WASHINGTON (CNS) — When conductor Murry Sidlin visits the mass graves near the former concentration camp in Terezin, Czech Republic, he is convinced the “ground is unsettled.”
“This is not a place where people rest in peace. This is a place where the world turned its back and let these people die,” said Sidlin, dean of the music school at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
For the past eight years, Sidlin has been determined to pay homage to the men and women of the prison camp by focusing specifically on the interminable spirit of its choir of 150 prisoners and their conductor, Rafael Schaechter. The choir performed Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” 16 times from 1943 to 1944 before fellow prisoners, Nazi officials and visitors.
Today, the work of these prisoners lives on in a concert drama called “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” created and conducted by Sidlin. The work includes a chorus and orchestra performing Verdi’s “Requiem” interspersed with testimony from surviving chorus members and an original Nazi propaganda film of the prison camp. It also includes actors who speak the words of the prison’s conductor and other prisoners.
It has been performed at concert halls around the world and poignantly re-enacted three times at the former concentration camp in Terezin. On Oct. 6, it was performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and next year it will be in Oklahoma and Minnesota.
Sidlin found out about these original performances in Terezin purely by chance when he read a brief reference about them while looking through books at a Minneapolis bargain book table about 20 years ago. Although the description of the “Requiem” prison performances was about a paragraph long, it was a life-changing moment for the conductor.
He was unable to comprehend how Jewish prisoners — worn from hunger, illness, slave labor and uncertainty about their future — could devote themselves to a very difficult Latin work “steeped in Catholic liturgy.”
One night he woke up in the middle of the night with the sudden realization that the “Requiem” must have had an entirely different meaning for these prisoners than simply a funeral Mass. The words of liberation could have reflected the prisoners’ hope for freedom while the refrains of God’s judgment could have been an incriminating message to their Nazi captors.
To test his theory, Sidlin contacted survivors of the original choir; the handful he found confirmed what he suspected. They said the work they practiced each night in a basement at the prison camp was described by the Schaechter as a way to fight back and “sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”
The group practiced with just one score and a legless out-of-tune piano. Twice the choir lost a significant number of its members because of deportations and Schaechter had to recruit new members and start over.
Sidlin describes the conductor — whose career was just beginning to take off before he was imprisoned — as a hero not only for tackling “a really difficult and demanding composition even under the best of circumstances” but for nourishing the souls of prisoners and “answering the worst of mankind with the best of mankind.”
Five days before the sold-out Washington performance of “Defiant Requiem,” Sidlin told Catholic News Service that he hoped to “illuminate the career Rafael Schaechter never had.” Schaechter was deported to Auschwitz Oct. 16, 1944, and died the following day in a gas chamber.
Sidlin also wants to make people think of the Terezin prisoners whenever they hear the famous Verdi work.
Initially, he wanted all of these performances to be held in simple setting to evoke the mood of the prison camp, but he said he is “not as finicky now” and is “more interested in what audiences walk away with than where they hear it.”
New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who is the episcopal moderator for Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended the Washington performance of “Defiant Requiem” and spoke at a reception afterward.
He told CNS Oct. 7 that it was “remarkably inspirational” that the words of an ancient requiem lifted the prisoners’ minds and hearts to God and enabled them “to say in prayer what they couldn’t say in words.”
The prayerful plea of deliverance in Verdi’s “Requiem,” the archbishop said, can be echoed today as people pray to be delivered from “hatred, violence, anti-Semitism and terrorism.”