“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” a multi-media concert which honors the performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece by Jewish concentration camp prisoners, is coming to Anchorage in April.
And in conjunction with it, the city will observe “Defy Fear Week” with a proclamation from the mayor and activities planned throughout Anchorage.
Defiant Requiem tells the story of the performance of Verdi’s funeral Mass by 150 prisoners at Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia where Jewish artists and intellectuals were imprisoned.
Dr. Grant Cochran, conductor of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, said the compelling story is what led his group to endeavor to bring the performance to Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center.
“As a conductor, I was amazed at these prisoners in a concentration camp committed to learning this music despite hardships, starvation, beatings and constant fear.”
Only one copy of the complex music had been smuggled into the camp by Jewish conductor Rafael Schachter, Cochran explained. Under those circumstances, “the musician in me is amazed by how they were able to learn it.”
“Defiant Requiem” is a project of the Defiant Requiem Foundation and its creator and conductor, Murry Sidlin. The performance is being done in collaboration with Anchorage Concert Chorus and University of Alaska Anchorage’s Department of Music.
Eventually, the camp’s prisoners performed the Requiem 16 times, including before an assembled group of Nazi officials and a Red Cross delegation.
Schachter told the choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”
“Defiant Requiem” features the Verdi masterpiece interspersed with live narration and video testimony from Terezin survivors, as well as “show” footage the Nazis shot in the camp. There will be no intermission during the two-hour performance.
Sidlin launched “Defiant Requiem” in 2002. Since then, it has been performed more than 30 times around the world, including three times at Terezin. Sidlin will conduct Anchorage’s performance.
Despite its brutal setting, the Requiem at Terezin is actually a story of hope, Sidlin said.
“In a concentration camp full of persecuted Jews, why would Schachter, the conductor, reach out to teach a work steeped in Catholic liturgy?” he asked.
“As the singers sang the words of the Mass, ‘nothing shall remain unavenged,’ it reinforced their faith that God was in charge and will take care of them,” he said. Over the years, Sidlin said many survivors of Terezin told him that the Requiem had filled them with hope and strength.
“When they heard the words, ‘Deliver me, O Lord,’ they saw that as ‘Liberate me.’”
“Keep in mind,” Sidlin said, “the conductor had to teach this music by rote. There was little nutrition, 10-hour workdays in 8-day shifts, and yet in the evening the prisoners came to rehearse. These were extraordinarily dedicated people who found in this music and this conductor inspiration.”
Cochran added, “The choral tradition is largely a sacred tradition. Requiems are one of the great pieces of art to which composers gravitate.”
Schachter’s Requiem performances were held between October 1943 and June 1944. After the first performance, more than half of his singers were shipped to Auschwitz. So he recruited more singers. After his last performance, for the Red Cross delegation, Schachter himself was sent to Auschwitz where he died.
The performance for the Red Cross delegation was part of a propaganda event staged by the Nazis. The camp was a transit point for people being sent elsewhere to their deaths, but for the Red Cross visit, the prison was made to look like a small town, with shops and happy children.
Prior to the event, many prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz to reduce overcrowding at Terezin. The real conditions of the camp are illustrated by the figures: in 1942, 15,891 prisoners, or one-half of the residents, died of sickness and malnutrition.
Sidlin discovered the Terezin performances by chance while reading a book about music in the Holocaust, and was able to locate Schachter’s bunker mate at Terezin, Edgar Krasa, who supplied background and history on the performances.
Krasa had survived Auschwitz, and was living in Massachusetts when Sidlin met him. The survivor had performed in all 16 Requiems at the camp, and his sons performed at “Defiant Requiem” when it was brought to Boston.
Sidlin said Krasa is still alive, now in his 90s.
Since Terezin was essentially the prison for Czech intellectuals, they created a lively cultural environment at the camp despite the horrendous conditions.
In addition to the Verdi concert, “artists and musicians presented 1,000 concerts and 2,400 lectures during their years of imprisonment,” Sidlin said.
“It was a hotbed of the arts and humanities,” he added. People saw it as an opportunity to take the high ground against their Nazi persecutors. Their art became an act of defiance and a way of demonstrating the brutality of the Nazi regime.
April Wilson is a board member and singer with the Anchorage Concert Chorus. She also chairs the “Defiant Requiem” Committee. She said the event seemed so important they wanted all of Anchorage to share in it.
The Defiant Requiem Foundation provided a $25,000 grant and other assistance for the two performances at the Performing Arts Center.
The Concert Chorus agreed to involve various departments at UAA in the themes and history of “Defiant Requiem.”
“Once we got into it, though, we were so moved by the timeliness and importance of the themes that we decided to expand our activities to the entire Anchorage community,” Wilson said. As a result, the week is full of activity. Besides the long list of scheduled events, there will be poetry readings, music, discussions and exhibits throughout the week at UAA, the Anchorage Museum of Art, Loussac Library and bookstores in the city.
In addition to promoting Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” the Defiant Requiem Foundation has three other core components: a film documentary, “Defiant Requiem,” which will be shown at the Beartooth; a Rafael Schachter Institute for Arts and Humanities at Terezin and educational lesson plans for students and teachers hosted at DefiantRequien.org.