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Singing the songs of Theresienstadt
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Singing the songs of Theresienstadt

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rachel Joselson said of the composers of Songs of the Holocaust, “It’s inspirational that these people in the most unimaginably worst of times created art for survival.”
Rachel Joselson said of the composers of Songs of the Holocaust, “It’s inspirational that these people in the most unimaginably worst of times created art for survival.”

On Thursday, Sept. 22, opera singer and New Jersey native Rachel Joselson will perform selections from her CD Songs of the Holocaust at Montclair State University in a program sponsored by the Department of Religion and the Jewish American Studies program. 

About half of the compositions on the CD, released in June 2016, were composed during the Holocaust at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the garrison town of Terezin near Prague. The other half is comprised of contemporary settings of texts written in Theresienstadt during those years.

Joselson, associate professor of voice and opera at the University of Iowa’s School of Music, believes she is the first American-Jewish soprano to record the music. She spent her first 10 years in Englewood and has since lived around the country and the world. She holds a master’s degree from Indiana University and a PhD in voice studies from Rutgers University.

“I’ve always felt an affinity with anything having to do with the Holocaust in a way I cannot explain,” she said in a phone interview with NJJN. “It’s incredible to think that under those circumstances, this really wonderful music was performed.” 

“Those circumstances” refers to the unique role Theresienstadt played in the Holocaust. A large number of internationally recognized musicians and artists were sent there, and they were permitted to continue their work, a situation the Nazis later exploited for propaganda. The International Red Cross and other dignitaries were invited to inspect the “model” resettlement town and attend cultural performances; the camp was beautified for the visits. 

As Joselson put it, however, “behind the scenes were all the horrors of Nazi work camps.” For example, the cast of the children’s opera Brundibar was constantly changing as most of the children who performed were sent to the gas chambers. During the three years Theresienstadt was in operation, 33,000 people died there and over 90,000 were deported to other camps.

Joselson first heard the music sung by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and took notice. When she started singing the material, Joselson said, it was often hard to get through a rehearsal “without crying.” She compared its emotional intensity to the scene in Madame Butterfly when the protagonist contemplates suicide.

The concert, the first in a series on anti-Semitism and other forms of bias, is also the first program sponsored by the Jewish American Studies program since it moved into the Department of Religion last January. Head of department Dr. Dorothy Rogers said the multidisciplinary approach of this concert will be very effective. “When students are always reading books, the arts reach students on another level,” she said.

Joselson will also perform the songs at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 27 and in New Brunswick at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in April.

“I love being able to bring this music to people who have never heard it and had no idea it existed,” said Joselson. “The songs are sad and depressing. But the fact that I am singing them now and bringing them to the public is uplifting — it’s inspirational that these people in the most unimaginably worst of times created art for survival.” 

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