Sixty-six years ago, Verdi’s Requiem was performed in the Theresienstadt Nazi concentration camp outside of Prague, Czechoslovakia. On May 1, it was performed by the Vermont Symphony orchestra and chorus, directed by Robert De Cormier at the Flynn theatre in Burlington, Vermont.
Two Theresienstadt survivors spoke before the concert. One had sung in the chorus, the other had been in the audience, along with members of the visiting Red Cross and the Gestapo elite, including the architect of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichman.
“When you are starving, the only thing that remains is what goes on in your head,” Frederick Terna explained.
“We became part of the Requiem, it was life giving,” said Marianka Zadilow May. Theresienstadt was a Potemkin village, designed to give the Red Cross and the world the impression that Jews were being well treated. A propaganda film was made, entitled “We have given the Jews the gift of this city.”
Like all propaganda, some of it was true. This camp was unique in that it permitted the prisoners—largely comprised of artists, writers, composers and musicians, the freedom of artistic expression, after they worked twelve hours a day, and experienced starvation. What was not evident at the performance in Theresienstadt was that the chorus members had to continually be replaced as they were shipped off to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Almost all—including extraordinarily talented composers—were exterminated in the last transport, a few months before liberation.
The irony that this powerful religious work was written by Verdi, an agnostic, as a Catholic mass, performed by Jews, in a Nazi concentration camp was not lost. The Nazi’s thought, one of the survivors said,” These dumb Jews, they do not know they are singing their own requiem.” The Jews, thought, “We were singing their requiem, and they did not know it.”
When prisoners sang, “When the wicked have been confounded, doomed to the devouring flames,” they must have felt that justice would one day triumph.
And it did. The redemptive power of music has rarely been portrayed with such terror and beauty as with the performance of Verdi’s Requiem, both then and now. As I sat transfixed in the audience, my mind skipped back and forth from Theresienstadt to the Flynn theatre. Sixty six years ago, the chorus was hungry, sick and dressed in rags. This night they were healthy and strong. Sixty six years ago, there was only a rickety piano. Today, the Vermont Symphony was in full splendor. Then, the singers and the audience were momentarily transformed by the performance, forgetting their fate. Now, the singers, the orchestra and the audience were transformed once again by the music. As the pictures in my mind kept going back and forth, I imagined my Aunt and Uncle Augusta and Sigmund, listening, before they died at Theresienstadt. The final lines sung by a splendid soprano brought me back: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
Listen to this commentary on VPR.net.