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.