Musical compositions, drawings and documentation left by prisoners of the Theresienstadt concentration camp are a precious heritage that we can use to discover more about the living conditions in the camp, and also to understand the emotions felt by the inmates.
The unique cultural life of the camp caught pianist Sofia Tapinassi’s attention, bringing her to begin extensively researching the lives of the musicians and composers who spent part of their imprisonment there.
For many of these musicians, silence followed after their final performances; the majority of them were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where they were either murdered upon arrival or sent to forced labour camps.
Sofia’s mission is to break the silence that has shrouded these highly talented composers and musicians. She wants to bring public attention to their astonishing works, as well as some of their personal stories she has been collecting over the past two years. Following her dream to create the documentary “We left the camp singing”, she has been travelling around Europe to listen and record the stories of Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Together with Sofia’s piano performances of Theresienstadt’s music, the project explores the Holocaust through an artistic multidisciplinary approach.
«We were so weak. But music was something special, almost magical.
Music was my nourishment. My hope.
I am Jewish, but my religion is Beethoven.»
– Alice Herz Sommer, pianist and Theresienstadt survivor
As the years go by, memories of the past fade and one of the darkest periods in history, the Holocaust, risks being treated with indifference, minimized, or even denied. We believe that Holocaust remembrance is fundamental to providing a collective conscious ness against indifference, discrimination and persecution, and to build a better society than the one that fuelled the hatred which lead to the death of 6 million innocent people.
Singing as a common thread
The title of the project emphasises how singing was a common thread running through some of the most touching stories shared by Theresienstadt’s inmates.
First musical activities
The first musical activities in the camp started when conductor Rafael Schächter, at the end of a hard day of forced labour, gathered together a group of men to form a choir around Christmas time in 1941. This first choir was born at a time in which there were no musical instruments and no sheet music, so Schächter asked the young and brilliant pianist and composer Gideon Klein to work on some arrangements of Czech and Hebrew folk songs. And so it was that these tired labourers gathered in the attic of the camp’s barracks, fired with community spirit and a sense of mutual encouragement, for an evening of choir rehearsal.
Singing for resistance
“Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde.
Dum veneris judicare sæculum per ignem.”
– Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem
Dauntless, conductor Rafael Schächter realised that there was a way of resisting and subtly provoking the Nazis by singing out loud what the prisoners could not say, and thus decided to make his choir prepare Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, a choral masterpiece. The work was performed 16 times and the last performance was on the occasion of the International Red Cross visit to the camp, when a choir of 150 prisoners, conducted by Schächter, and accompanied by Gideon Klein at the piano, sang in front of the Nazis, invoking divine justice and Judgment Day!
Teaching children by singing
“There wasn’t that much good in Terezín . . .
It was a pretty miserable existence.
To be able to perform the opera was a highlight for us. We were free singing.”
– Michael Gruenbaum, Theresienstadt’s survivor and author of the book “Somewhere there is still a sun”
It is estimated that 15,000 children were imprisoned in Theresienstadt between its establishment at the beginning of 1941 and its liberation in May 1945. After they arrived at the camp, children were separated from their families and relocated to male and female children’s barracks. Schooling was forbidden, but adult prisoners, including Gideon Klein, took the initiative to guarantee the children’s education by organising secret “alternative” classes every day. One alternative method of teaching was through singing since the Nazis forbade school but not performative activities. Many children joined the choir which sang in “Brundibar”, composer Hans Krasa’s opera for children, that was successfully performed around 55 times in Theresienstadt.
Singing to comfort
Czech songwriter Ilse Weber was working at the Theresienstadt children’s hospital at the time of her imprisonment. Since medicine was forbidden, she tried to comfort sick children by singing them her songs. She voluntarily accompanied a group of her beloved children to Auschwitz and, tragically, to the gas chambers, where she let them sing until their last breath.
Zdenka Fantlova was born in Czechoslovakia. Her adolescence was upset when Hitler’s troops invaded the country in 1939 and Czech Jews began to be persecuted. After her father was arrested, Zdenka and her family were sent to Theresienstadt.
Working in the kitchen during the day and acting in the theatre in the evening, Zdenka had the opportunity to meet many famous key personalities of the camp’s artistic group. In October 1944 she was on a cattle truck that carried many musicians to Auschwitz. The majority of them, including conductor Rafael Schäcter, were sent to the gas chambers.
After Auschwitz, Zdenka was sent to 4 other concentration camps: Kurzbach, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen. It was nearly the end of the war when, in Bergen-Belsen, her fragile health condition made her realize that she was losing her inner strength to survive. When the Red Cross arrived at the camp Zdenka was discovered by a British soldier, who she was able to ask for help in English.
Thanks to this brave soldier, Zdenka was hospitalized and later sent to Sweden, where she found out she was the only member of her family to survive. She wrote a book of memoirs, “The Tin Ring” that has been published in many countries and has become a landmark in the literature about the Holocaust.
Eliska Klein (1912 – 1999), sister of the composer Gideon Klein, was a Czech pianist and music teacher. Survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, after the war she dedicated her life to spreading the music of her brother and the other Terezín composers.
Peter Kreitmer is the grandson of composer Hans Winterberg. When he discovered the story of his grandfather around 10 years ago, he found out that Winterberg’s composition was concealed in a German archive and nobody could study or perform his music. Kreitmer has been working with the exil.arte centre in Wien to bring his grandfather’s music to light again.