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When Verdi’s Requiem Took On New Meaning

Schaechter, Krasa and the rest of the Terezin choir performed the Requiem 16 times between September 1943 and June 1944, when the International Red Cross visited the camp to monitor living conditions. The Nazis had readied the camp for the occasion and had ordered the choir to put on the Requiem one last time before most of the performers were sent to Auschwitz.

“The purpose of the Red Cross visit was a sham,” Sidlin said. “The choir was hoping that the Red Cross would get it, but they didn’t.”

The choir was made up of 150 people before deportations to the death camps cut its numbers down to 60. To honor them, the “Defiant Requiem” choir includes exactly 150 people.

The fact that the show is being performed at the Kennedy Center and in a handful of cities in the U.S. and Europe can be attributed to Stuart Eizenstat, the former United States Ambassador to the European Union and a special assistant to President Bill Clinton on Holocaust issues. More recently, Eizenstat served as an ambassador to a Holocaust restitution conference in Prague in June 2009. It was there that he and his wife, Francis, witnessed a performance of “Defiant Requiem” at the conference’s closing ceremony.

“I’ve been doing this Holocaust work for over 30 years, and I’ve never experienced something so powerful and so meaningful,” Eizenstat said in an interview. “We’d never met [Sidlin] in our life, so Fran and I ran to him and introduced ourselves and said, ‘We have to bring this to Washington.’”

Eizenstat lined up sponsorship of the performance from nearly every Congressional leader on both sides of the aisle — one of the few projects Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have collaborated on in recent months.

The performance itself is sure to be something special. Janet Hopkins, the mezzo-soprano soloist in “Defiant Requiem,” said that she has nearly come to tears while performing the piece.

“To sing this whole piece elevates me,” she said. “It feels like the most incredible high that you could ever experience. You have like an out-of-body experience, and you feel like you’re actually floating over the audience.”

“Defiant Requiem” began with a book tossed aside in a store in the mid-1990s. Since then, it has grown tremendously, not just into a musical and artistic performance, but into a wide-scale educational initiative. The project has developed Holocaust education texts that are available on its website, and Sidlin is set to open the Rafael Schaechter Institute of Arts and Humanities on the grounds of Terezin to replicate the art and cultural lectures that those housed in the camp taught each other in the 1940s.

The performance at the Kennedy Center is set to last about two hours. If Hopkins, Eizenstat and Sidlin are any indication, the effect of the show will stay with viewers long after they’ve left the theater.

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