“When he came into the room, the room changed. And he was not tall, dark and handsome. He was overweight, and he was stocky. With a beautiful, beautiful expression of his eyes — pitch-black.
“And a wonderful personality. There was a magnet going between us.”
Still, Schachter faced a daunting challenge: teaching the Requiem, with its Latin text, to mostly nonprofessional singers, with only a single copy of the score and no paper or pencils — only a will to create.
“When he was teaching us note for note, he realized it wouldn’t work that way, because he needed a large chorus,” says May, meaning that Schachter couldn’t instruct 150 people by rote.
So he divided the singers into smaller groups and taught them separately, May says. For weeks, almost every single night, the choral members rehearsed, Schachter making sure everyone understood what they were singing.
“He gave us the exact Latin words of the ‘Dies Irae,'” the invocation to the day of wrath, choir survivor May says.
“The Judge will be sitting in judgment,” she adds, paraphrasing the text.
Schachter told the chorus: “‘We cannot say this to them, but we can sing it to them,'” May remembers.
Or as survivor Edgar Krasa, Schachter’s roommate, put it in the film, “In his mind, he transformed it from the Mass for the dead into Mass for the dead Nazis. And he wanted to tell them about the day of wrath coming, and the Supreme Judge sitting in judgment, and no sinner will escape. And they couldn’t tell them in German. So he thought, if he can sing it in Latin, he may get away with it.”
In rehearsal, Schachter was “merciless,” survivor Krasa says in the film (he died earlier this year). “You couldn’t move, you couldn’t bend your head, you couldn’t do anything except have your eyes directed into his eyes.”
And that was the least of the challenges. The Jewish Council of Elders, ordered by the Nazis to help manage the Terezin population, was vehemently opposed to Jews singing a Catholic Mass.
“The Jewish Council of Elders wanted it stopped,” conductor Sidlin explains. “They sensed that there was already a heated tone and temperament among a lot of rabbis and a lot of very ultrareligious people in the camp in Terezin. A lot of people returned to being Jewish in a very strong way (in Terezin), for obvious reasons. The council could not improve life in the camp, but they wanted to make sure it didn’t get worse.
“They told Schachter (that) if he continues with this, it will get worse. Nazis had a way of resolving all disputes.”
Schachter took these objections to the choir, which was determined to press on, survivor May says.
Then, too, the metastasizing grief in Terezin weighed on the singers.
“My father died in Terezin,” May recalls. “And I was very angry with God about it. And when you get angry with God, it doesn’t matter, He doesn’t answer anyhow, but He listens to prayers.
“When I met Rafi,” May continues, invoking Schachter’s nickname, “I excused myself and said: From now on I will not come anymore. I do not feel like singing anymore.”
Schachter responded that he had known her father, and “your father would have loved for you to keep singing,” May recalls him saying.
And so she did.
In September 1943, word began to circulate that a transport to the east was imminent, and choristers wanted to perform the Requiem before they might be sent away. Schachter opposed this, because the performance wasn’t yet “to his standards,” survivor Krasa says in the film.
But the impending doom led Schachter to reconsider, his 150 singers performing the Requiem after roughly six weeks of rehearsals.
By all accounts, the performance was stunning.
“It was tremendous, and I still don’t understand it,” says Hana Krasa, Edgar Krasa’s late wife, in the film. “There was only a piano. But for me, it was like if the whole orchestra played. And it made us feel human.”
The next morning, 5,000 Terezin inmates were sent by cattle car to Auschwitz, more than half of Schachter’s chorus among them.
Marianka Zadikow. (Michael J. Lutch)
From then on, Schachter kept recruiting new singers, rebuilding his chorus, though at a fraction of its previous size.
When conductor Sidlin traveled to Jerusalem years ago to interview Terezin survivor and pianist Edith Steiner-Kraus about the nature of the performances, “She said, ‘You would be proud of this choir in any urban setting, but the superficial nature of your question troubles me terribly,'” Sidlin recalls of the musician, who died in 2013 at age 100.
“‘When you ask me a question like how does the choir sound, you’re asking about those musicianly things, aren’t you? Rhythm, pitch and color and phrasing and singing together, as if any of that mattered.’
“Here’s the punch line,” Sidlin continues. “She said, ‘We were so deeply inside the music that we had returned to Verdi’s desk.’
“At that moment, when she said that to me, I realized: You know what? I know nothing.
“I like to think I get inside the music. These people — they returned to Verdi’s desk.”
In anticipation of a visit by the International Red Cross, the Nazis ordered that Terezin be scrubbed clean for official viewing. Nearly 8,000 people — “the elderly, the sick, anyone who doesn’t look the part,” according to the film — were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. Fake storefronts were built to create the appearance of a pleasant little town.
And a performance of the Requiem was ordered.
Schachter “wanted to exclude himself, but it didn’t work,” chorister May remembers.
So Schachter addressed the choir, May says.
“I was in the room when he said it: ‘If any one of you does not want to be in this particular performance, because I have no idea what’s going to happen to us — these (Nazis) will be in the audience — what their reactions will be, or might be, I do not know. And I’ll stop right here. Anyone feeling this one I don’t want to participate in, I want to leave — here’s the door, no question will be asked. We won’t ask you why.’
How did the Nazi officers react?
They did not applaud, May says. A friend of hers overheard them speaking: “They were talking to each other: The crazy Jews are singing their own Requiem, and they don’t know it,” May says.
Survivor Terna observes: “I think that in their stupidity, they said: What little the Jews knew what they were singing. It’s a requiem for the dead!
“I’m quite sure the Nazis didn’t have the faintest idea what they were permitting.”
Actor-director and Terezin inmate Kurt Gerron was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film about the supposedly idyllic camp, and a clip of what Sidlin aptly calls this “sadistic lie” is shown during the “Defiant Requiem” concert.
In October 1944, Schachter and most of his choir were sent to the east, the conductor surviving Auschwitz and other camps but dying on a death march in 1945, not long before Czechoslovakia was liberated. He was 39.
During the four years of Terezin’s existence, 140,000 were transferred there, 33,000 died inside its walls and nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death,” according to figures from the Holocaust museum.
Schachter, survivor May recalls, always nurtured a dream of what would happen after the war.
“Rafi said, ‘The Requiem is the crown of all the things I’m doing with you here,'” May remembers.
“‘What we will do is this: No matter where we will be after the war, once in a year, we will meet in the Smetana Hall in Prague and sing the Requiem. Therefore, we won’t have time to rehearse. We will be from all over the world, they will come. You have to learn it by heart. And it’s very important, as you know, every one of our rehearsals is a rehearsal for after the war.’
“So we were listening to him and hoping this would happen.”
In a way, it is happening now via Sidlin’s homage to the Verdi Requiem in Terezin, the stories of those who sang it echoing in its notes.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.