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.