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.