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.
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.