The Czech garrison town was overcrowded, food was scarce, activity was restricted, and the fate of its doomed inhabitants was sealed — but even these desperate conditions could not dampen the spirit or artistic fire of the scores of Jewish artists and musicians imprisoned in the Terezin labor camp during World War II.
“I was struck, and moved, by the tremendous amount of art that was created at the prison camp — so much of it covertly,” said Dr. Matthew Halper, professor of music at Kean University. “In particular, as a composer, I wanted to become familiar with the music created by the numerous composers who passed through Terezin, most on their way to Auschwitz. These composers and artists were incredibly productive despite knowing their fate.”
Halper’s lecture on the composers of Terezin was held at the YM-YWHA of Union County on Feb. 23.
Halper discussed the significance of Terezin, or Theriesenstadt, in the Nazis’ deadly constellation of internment camps, life within the Jewish ghetto, and the great musical compositions created there which commemorate and bear witness to the tragic fate of their creators.
The talk was the second program in “Remembering the Holocaust through Art, Music, and Film,” a three-part lecture series presented in partnership with Kean.
Halper’s personal interest in Terezin and its composers developed following a visit there during a trip to Prague. A walled city 35 miles north of the Czech capital that was built in the 1780s to provide defense from Prussian invaders, Terezin’s original design as a garrison appealed greatly to Hitler. The town was ultimately put to use as a “way station” to other concentration and death camps in the east and designated as a holding place for a population that included over 1,500 prominent Jewish artists and composers.
The imprisoned Jews were allowed unusual “freedoms”: They had their own government and were allowed to stage concerts, cabarets, and recitals. Terezin was a “show” camp, presenting to Red Cross inspectors the appearance of an autonomous, comfortable, safe haven for Jews, “one that could help hide the truth behind the real camps,” said Halper — a perception that was later exploited by the Nazis in propaganda films.
At the Y, Halper discussed the thousands of pieces of original work created by the artists, musicians, writers, and other inmates at Terezin. Many were found hidden in the walls, barracks, and bunkers of the city and later exhibited in venues throughout Europe and Israel. He identified some 17 prominent composers whose 50 existing scores and recordings “helped establish the appearance of culture” in the city while shedding light on its doomed inhabitants and their legacy of secrecy.
Among the most prolific of the composers was Viktor Ullmann, whose 20 extant works included his String Quartet No. 3 in four movements; pianist Hans Krasa, best known for his children’s opera Brundibar; and Pavel Haas, who struggled with illness and depression while in Terezin and who is best known for his Four Songs on Chinese Poetry.
According to Halper, who played these pieces for the audience, their compositions possessed both “beautiful, lyrical, humorous, witty, and accessible” characteristics as well as “a darkness, weight, and solemnity that the composers couldn’t not have, living in the conditions they did and knowing the ultimate fate that lay in store for themselves and their loved ones.”
In fall 1944, as Allied forces approached and the Nazis began liquidating camps throughout Poland and Czechoslovakia, 24,000 residents of Terezin were transported east, said Halper. Records reveal that Ullmann, Krasa, and Haas all died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in October 1944. In total, over 140,000 people passed through the gates of Terezin; fewer than 10 percent survived, among them only one of Terezin’s 17 most prominent composers. A Jewish cemetery now stands on the site of the camp.
“Though so foreboding, we were touched to see that there was still so much life in Terezin, so much joy and freedom in their music,” said Sheryl Traum of Union, who attended with her husband, Mark, who added, “The lecture renewed our interest in traveling to where our ancestors lived in Austria and Hungary and in listening to the music of that time and place.”