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When Verdi’s Requiem Took On New Meaning

On a rare sunny day in Minnesota in 1994 or 1995 — he isn’t quite sure — conductor Murry Sidlin walked into a used bookstore and reached into the on-sale pile. He came out with a flimsy book called “Music at Terezin,” a text about some of the individuals who had spent time at Theresienstadt, the Holocaust-era concentration camp in the Czech Republic.

One of those people was Rafael Schaechter, and according to the book, Schaechter had organized a handful of performances in the camp of Verdi’s “Messa de Requiem,” music based on the Catholic burial Mass. The chapter on Schaechter revealed little else.

Sidlin, who lost several members of his own family in the Holocaust, went on with his day, but a nagging suspicion stayed with him.

“There were so many things wrong with it,” Sidlin said of the Requiem performance in Terezin. “First of all, why would a group of Jews spend any time at all learning a work of the Catholic liturgy when they are imprisoned for being Jewish? No. 2, this is a difficult, demanding work of art for singers, chorus, for conductors, for soloists — it is completely demanding under the best of circumstances, when people are healthy, well fed and have their own score. But mostly, why would they do it?”

The “why” was something Sidlin finally understood after carefully reading the script of the Requiem: defiance. Nearly every line in the piece has a potential double meaning. Instead of singing about their own burial, the Jews of Terezin were singing about the damnation of their Nazi captors. As many involved with this project put it, the Jews sang what they could not say to the Nazis.

Sidlin will lead a performance of “Defiant Requiem” — a multimedia event featuring a recital of the Requiem, interviews with survivors and even an actor playing the part of Rafael Schaechter — Wednesday evening at the sold-out Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Uncovering the story of Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin turned into something of a wild goose chase for Sidlin. Internet searches proved fruitless, and in 1998, he posted a note on a Holocaust-related website — basically a shot in the dark — asking for more information about Schaechter, his family or survivors of the camp.

Sidlin got a response about 10 days later — a cryptic e-mail from an Israeli account asking why he was inquiring about the Requiem. Eventually, the e-mailer revealed herself to be Schaechter’s niece, and she provided some vague information about a roommate of Schaechter’s who lived near Boston.

Sidlin says he did the most logical thing he could think of at that point: He called the operator for the Boston-area phone system. Sidlin was then connected to Edgar Krasa of Newton, Mass., a deep-voiced gentleman with an eastern European accent, who turned out to be Rafael Schaechter’s roommate in Terezin.

That phone call happened on a Tuesday. Three days later, Sidlin went to Boston, where he spent a day listening to Krasa’s story. Krasa, now in his 90s, will be in attendance Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, along with four other concentration camp survivors.

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