April 08, 2013


'Defiant Requiem', a powerful documentary about Terezin inmates daring to perform Verdi's "Requiem", premiered on PBS Apr. 7. for Holocaust Remembrance Days. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)

‘Defiant Requiem’, a powerful documentary about Terezin inmates daring to perform Verdi’s “Requiem”, premiered on PBS Apr. 7. for Holocaust Remembrance Days. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)

The gripping documentary “Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance”, which PBS premiered Apr. 7, is a powerful and perfect start to Holocaust Remembrance Days.

The film pays glorious tribute to prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin), where Rafael Schächter led 150 fellow inmates in one of the world’s most demanding choral works, Verdi’s “Requiem”.

An exquisite contemporary performance of the “Requiem” at Terezin is led by Murry Sidlin, president and founder of theDefiant Requiem Foundation, and professor of conducting, andmusic of the Holocaust, at Washington’s Catholic University of America.

The performance and documentary say “to the survivors and those who did not survive — you have been heard — and we honor you,” Sidlin comments.

During World War Two, conductor-pianist Schächter had told the choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

As they sang in the “Dies Irae” (Days of Wrath) section, “How great will be the terror when the day of judgment comes.”

Schächter led a total 16 performances of the “Requiem” before he was transported to three other concentration camps. He died on a death march just before World War Two ended.

(During the march, his last wish was for it to be performed at the Prague landmark of St. Vitas Cathedral, a Czech Embassy cultural officer told me. Almost 70 years later, Schächter’s wish will become a reality. On June 6, Sidlin will conduct the Defiant Requiem at St. Vitas. The performance is one of the ceremonies honoring Prague’s Holocaust Memorial, which will be dedicated on June 4.)

Schächter had also told the choir that it would be “the biggest statement they would ever make, and maybe the last, so it had to be perfect.” It was all of that.

The chorus and audience were among the total 88,000 inmates sent from Terezin to death camps.

In November 1944, Jewish composers including Viktor Ullmann(a former student of Arnold Schoenberg, Ullmann was also a conductor and pianist before the war), Pavel Haas, Hans Krása,Gideon Klein, and other excellent composers, were sent from Terezin to gas chambers at Auschwitz and other death camps.

“All the next generation of Czech composers were wiped out — gone,” Sidlin says in the film.

Almost all of Terezin’s 15,000 children were also sent to their deaths. Only 132 managed to live, and several of the survivors speak eloquently in the documentary:

  • “Rafi (Schächter) put all of us singers and the audience into another world. This was not the Nazis’ world — This was our world… It made us feel human…”
  • “The soul needs only heavenly music for nourishment.”
  • “I got the Requiem as a present to take with me all my life.”

Hitler used the first performance as his present, literally. It was featured in the infamous propaganda film “The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews“, made to convince the International Red Cross and the world that Theresienstadt was a sort of Jewisharts village instead of a concentration camp, a holding pen before deportation to death.

It convinced the International Red Cross, whose members returned to Switzerland and said, “‘The Jews have it very good,'” one survivor comments.

“Defiant Requiem” interweaves sections of the propaganda film and other archival footage and photos, with survivors’ interviews, childrens’ artwork — and most dramatically, the contemporary concert performance.

The documentary (click here for trailer), written, directed, and co-produced by Doug Shultz, will be re-broadcast by PBS (check local TV listings for dates and times), and is available from Partisan Pictures.

Sidlin will conduct performances of the Requiem also on Apr. 23 and Apr. 24 in Baltimore at his alma mater, Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and also on Apr. 29 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

The June 6 performance is under the auspices of Cardinal Dominik Duka, Archbishop of Prague — who had been imprisoned by the Communists when they ruled the former Czechoslovakia.

For more info: “Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance”,Defiant Requiem Foundation, P.O. Box 6242, Washington, DC, 202-244-0220, info@defiantrequiem.org. For Holocaust Days of Remembrance, continuing through sundown Sunday Apr. 14,https://www.ushmm.org/remembrance/dor/, and 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,neveragain.ushmm.org, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W., Washington, D.C., 1-866-998-7466.