In an environment meant to crush the human spirit, 150 Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp spent their evenings memorizing Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem in a dark, cold basement using a single smuggled score.
Under the direction of Rafael Schachter, a conductor, musician, and composer who would later die at Auschwitz, the inmates performed the renowned musical piece 16 times.
Its final “charade” performance in June 1944 was before an audience of Nazi leaders and members of the International Red Cross staged to show off Theresienstadt — the garrison town of Terezin near Prague — as a “model” camp despite horrific conditions.
When American conductor Maestro Murry Sidlin learned the story of the courageous actions of Schachter and other Jewish prisoners who struggled to provide a rich cultural life in the camp, despite deprivation and almost certain impending death, he knew he had to share their story with the world.
“I thought this was very strange in a concentration camp where everyone imprisoned was Jewish and where people were working 10, 11, 12 hours a day, eight days a week with no time off,” said Sidlin in a phone interview from his Washington, DC, home. “They hardly had any nutrition — just two liquid meals a day — and lived in a place where malnutrition was the real killer and where they were surrounded by disease and filth. Yet these 150 prisoners found the will to rehearse every night.”
Sidlin also found odd the choice of a piece written as a Catholic requiem mass until he realized the work served as “code,” with its focus on the end of the world and the fate of those who commit evil. Even as they faced death, Schachter was once quoted as saying, these “defiant” Jews sang “to the Nazis what they could not say to them.”
In 2008, Sidlin founded the Washington-based Defiant Requiem Foundation, and still serves as its president and creative director. In 2012, the foundation released the 87-minute award-winning documentary Defiant Requiem, which debuted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and has been seen by audiences all over the world.
Sidlin will appear at a Sunday, Sept. 25, showing of the film in Monroe at a program sponsored by the Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee and the Monroe Township Library, with support from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
Himself a renowned conductor who has led orchestras throughout the world, including the National Symphony Orchestra, Sidlin teaches conducting at the Catholic University of America, where he is former dean of the music department. He said an inordinate number of Jews sent to Terezin were artists, musicians, performers, composers, writers, and scholars who, despite the harsh conditions, continued their intellectual pursuits.
“Here in the midst of all this deprivation, where people were dying, this cultural life thrived,” said Sidlin. “This is one of the little-known aspects of the Holocaust. The film is really a primer. Very few people realize there were 2,400 cultural lectures given there.”
In addition, he noted, the inmates put on operettas and theatrical productions — some staged by Schachter — and created visual arts, collectively demonstrating, Sidlin said, “the triumph of the human spirit, courage, hope, and perpetuation of life.”
Sidlin said once he learned Terezin’s history, “I decided to devote myself to teaching other people.”
Among the foundation’s other endeavors are live performances of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” and “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer” — programs that include Verdi’s music and the history of the cultural activities in the camp — which Sidlin conducts with orchestras all over the world, including three times in Terezin. He is coming to Monroe straight from a performance in Austria.
The foundation also sponsors the Rafael Schachter Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Terezin in both the Czech Republic and the United States, and initiates artistic programs to expand awareness of the camp and honor the courage of its prisoners.
The foundation’s new film, Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer, which premiered last year in Terezin, showcases the music of 15 imprisoned composers, only two of whom survived.
“As with all the arts, it travels into the depths of people telling of their courage, longing, and desperation,” Sidlin said, adding, “Audiences respond because they understand that what happened to the Jews was a horror in itself, but the overarching horror is these people managed to preserve their human dignity despite the dark level to which mankind stooped.”