Rafael Schächter, the inspiring force in the camp: Summer Institute fellows spread the word
In June, a train whistle pierced the air at St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most important Roman Catholic cathedral in Prague. The cathedral hosted the poignant concert-drama, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín,” which tells the story of the courageous Jewish prisoners at Theresienstadt concentration camp who performed the famous Verdi Requiem Mass while experiencing the depths of human degradation during World War II.
The Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts & Humanities, founded in 2011 under the auspices of The Defiant Requiem Foundation, honors the legacy and memory of Nazi prisoners at Terezín (Theresienstadt), who found hope and inspiration in the arts and humanities in the midst of suffering, depravity and death. The Institute is named for one of Terezín’s inmates, Rafael Schächter, a young, talented Jewish conductor who chose to counter evil by organizing and training a choir of fellow prisoners to perform the monumental Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. Schächter’s choir performed the Requiem 16 times, including a final, infamous performance before their Nazi persecutors and members of the International Red Cross on June 23, 1944.
The Schächter Institute, holding its third summer in Terezín in 2013, began a weeklong learning experience on June 6 for eight fellows selected from a competitive application pool. Stipends of $1,800 were generously provided by Nina and Sol Glasner through the Fischl/Kohn Family Stipend Fund as a tribute to Nina’s maternal relatives, who died at Terezín. One additional fellow received funding from the Fran Eizenstat Memorial Fund. Applicants were selected based on their personal, family, professional or academic connection to the Holocaust and their ability to bring the information they learned at the Institute back to their communities. Most of the fellows were teachers and professionals in the Jewish community from around the country.
Created by Defiant Requiem Foundation’s president, Murry Sidlin, The Rafael Schächter Institute stemmed from a conversation Sidlin had with Dr. Jan Munk, director of the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic, and Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Prague. Sidlin recalled recently that Munk and Kraus told him they “hope the work that you’re doing would lead to more people coming out to visit Terezín, because there’s nothing like seeing it in person, and nothing like experiencing the museum.”
Sidlin’s vision was to develop a summer program that would last several weeks. It would be an opportunity to experience, on the grounds of Terezín, the sort of moments that prisoners themselves created. “Except this is by choice,” Sidlin said. “We’re not doomed to stay there and be imprisoned there. And we do it by choice, and we do it in freedom, and we continue their work on the grounds where they did it as something that was life sustaining. But they weren’t there by choice. So we go back as the ultimate victory.”
Distinguishing itself from general Holocaust study programs, The Schächter Institute honors the courageous artistic endeavors of the prisoners by replicating the types of event held there during World War II. During the War, Terezín, evolved into a major center of artistic and intellectual expression that included nearly 1,000 concerts of opera, chamber and choral music, cabaret performances, and 2,400 lectures on a myriad of topics from science to literature to politics — all performed and delivered by more than 500 prisoner-scholars and artistic professionals. Termed the “accidental university” by Murry Sidlin, the camp became one of the few places of Jewish performance and artistic expression in Europe during the war years.
The Schächter Institute provides fellows an opportunity to immerse themselves in a program focused on the redemptive power of the arts and humanities; the courage of the prisoners to defy the Nazis with artistic expression amidst daily brutality; and the ability to face the worst of mankind with the very best. Contemporary applications of the lessons of Terezín are explored pertaining to individuals living in strife and genocide today.
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Jessica Chait, an assistant director at UJA-Federation of New York, traveled to Prague having only “a limited understanding about the impact of the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.” As a result of the program, “I have invaluably enhanced my knowledge about Jewish life at Terezín and about a period of history that I had only read about,” she said. “This was my window into history. The concert at St. Vitus powerfully fulfilled Schächter’s aspiration of bringing the performance home to Prague– his motivation when teaching his fellow 150 prisoners Verdi’s “Requiem” by rote with only one conductor’s score, a chorus and a broken piano that was propped up on boxes.”
“I believe we were providing poetic justice for those in the choir who perished — using their story as a reminder to care for those who survived. With my greater awareness, I am now in a setting where I can regularly share the inspirational message.”
Jennifer Baker, a Mormon middle-school teacher living in suburban Salt Lake City, first learned about The Schächter Institute through the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Baker’s first real exposure to the Holocaust was in college at Utah State University through one of her Jewish professors.
“After getting accepted into the program, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said. “But I wanted to feel the spirit of the people in Terezín. I wanted to have the experience of learning more about spiritual resistance. When I finally arrived at Terezín, I felt I was walking with those people — I sensed they were there with me. When I returned back to Utah, I wanted to profoundly discuss with my students what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust and what was lost. I wanted them to feel it on an emotional level.
“Music speaks to us as many things do not. I want to show my students that these people are not statistics — they are human beings, and when we lost them, we lost something of ourselves, and the world is less rich without them. I want them to consider — what could have happened if Schächter and other choir members lived? What would we have today that we don’t have as a result of their death? If people can really appreciate what was lost, the more likely people will understand the importance of teaching this. When we lose people, it diminishes us as a human race.”
Another perspective came from Kevin Simpson, professor of psychology at John Brown University in Northwest Arkansas. Having a strong Christian background, Brown’s interest in the Holocaust was rooted in the psychological and human rights aspect — the core question being, “What within the human being causes them to do commit such atrocities?
“Through the Schächter Institute, I had a firsthand experience of Terezín and the conditions that the prisoners faced,” he said. “With my students, one of the core principles I teach is that I don’t want them to be bystanders — I want them to be engaged. This is not just a one-time occurrence — it happened in Rwanda, Darfur and Sarajevo and is now happening in Syria. Having a strong cross-faith group of fellows made this a well-rounded experience, where we were all learning from each other. We are now able to take our newly acquired knowledge back to our diverse communities across the country.”
Having a master’s degree in Curriculum Development, Susan Beaubaire spent most of her career teaching kids in middle school in Pre-AP English & Grade 8 English. She developed an extensive unit on the Holocaust when she taught The Diary of Anne Frank. It was the beginning of her commitment to teaching about the events leading up to and surrounding the Holocaust. Through her connection with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as a former Mandel Fellow, Susan learned about and applied for the Fellows program at The Schächter Institute.
“Because it focused on the arts and humanities, the artists, theatre people and authors that thrived and demonstrated spiritual resistance, I felt this would add a deeper level of understanding for what the Jews experienced during the Holocaust,” Susan said.
“I am excited about sharing my experience with other people, and it conjured up all sorts of ideas of what I could do to bring the message home, which could be to develop into some type of choral reading or visual presentation in conjunction with music or a student play about story.”
“I feel very privileged and appreciative to have had the opportunity to interact and share ideas with not only the participants and the program leaders but also to have met with survivors, hear the Defiant Requiem performed and visit many of the sites that related to Rafael Schächter and other Jews’ experiences during the Holocaust.”
Meredith Levick, a graduate student in experiential Jewish education at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is complementing her graduate school work by pursuing a Masters Concentration in Israel Education via the iCenter whose mission is to advance meaningful and innovative Israel education by serving as the national catalyst for building, shaping and supporting the field.
“The Schächter Institute has allowed me to think in a broader context,” Levick said. “If you think about what unfolded at Terezín, there was a limitation placed upon prisoners, yet they broke through boundaries. When they broke though, the results were spectacular. It made me think about what’s possible — where we, as humans, can actually go using our emotions and passions if we look beyond our internal and external boundaries.”
“The Terezín prisoners’ innovative thinking is a tremendous example for students to understand what is possible in life. It takes the language of ‘I can’t’ into another domain. That’s the kind of learning I want to encourage with children and adult learners from a personal growth perspective, which can be applied to different populations of all ages. As a writer and educator, I also want to spread this information both accurately and authentically, writing about the human experience, transformation, and shared struggles we face in life.”
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As The Schächter Institute looks toward the future, Sidlin said, “I’m hopeful that in a year or two we will be able to increase the program to 10 days. But the problem is raising money create a program like this annually — raising American money to sponsor events that will take place outside the United States is difficult. We decided this year, ‘Let’s alternate. Let’s do one year in Terezín and one year at a center of Jewish studies in the States.” In June of 2014, The Schächter Institute will take place at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2015, The Foundation intends to return to Terezín.” The Foundation is currently raising funds to offer the fellowship program in 2014.
To learn more about The Defiant Requiem Foundation and The Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts & Humanities, visitdefiantrequiem.com.