It was hot in Boston the day I was fortunate enough to meet Edgar Krasa. The air outside was thick, humid, sticky, but inside the Facing History & Ourselves offices in Brookline, Massachusetts, it was cool and quiet and dry. All I could hear was the whirl and
whoosh of air conditioning, and a grateful sound it was for the fifteen students and five teachers from around the United States who’d just arrived to meet him.
I couldn’t wait to hear the story I was about to experience first-hand: the performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezin concentration camp, or “Theresienstadt” as it is known in German. A story so dramatic as to be a work of fiction. But first a remembrance of those who passed through that place on the way to their deaths, as Terezin served as a transit camp for Czech Jews deported to killing centers, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps in German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltic States.
According to the Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Despite the terrible living conditions and the constant threat of deportation, Theresienstadt had a highly developed cultural life. Outstanding Jewish artists, mainly from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany, created drawings and paintings, some of them clandestine depictions of the ghetto’s harsh reality. Writers, professors, musicians, and actors gave lectures, concerts, and theater performances. The ghetto maintained a lending library of 60,000 volumes.”
Nevertheless, “Of the approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, nearly 90,000 were deported to points further east and almost certain death. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself… Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt. Although forbidden to do so, they attended school. They painted pictures, wrote poetry, and otherwise tried to maintain a vestige of normalcy. Approximately 90 percent of these children perished in death camps.” [“Theresienstadt,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM]
Edgar is tall. Maybe 6’2″ or 6’3″. He stood the entire time he shared his testimony, leaning on the back of a chair turned away from him. His voice was firm, yet cushioned, perhaps, by the weight of the memories he’s born for the seventy and more years he’s dutifully told his story. You cannot help but like Edgar. He is authentic. He is the kind of person that seems unexcitable, impossible to disturb, and yet his eyes tell a different story, a story of having been so disturbed in life that all one can do now is tell of that disturbance in the hope that it is remembered and through remembrance, perhaps, it is not forgotten and, hoping against fate, a future without such disturbance might be won.
The following account of the story of Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezin is complements of the PBS/WXXI web site:
In the spring of 1944, a handpicked group of Nazi officers was treated to an unusual performance by inmates in a concentration camp. What appeared
to be a soaring rendition of a choral masterpiece was intended as a subversive condemnation of the Nazis and a desperate message to the outside world. In the face of horrific living conditions,
slave labor and the constant threat of deportation to Auschwitz, the Jewish inmates of Terezin concentration camp — artists, musicians, poets and writers — fought back with art and music.
Led by conductor Raphael Schächter, a chorus of 150 inmates performed one of the world’s most difficult and powerful choral works, Verdi’s “Requiem,” a Catholic work re-imagined by imprisoned Jews as a condemnation of their captors. Ultimately, they performed for Nazi senior officers and the International Red Cross, singing what they dared not say. Six decades later, conductor Murry Sidlin and a new choir take Verdi’s Requiem back to Terezin to reawaken this little known chapter of heroism and the resilience of the human spirit.
Just 40 miles west of Prague, the old fortress town of Terezin had been converted into a makeshift “holding pen” for the Czech Jews during WWII. Within months, the town built for 6,000 people was bursting with nearly 60,000 Jewish inmates. An imprisoned conductor, Schächter rallied his fellow inmates with clandestine musical gatherings, and what began as a fight for survival soon exploded into a cultural rebellion. Artists captured the horrors around them on paper, playwrights staged plays with makeshift sets and costumes, composers wrote new compositions, and thousands of concerts and lectures provided late- night escape for inmates longing for a return to humanity.
This artistic uprising reached its peak when Schächter attempted a performance of one of the world’s most demanding choral works, Verdi’s Requiem, intended as a condemnation of the Nazis. Schächter painstakingly taught the Latin text, which promised divine judgment against evil, to his choir of 150, using a single smuggled score. They performed the Requiem 16 times for fellow prisoners, accompanied only by a single piano.
Eventually, the Nazis took notice of the artistic enclave at Terezin; rather than crush it, they twisted it to their own advantage. They invited the International Red Cross for a highly orchestrated visit to what they call a “self-governed Jewish city” and cynically documented the town’s makeover in an infamous propaganda film, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Following massive deportations, Schächter’s choir had been reduced to 60, but they seized the opportunity to use their music to confront the Nazis under the gaze of the Red Cross delegation, desperately hoping their condemnation might pierce the painstakingly staged propaganda.” [PBS/WXXI, “Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance“]
Edgar was part of that defiant performance of Verdi’s Requiem. He was also Raphael Schächter’s cellmate.
He’s spent his life sharing that tremendous act of human spirit with others.
More on Edgar’s story to come…
- Holocaust Remembrance: The Music Man marches on (historychannelfromthewar.com)
- Thunderous Requiem a song of defiance (courierpress.com)