On June 23, 1944, the Nazis opened the Czech labor camp of Terezin to an International Red Cross inspection. It was a propaganda masquerade to show the world how well the Jews were faring under German rule.
From 1941 to the end of the war, some 33,000 Jews would die at Terezin, and another 88,000 were dispatched to slaughter at Auschwitz. On that early summer day in Czechoslovakia, gullible humanitarian observers and their German minders were treated to an inmate chorale performance led by conductor Rafael Schachter. It would be the 16th and final concert Schachter staged of Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th-century “Requiem”; soon thereafter, he was packed into a boxcar bound for Auschwitz, never to be heard from again.
But the haunting legacy of Schachter’s last act has outlived most of its witnesses. A cabaret entertainer from Prague before the war, Schachter chose to confront his presumably clueless audience in code by employing the music of the Roman Catholic funeral Mass. Sung in Latin, Verdi’s complex score reaches an accusatory zenith with “Dies Irae,” which proclaims “The day of wrath, that day/Will dissolve the world in ashes/As foretold by David and the Sybil!/How much tremor there will be/when the judge will come …”
Although most of the performers were doomed from the outset, Schachter’s warning was for Germany. Reeling from the Red Army steamroller and the Allied invasion of Normandy just weeks earlier, the Third Reich’s fate had entered the final stages of its bloody expiration. The Nuremberg war crimes trials would soon follow.
Among those who still remember Schachter’s daring prophetic message is 93-year-old Edgar Krasa of Boston. “There was no applause by the Germans,” he recalls. “And from the Red Cross, there was no applause.”
Choir member Edgar Krasa was Schachter’s bunkmate in Terezin. On Saturday, he and his wife, Hana — who was also imprisoned there — will appear in Longboat Key for a screening of “Defiant Requiem.” Premiering on PBS stations last year, the acclaimed documentary dramatization explores not only historical events, but also the contemporary odyssey of American conductor Murry Sidlin to recreate the Schachter-overtoned “Requiem” in Czechoslovakia. Sidlin was successful, in 2006 and 2009.
Sharing his story
Among those attending Sidlin’s 2009 masterpiece was Stuart Eizenstat, who was wrapping up an unprecedented, 47-nation conference in Prague addressing compensation for Holocaust survivors and the recovery of assets plundered by the Nazis.
A career diplomat whose eclectic credentials include European Union ambassador and Deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton, Eizenstat was representing the State Department when he heard Sidlin’s performance — and the back story on Schachter. “It blew me away,” he recalls.
Today, Eizenstat is board chair of the Defiant Requiem Foundation which, in addition to honoring the victims, also seeks to perpetuate their timeless spirit of resistance through the arts. He will join the Krasas Saturday at Temple Beth Israel.
“By using their creative capacities, Schachter’s chorus made an assertion that the Nazis could not take away their humanity,” says Eizenstat, whose Foundation hopes to share those lessons with schools and libraries across the country, and beyond. “Arts, music, dance and culture can be a part of steeling people imprisoned for standing up against human rights abuses in dictatorial regimes like Iran and China, and motivating them to go on.”
Despite his age, Edgar Krasa says he feels compelled to share his own testimony with strangers, sometimes as often as 2-3 times a week.
He was among the first cluster of Jews imprisoned inside the walled city of Terezin in late 1941. Assigned a cook’s duties, Krasa became fast friends with the talented Schachter, a Romanian Jew who had moved to Czechoslovakia and founded the Prague Chamber Opera in 1937. Schachter made the enemies list with his anti-Nazi songs.
“When he came to Terezin, he was like a psychologist without a degree,” Krasa says. “He understood that people needed something spiritually uplifting to keep them going.”
Schachter would form an underground ensemble with fellow prisoners after long days of factory work, using smuggled musical instruments and rehearsing in cramped cellars. His repertoire as diverse as Czech folk-tune sing-alongs, “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute,” Schachter’s work would eventually draw the attention of the German command, for whom the ad hoc troupe performed “Requiem” 16 times. The choir numbered 150 members at its peak, but during that climactic finale in 1944, due to murder and deportation, only 60 were left to carry it off.
‘People need ot know’
Krasa remembers Schachter telling him the “Requiem” message he wanted to send to his captors. “He said he wanted it to be a Mass for the dead Nazis,” Krasa says. “He told the people, there is danger in this, but I still want to pursue it. He gave everyone a chance to get out. But nobody left. They all wanted to be a part of it.”
The audience on that fateful day included two Swiss Red Cross delegates, two Danish officials, authorities from Berlin and Prague, the Nazi SS, and “Final Solution” architect Adolf Eichmann. The sham inspection was recorded and turned into a propaganda film, “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews.”
In October 1944, Krasa himself was shipped to Auschwitz. Three months later, while attempting to escape during a death march, Krasa was shot in the side and left for dead in the snow. He was liberated by the Russian army.
Krasa met fellow Terezin survivor and future wife Hana in 1946. She lost both parents to the Holocaust. Edgar and Hana married in 1949. Schachter’s inspiration has never deserted him.
“This is an important story to tell,” Krasa says. “People need to know the truth.”
In addition to his appearance at the movie screening, Eizenstat, who negotiated $8 billion in Holocaust settlements from several European nations, will address the subject of his latest book, “The Future of the Jews: How Global Forces are Impacting the Jewish People, Israel, and Its Relationship with the United States.” That event is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Sarasota’s Klingenstein Jewish Center, 580 McIntosh Road. $10 tickets can be reserved at 941-552-6301, or online at www.jfedsrq.org/events.aspx.