who remained in Terezin and carefully hid away and guarded these works. Some of these works, like the cabaret, were preserved for decades before they were rediscovered.

Those of us who have committed ourselves to telling the story of Terezin have done so through the use of film, scholarly articles, traditional book publishing and blogging. We all share the desire to make this story more widely known and appreciated. Rich has been successful in promoting Making Light in Terezin, which has aired on PBS and is still aired from time to time. The documentary has also been shown at film festivals worldwide. Rich would like to continue to spread the word by finding an international distributor, and I sincerely hope he is successful in these efforts.

Theater is another way this story is told. In addition to her scholarly work, Dr. Lisa Peschel collaborates with theater departments at various universities to produce the Terezin cabaret and other dramatic works. Seeing these productions live must be an incredible experience, and I greatly hope that I can work to arrange for a production to come to Colorado. For now, I am focused on researching, developing and growing my blog as the main way to share the stories of the artists of Terezin. I feel so strongly that these stories must be passed along, and it is truly heartening to speak with others who feel the same.