The story of Defiant Requiem began in Minneapolis, MN in the mid-1990’s when noted conductor and educator Murry Sidlin, then on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, happened upon a book entitled Music in Terezín, 1941–1945 by Joža Karas. The book was stacked among many others in a sidewalk sale of used and out-of-print titles, and Maestro Sidlin opened to a short chapter about a man named Rafael Schächter. Schächter was born in Romania, studied at the Czech Music Conservatory in Brno, and was a pianist, vocal coach, and conductor in Prague before WWII. At the end of this short chapter were a few sentences about how Schächter was deported to Terezín and, while there, recruited a chorus of 150 prisoners, taught them Verdi’s Requiem by rote, and presented 16 performances of this ambitious work.
Soon after purchasing the book Sidlin began to ask himself a nagging question: why would a large group of Jews, imprisoned for being Jewish, willingly volunteer to learn, rehearse, and perform such a demanding choral work that was deeply steeped in the Catholic liturgy? With little new information available he became more and more convinced there was another reason that this chorus of prisoners, all amateur singers, undertook performing the Verdi. The endeavor was either foolish or staggeringly brave. Either way, he knew there had to be a deeper explanation for Schächter’s dedication.
A few years later, Maestro Sidlin, now Resident Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, posted his interest in speaking with survivors who knew Schächter, singers in the chorus, relatives, or anyone with information about the Requiem performances at Terezín to an online Holocaust message board. The first response was a terse reply from a woman in Jerusalem who turned out to be Schächter’s niece, Katja Manor. After some convincing, she led Maestro Sidlin to Edgar Krasa, then living in Boston. Edgar was a former Terezín prisoner who sang in the Verdi chorus and was also Schächter’s roommate in the barracks for three years. In speaking with Mr. Krasa, it became evident that the Verdi performances were a statement, an act of defiance and resistance against the Nazis. It was the chorus’ way of fighting back. Edgar said, “We sang to the Nazis what we could not say to them.” Edgar and his late wife Hana went on to introduce Murry to other surviving members of the chorus: Marianka Zadikow-May and Eva Rocek, and audience member Vera Schiff. All affirmed what Edgar Krasa had said, and what Sidlin now knew: the Verdi was a message.
By this point, Maestro Sidlin had also perfected a new kind of concert that he called the “concert-drama” – a combination of music, narration, and multimedia elements that offered new insights into works from the traditional orchestral repertoire. On April 20, 2002, at the Portland Expo Center, Sidlin and Oregon Symphony premiered the concert-drama Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín. The non-traditional venue was intentional. This was to be a different kind of concert and the audience was to be transported away from the traditional concert hall setting. The performance was filmed by Brandenburg Productions in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting and aired on PBS nationwide on August 27, 2003.
Defiant Requiem achieved its next significant milestone in 2006. With sponsorship from the Internationally-renowned Prague Spring music festival, Defiant Requiem was performed in Terezín. The performance and rehearsals were filmed by Partisan Pictures with the intention that this historic performance would someday become more.
In 2008, Sidlin founded The Defiant Requiem Foundation, establishing a formal structure and platform to serve the mission of preserving the memory of the prisoners in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp (Terezín) during World War II, who, despite monumental suffering, disease, and the constant presence of death, found hope and inspiration in the arts and humanities.
Defiant Requiem returned to Terezín two more times in 2009. The second performance, given on June 30, was the closing event of the multi-national Holocaust Era Assets conference organized by the Czech government and a number of other organizations including the Forum 2000 Foundation. Leading the U.S. delegation to the conference was Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat. He, along with his late wife Fran, were deeply moved by the performance and immediately became involved with the Foundation – Stu as Chairman and Fran as an active member of the Board of Directors. Among the first of many initiatives, they spearheaded the effort to bring Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC on October 6, 2010.
On May 31, 2012 the feature-length documentary film Defiant Requiem received its world premiere at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. With footage from the 2006 concert in Terezín, and the story of Murry Sidlin’s dream of returning Defiant Requiem home as a catalyst, this unique and award-winning film explores the singers’ view of the Verdi as a work of defiance and resistance against the Nazis. Defiant Requiem was broadcast nationwide on PBS in the spring of 2013, on BBC4 in the United Kingdom in early 2014, and on France Télévisions in May 2015. The film was also available on Netflix for two years ending in November 2015.
Murry Sidlin’s newest concert-drama, Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezín Composer, joins Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, along with the documentary film Defiant Requiem and accompanying curriculum guide, The Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts and Humanities, and the Foundation’s continuously expanding educational offerings, to provide new insights into our understanding of what it meant to resist and defy attempts to suppress the human spirit during the Holocaust.