Verdi’s Requiem: the Commemorative Concerts
In May of 2009 I was honored to be invited to present my work in a solo exhibition in connection with the Santa Barbara Choral Society’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The Requiem was performed in conjunction with a commemorative concert in the Czech Republic, and was dedicated to the inmates of the Terezin Ghetto, who had performed this music under inhuman conditions under the leadership of the courageous Austrian conductor, Rafael Shachter. The concert program cover image is a digital collage entitled “Missing Women”, which includes photographs of my grandmother, Elsa Kohn, and a map of the pre-war Jewish neighborhood of Berlin, as well as a photo of one of the Terezin concerts.
Much has been written about the art and music created and performed in the Terezin Ghetto, which was unique among the nazi concentration camps in the organized cultural life pursued by the prisoners and tolerated, for their own reasons, by the Nazis. Apart from the Requiem, survivors have said that Krasa’s children’s opera, Brundibar, (more recently resurrected in a book and stage production by Maurice Sendak) and the folk play Esther, the most memorable and stirring cultural event was the premiere of Smetana’s Bartered Bride, the quintessential Czech national opera.
While creative activity has always constituted one of the sources of Jewish self- preservation, and the rich cultural experience pursued in Terezin undoubtedly was an aspect of spiritual resistance, attitudes toward participation in cultural life were a source of debate among even the composers working there. Victor Ullman wrote: “By no means did we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon; our endeavors in the arts were commensurate with our will to live.” Others considered the negative implications of taking part in cultural activities that took place at the initiative of the Nazis, as part of their cynical scheme to deceive the world as to their genocidal intention. “The intended deception of [outside] visitors became the self-deception of the prisoners.” Rothkirchen, L, “The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia”
My mother, Klara Zimmer, (z”l) spent over two years in Terezin, and was one of the singers in an inmate production of the second act of “Aida”. She describes in her life story how this engagement with music helped her to forget her dreadful circumstances, if only for a brief time. Because of these profound family connections to the history of the ghetto, and the role of artists and musicians in asserting human values in the depths of an inhuman space, I was honored to be asked to participate in the Choral Society performances of Verdi’s Requiem. In so doing, I am mindful of avoiding the notion that art on this subject can or should ever aspire to be transformative of the experience of its victims or survivors, so I continue to insist on the specific in my subject matter.
In works like “A Na Troskach Ghetta Budeme se Smat [ On the Ruins of the Ghetto We Will Laugh]” I incorporate the words of a song composed by Karel Svenk in Terezin, to honor the strength of the artist’s and the survivor’s spirit. The image includes an altered passport photo of my mother, and a portion of a post-war psychiatrist’s report documenting her emotional condition as a result of her wartime experiences.