Edgar Krasa: From Cookery… to Verdi’s Requiem – Part Three: Enter Rafael Schächter

Why do we need to tell and repeat the stories of survivors and murdered victims of the Holocaust? It is a matter of honoring them, a matter of disseminating truth, but also, a matter of resistance, of combating the assault on human memory.

Town specially constructed for Jews In November 1941,Czech workers were sent to transform the small garrison town of Terezín, Czechoslovakia into the Theresienstadt camp. Here they incarcerated some of Europe's most gifted artists, musicians, composers and writers who, sustained an active cultural community.

Town specially constructed for Jews
In November 1941,Czech workers were sent to transform the small garrison town of Terezín, Czechoslovakia into the Theresienstadt camp. Here they incarcerated some of Europe’s most gifted artists, musicians, composers and writers who, sustained an active cultural community.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta where she directs the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. Her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press/Macmillan, 1993) is the first full length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. She has also written a book about the libel trial in London she won against David Irving who sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier and right-wing extremist.

In an interview with Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), Professor Lipstadt is quoted as saying:

“One of the important conclusions of Irving’s trial against me was that, in the future, historians will have to come to the fore to protect and defend history in a way that they haven’t had to until now. That is why my lawyers called historians as witnesses, and not survivors… Survivors are witnesses to the facts. It is much more powerful when someone speaks in the first person; but, had a survivor been put on the stand on our behalf, it would have meant we needed a witness of fact to prove the Holocaust had happened. We wanted to make it very clear that our purpose wasn’t to prove that the Holocaust had happened, as that was obvious… As more and more survivors pass away, the role of the historian will become increasingly important. Even if many testimonies have been transcribed or videotaped, historians will still have to interpret them.”

I write today, again, of Edgar Krasa, to share his story [his-story], in the hope of making his life yet another permanent link in a lasting defense of his life’s memory, as well as that of the life of Raphael Schächter and all those who survived Terezin concentration camp, the Holocaust in general, and, of course, those who perished during the Holocaust.

As Professor Lipstadt explains, there is a long battle to be fought.  This is just the beginning.

The town was for Jewish artisans , the wealthy and their families. There were artists, writers, scientists and jurists, diplomats, musicians.

The town was for Jewish artisans , the wealthy and their families. There were artists, writers, scientists and jurists, diplomats, musicians.

The following biographical information about Edgar Krasa is adapted from The Music Man Of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schächter… As Remembered by Edgar Krasa, by Susie Davidson, with illustrations by Fay Grajower.Edgar writes about their arrival at Terezin:

“We were allowed to take 110 pounds of luggage with us, mainly clothing, bedding and non-perishable food. Terzin, as it is called in Czech, had no railroad station; after marching two miles to get there, we were taken to one of the barracks, and the gates closed behind us. Quickly aware that we were prisoners, we were lined up in the yard while the camp commander voiced our restrictions. No smoking, no letter writing, no leaving the barracks without a guard… The engineers and technicians were to increase the capacity of the utilities (water, sewer, and electricity) from 8000 people to 80,000… Three days later [of arrival date] we were able to serve a simple meal…”

“On November 30, a transport of 1000 arrived. These were whole families… The first transport was followed by many more of approximately 1000, arriving almost every other day…

“My story is partially interspersed with that of another person, a hero to many. Raphael Schächter arrived on November 30, 1941, a week after me. He was born in 1905 in Brail, Romania. After World War I he moved to Brno, which was the capital of Moravia, to study piano with a well-known piano teacher. Later, his teacher moved to Prague, and Schächter followed him. There he played piano for political theatre.

Jewish elders ran the camp Jakub Edelstein, was the first elder and he ran it from 1941 - 1943. He was arrested for falsifying camps records. The second was  Dr. Paul Eppstein  who was followed by Dr Murmelstein in Sept 1944. The camp government contained a number of supplementary departments to keep the camp running as smoothly as possible.

Jewish elders ran the camp
Jakub Edelstein, was the first elder and he ran it from 1941 – 1943. He was arrested for falsifying camps records. The second was Dr. Paul Eppstein who was followed by Dr Murmelstein in Sept 1944. The camp government contained a number of supplementary departments to keep the camp running as smoothly as possible.

“Life in Terzin was very hard. All men had assigned jobs, and worked 8 to 10 hours each day. But Rafael Schächter immediately called all the men together, and in the evenings, in the cellar of the barracks, he had them sing populuar Czech songs. The great majority of Czech Jews, who had come out of the Austria-dominated era after World War I, were assimilated, myself included. 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. The prisoners began to feel more alive, remembering what their lives were like before the war. There were actually ten musical performances staged in December. Recognizing that Schächter worked a double shift, I was able to steer a little extra food to him from the kitchen. I wasn’t a musician, but I had an art, as a cook. And I soon found out that I could sing, too.

Music for the opening chorus of Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride; The Bartered Bride: German and English Text and Music of the Principal Airs, published by Oliver Ditson Company, Philadelphia, 1909

Music for the opening chorus of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride; The Bartered Bride: German and English Text and Music of the Principal Airs, published by Oliver Ditson Company, Philadelphia, 1909

“In July, 1942, the last of the original townsfolk were evacuated, so the barracks gates were opened and we could move inside the ghetto. Schächter used this opportunity to combine his male and female singers. He had one score of the Czech opera ‘The Barterede Bride,’; and began to study it, with his choir, in the cellar. Each member had to study it by heart, but every Czech knew some melodies by heart. The soloists had no problem, because they were the best from the Prague Opera.

“Some dedicated musicians, professionals and amateurs managed to smuggle their instruments into Terezin. With no SS guards inside the ghetto, they were able to practice in cellars and attics. But nothing escaped the Germans, and they found out. The Council head 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.

“Berlin accepted this idea of a showcase ghetto, and plans were developed to invite a credible organization to visit, and give the Germans a commendatory report.”