The Substance of Resistance, the Music of Defiance

edgar.krasa.speakingEvery Holocaust survivor I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting has changed me in ways I cannot adequately put into words, because, I more than just suspect, there is a phenomena of some sort involved in the human transaction of the sharing of these harrowing Holocaust-specific stories that is only fully operational at a particular, fined-tuned frequency of thought. Hence, too intangible, too evasive, to describe. The mind often refuses to absorb the content of what it does not like to hear. And yet, the willingness to absorb just such unwanted content seems to open special, obscure doors of understanding too hidden from view to fully understand.

That being said…

Meeting Edgar Krasa and hearing the testimony of his involvement in such direct defiance of Nazi power and authority has had great impact on my life. The essence of what this man did and saw and survived moved simply and mysteriously through imperceptible corridors of awareness from his life-as I sat, listening to him speak- into mine. Edgar’s experience in Terezin of living and working with conductor Raphael Schächter impressed me with, among many other things, the immeasurable potential of the impact that words–and especially words put to music–can have on the human soul, even when under unspeakable duress.

Edgar Krasa

Yours truly with Edgar Krasa

Edgar puts it more simply than that: “I speak about music as an instrument of resistance and defiance.” [1]

As this gentle and intelligent emissary of things inexplicable spoke to us in the Facing History & Ourselves meeting room in Brookline, Mass., [1] I felt his message of inner resistance infuse my own inner being in ways that I could never produce of my own accord. Oscar Wilde writes that, “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Whatever Wilde’s meaning in saying such a thing, I apply it to mean that, as regards Holocaust education, one cannot teach what is most worth knowing about concerning the Holocaust outside of the interpersonal experience of hearing live survivor testimony. There is no power-source-equivalent that compares to experiencing the first person testimony of one who has been Jewish and plunged deep into the bowels of Hitler’s Jew-devouring beast. The “teaching” of such experience is not only beyond theory or beyond all academic effort or entirely beyond the purely conceptual, it is not fully located within the realm of sense or reason at all, bordering on, if not existing partly or entirely within, the realm of the metaphysical. Hence, it is impossible to duplicate or replicate Holocaust survivor testimony. Even through video testimony, which is the next-best thing. And if such is truly the case, then we are about to lose the real-time capacity to learn the substance of what is most worth knowing about this unprecedented watershed event of human hatred toward other human beings-a very scary thought, indeed, packed with nothing but negative consequence for the species, which simply does not seem to concern too many people outside of the Holocaust education community.

Raphael Schächter

Raphael Schächter

All that being said…

Edgar Krasa met Raphael Schächter soon upon Schächter’s arrival in one of the early transports to Terezin.

“He was a pianist and chorus conductor, but to me, he was also a psychologist without a diploma. He immediately called all the men together, and evenings in the cellar, he had them sing Czech patriotic songs… Singing the songs brought our minds back home, where we lived a cultural life, and lifted our spirits and morale. In spite of the closed gates, he managed to get to the women’s barracks, and did the same thing with them. Everybody loved him… His life was dedicated to make other people’s lives easier to bear.” [2]

Schächter was, himself, it seems, a kind of wizard or time-whisperer of sorts, able to mystically transport those who’d been physically transported by the Nazis toward the dark doors of death back toward the light of life, back home, to Czechoslovakia, temporarily reversing the sadness and confusion and fear of their life’s trajectory, if only in his fellow inmates imaginations, lifting their spirits through the time-suspending magic of beautiful music performed under dire circumstances.

Edgar, trained as a cook at the behest of his mother–who saw it as a profession where, with the Germans running things from Prague, he might always have food–had arrived at Terezin by a deception based upon the description of his destination being a kind of safe-haven, not a transit camp where thousands of Jews would ultimately be sent to be deported to killing centers, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps located at “points east.” Upon leaving his home in the Sudetenland, after a train ride and a two-mile march, he and his initial contingent of Czech Jews arrived at the 17th-century fortress town of Theresienstadt. The gates of the walled town slammed shut behind them. He was, as it turned out, an advance landing party of Jews sent to get the transit camp up and running.

Portrait of Edgar Krasa drawn by Leo Haas in Theresienstadt. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Edgar and Hana Krasa

Portrait of Edgar Krasa drawn by Leo Haas in Theresienstadt.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Edgar and Hana Krasa.

Nevertheless, he did his best to cook food, Czech food, that his compatriots, mostly Jewish inmates, liked. He made a sauce of the ersatz coffee on hand, combined with a little sugar and margarine, for instance, which survivors tried to duplicate after the war. He did all he could to make the infrequent possession of horse meat an enjoyable experience. This was his job and his duty: to feed not only the body, but the heart and mind as well, by way of serving food that might lift the spirits of his fellow inmates, his fellow Jews, at Terezin. And then, in June of 1942, Raphael  Schächter-also looking to feed the soul of his fellow inmates-was able to combine male and female singers in a chorus. They studied the operas brought clandestinely into the camp, learning them by heart. Some inmates were soloists from the Prague opera. There were many skilled musicians deported to Terezin – some professional, some amateur – who were able to smuggle their instruments into the walled-in ghetto-transit camp.

Schächter had one score of the Czech opera “The Bartered Bride,” and began to study, with his choir, in the cellar of the former military headquarters. Each member studied to learn it by heart. As Edgar puts it, every Czech knew some melodies by heart. But, nothing escaped the Nazis and soon, their clandestine meetings were found out. Thankfully, the head of the established Jewish Council suggested to the camp commander that instead of punishing the musicians, they could utilize the talent present to show the world how well they treated the Jews. Surprisingly, Berlin accepted this idea.      [adapted from Edgar Krasa in “I Refused to Die”]

From that time, on, the seed of inner strength that came in the form of beautiful music only grew in magnitude of power and purpose within the captive population of Jewish inmates at Terezin, as the Nazis, on the other hand, went about the malevolent business of making the kind of cold, morally diseased “music” that could only be fully appreciated in Hell.

But a seed of spiritual resistance had been planted, and now was being watered, in the vast, barren wasteland of that particular corner of the Nazi kingdom of night.

[1] Edgar Krasa, talk, Facing History & Ourselves offices, Brookline, Mass.; also as quoted in I Refused to Die, “Stories of Boston Area Holocaust Survivors and Soldiers who Liberated the Concentration Camps of World War II,” Susie Davidson, Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville, MA 2005. [2] Krasa, I Refused to Die, “Stories…”
[2] …as part of that educational organization’s programming of the Holland &Knight Holocaust Remembrance Project Scholar’s Week in June of 2012.

3 comments on “The Substance of Resistance, the Music of Defiance

  1. Hi Dan, what a great account of a fascinating man. I’m so glad you were able to meet Edgar Krasa, whom I learned about from watching PBS’ documentary about Terezin “Defiant Requiem” which is fantastic.

    Thank you for all you do Dan, in keeping this info that people don’t like to think about out there. As I said in my blog post today, you’ve been an inspiration to me (and others, I’m sure).


    • Dan Hennessy says:

      I taught about the making of “Defiant Requiem” while teaching “Night” in the fall, before the movie came out, via news reports. And believe it or not, I have still not seen it in its entirety! Shameful to be “too busy,” but there it is. Murray Sidlin is a great inspiration to me… I sense his heartbeat to pay homage to Terezin. I will continue on with Edgar’s story… he’s such a dear man that you just want others to know him, too. You want to share him with others. His entire being exudes the desire to make the courage and character of Raphael Schächter known to the world for all time. It was an honor to meet him.

      I plan to send these postings to him via Facing History, to let him know of the impact he had on my life.

      And the encouragement and thanks go both ways, for sure… we Irish rebels must stick together!


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