Edgar Krasa, Part V: To Honor the Life of Rafael Schächter

Rafael Schächter

Although the next installment of this series on the life of Edgar Krasa was intended to focus on the death march that he barely survived, I think Edgar would agree that this next segment of his personal testimony would pause, with reverence, to reflect upon the impact of his roommate on all those who were part of his transcendent act of resistance at Terezin: Rafael Schächter. Edgar writes and speaks to keep the story of the Requiem and Schächter’s legacy alive as much as he does to share his own story.

But tragically, the rest of Rafael Schächter’s story is quite brief.

Felix Kolmer is a survivor who last saw Schächter at Auschwitz as the two were separated on arrival into two lines by Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” an SS officer and doctor who conducted horrific medical experiments on inmates. This, from an article about Schächter in the Huffington Post:

“Schachter was herded into the line of those condemned to immediate death, and perished in 1945 at the age of 39, one month before the liberation of his country. The 91-year-old Kolmer, who still teaches physics and works on behalf of camp survivors, escaped death at Terezin and two other camps. But some 50 members of his extended family did not.”

“‘What Rafi – that was his nickname – did, strengthened us,’ Kolmer said. ‘The cultural life to which he belonged gave us the power to better resist our own fates, not just in Terezin but later in Auschwitz so we didn’t go to the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter.'” [Denis D. Gray, “Rafael Schachter, Jew Who Led Verdi’s Requiem Mass in Terezin Concentration Camp, Honored Decades Later In Prague,” AP, Huffington Post]

Though his life was cut tragically short, the spiritual and emotional impact of Rafael Schächter’s role as a gifted and noble resistor of darkest evil remains immeasurable; the message of his grave defiance in the face of his Nazi oppressors, precious, eternal. One need only be exposed to the testimonies of those who spent time in the circle of light he created within that darkness to understand the power of his influence upon the lives of those who lived each day trembling in the cold shadow of death.

Terezin survivor Vera Schiff

Writes Terezin survivor Vera Schiff, author of two books on the Holocaust, including “Thereseinstadt:  The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews”:

“Rafael Schächter, who brought about the Requiem, showed people that you can say to your oppressors in different ways what you think of them absent of having firearms or armed rebellion.  This wasn’t in our capabilities – but there was still a way to show that we can preserve human dignity.  Perhaps the Germans did or did not get the message – but it did help the inmates…It is very important that people should know that in the darkest places there can still be a flicker of hope if people adhere to the qualities of human dignity.” [Survivor Testimonies, Rafael Shachter Institute of Arts & Humanities]

Marianka Zadikow May, Terezin Requiem Chorus Member, says this of her experience:

Terezin Requiem Chorus Member, Marianka Zadikow May [Rafael Schächter Institute of Arts and Humanities]

“We were hungry and our stomachs were growling, and we knew nothing but the music.  It is a pure piece of gold, inside and out.  For the time it takes, an hour and fifteen minutes, there was no world out there – there was no war – there was only Verdi’s Requiem.  I’ve heard it said that even in the audience people had an enormous, unforgettable feeling that they were experiencing a piece of history [She speaks of the message of the Requiem – what they sang to the Nazis.]  “There will be a last day and you will have to admit your shortcomings and you will have to answer the questions before the judges.  The Almighty will sit on his throne and ask you – and what will you do?  We’re warning you!  We’re warning you right now – stop it!” In my opinion, that was the most important message.  But to us, the singers in the chorus, and I’m speaking for a group of girls now, not for myself only, this was more important than going on a date with a man or you lover.  This It was more important to practice so we would get better and better and better.  We were going to survive, all of us.  After the war we were going to sing.  We will meet once a year in Prague.  We will come and sing the Requiem.  We were planning for after the war when the war is over and we are all alive.  Rafi was a godsend.” [Schaecter Institute]
“A brilliant conductor and pianist, the normally mild-mannered Schächter was described as ‘like a crazed man on a mission,’ determined to realize the Requiem despite the hardships and even strong opposition from some rabbis and elders who wondered why Jews should be performing a Christian Mass and worried that their captors might see it as an apology for their Jewishness and react with brutality.” [Huffington Post]

Viktor Ullman

Writes Edgar of his roommate and friend: “Rafael Schächter was a godsend to all the prisoners, for, after a day’s work, he engaged large numbers of prisoners in performing, and even larger numbers in attending [the concerts].  Singing, we found, was not just taking our minds off the daily misery for the time we were singing, it gave us a lift, something that we carried with us into the next day, and it helped us to overcome whatever was put upon us during the day until we again met and sang.  Schächter drowned out the prison mentality that had overcome everybody there.”

Pavel Haas

“The visit [of the Red Cross and Nazi hierarchy] marked the last performance of the Requiem. Four months later, Schächter and most of the chorus were deported to Auschwitz, almost all murdered on arrival. A generation of young composers was wiped out at the same time: Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and Viktor Ullmann, who composed three piano sonatas at Terezin.” [Huff Post] It will never be known whether the Nazi hierarchy ever understood the intentional message conveyed to them by the Requiem chorale of Rafael Schächter and his band of doomed resistors; but they understood what it meant to them and that is all that really matters. That, and making sure the story never ceases to be told to future generations.”
“These crazy Jews are singing their own requiem,” Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the genocide, was heard to remark after attending one of the performances at the unique and surreal camp of Terezin, in what was then German-occupied Czechoslovakia. But for Schächter  and his fellow prisoners, this Mass for the dead became not an act of meek submission to their fate, but rather one of defiance of their captors, as well as a therapy against the enveloping terror. For Schächter  would tell the singers: “Whatever we do here is just a rehearsal for when we will play Verdi in a grand concert hall in Prague in freedom.” [Huffington Post]

Gideon Klein

I wish I could walk up to Rafael Schächter, shake his hand, hug him and thank him for the tremendous act of resistance that he was able to orchestrate, for the strength of spirit he was able to spark in other innocent inmates of that forsaken concentration camp, under what was arguably one of the darkest set of circumstances in human history. Perhaps one day, I will.  For now I’m grateful that I was able to shake the hand of Edgar Krasa after his talk to us in Brookline, Massachusetts… a man who has inspired me to tell this story as a way of honoring both these men who, under impossible circumstances, used the beauty of great music to shake their clenched collective fist in the face of those assembled Nazi thugs at Theresienstadt.

We all share in the responsibility to keep such history alive.

Edgar Krasa, this is for you. My small way of saying ‘thank you’ for taking the time that day in Brookline to offer us the privilege of passing your story on to the next generation, to my students, and to my sons, Joshua and Aaron.  I promise I’ll never forget your story.  Or you.