Singing Verdi in Theresienstadt

June 2, 2015 | Matt Lebovic
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In 1943, the conductor Raphael Schachter, an inmate at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, mounted a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem with 150 of his fellow prisoners serving as the chorus. An orchestral performance of the same piece, combined with narration and video and entitled “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” has just finished a tour of the U.S. as one of many recent efforts to recreate music produced or performed by Jews during the Holocaust. Matt Lebovic writes of the original Theresienstadt concert:

Theresienstadt’s Council of Jewish Elders—nominally in charge of the ghetto—was vehemently opposed to Schachter’s productions. Not only were Jews performing a Catholic funeral mass, but it was possible the camp’s Nazi rulers would see an act of defiance and deport the entire cast. It was also said that by performing their own funeral mass, the Jewish prisoners were “apologizing for existing.”

To end the debate, Schachter offered each performer the opportunity to bow out of the production, but not one of them did so. After performing the Requiem fifteen times to enraptured audiences, the inmate choir gathered for what would be its final performance on June 23, 1944.

Seated in the front row was Adolf Eichmann . . . and other SS officials. A Red Cross delegation was also in attendance, as part of its mission to vet the camp for signs of genocide. If only in the minds of the imprisoned choir members, Verdi’s funeral mass was used to condemn the Nazi perpetrators watching their Jewish victims perform. As Schachter most famously told his choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

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