“In his mind, he transformed the Catholic Mass for the Dead into a Mass for the dead Nazis.”
~ Edgar Krasa, explaining that by singing Verdi’s Requiem about the day of final judgment to the Nazis, the prisoners were able to denounce their captors
Note: Quite some time has passed between installments of Edgar Krasa’s life and his role in the performance of Verdi’s Requiem before a host of high Nazi officials and international guests, to include the International Red Cross at Terezin concentration camp in one of the most spectacular acts of righteous defiance of evil ever to occur. This installment leads up to and through the actual performance of the Requiem that Rafael Schächter had only dreamed of… and the ensuing deportations leading to Auschwitz. Much of this text is adapted or quoted directly from Edgar’s book: “The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schächter, As Remembered by Edgar Krasa”
At first, writes Edgar Krasa, Rafael Schächter studied “The Marriage of Figaro” with the Czech singers. His life was dedicated to make other people’s lives easier to bear. When the deportations suddenly stopped for some reason, Schächter’s dream to perform the very difficult, and very Catholic, Verdi’s Requiem, was encouraged. Edgar writes:
“Schächter told me that he wanted to sing to the Germans in Latin what he could not tell them in German–specifically, the Kies Irae, day of wrath, of Liber Scriptus, the book containing the names of all the sinners which stated ‘when the wicked have been confounded.'” No protest could change his mind. In July 1943, he began to teach his 150-member choir the Latin words and gave them the translation as well, so they would know what they were singing, and become co-conspirators in his ruse.”
Despite the misgivings of many, the choir gave one impromptu performance just prior to a deportation to occur on September 6, 1943. He lost half the members of the choir in that deportation. But, as Edgar writes:
“Original detractors, who included professional critics and composers Dr. Kurt Singer and Vikto Ullmann, as well as the entire Council of Elders, were present. It was an enormous success; the previously skeptical Ullmann deemed the performance worthy of any music hall in any capital. Fifteen performances were given, each time with fewer singers due to deportations. Ultimately Schächter, with only 60 singers and uneven vocal sections, had to disband the Requiem.”
“Meanwhile the preparations for the [international] inspection were in full force. Many elderly people had been deported in advance, so that only healthy-looking inmates could be seen. We hoped the selected International Red Cross would see through the farce, but they instead proved a great disappointment. They were satisfied with the inmates that the Nazis introduced to them, auditioned adults and children who, under threat of being deported, said what they were told to say. On the day of the visit in late summer 1944, inmates were strolling on the square and an orchestra was playing music in a pavilion erected for this purpose. A group of girls in shorts and blouses, carrying rakes and spades over their shoulder, marched by, singing on the way to the fields. At the playground was a table with chocolate bars, and when the visitors approached, accompanied by the camp commander, the children had to address him as ‘Uncle’ and by his name: ‘Uncle Rahm, again chocolate?’ Some had never known chocolate, because it was not on their ration tickets at home.”
“An order came from the camp commander to perform the Requiem on the evening of the visit. Schächter’s adrenaline started to flow. Until then, he was telling the Nazis his mind in absentia; now he would have them right in front of him. He assembled the singers, rehearsed and was ready. The performance took place before several high SS officers who arrived from Berlin and Prague, and the members of the Red Cross commission to whom the Nazis wanted to ‘pay their respects to.” The irony was that Schächter and the singers had a chance to really ‘let them have it,’ but the Germans must have felt that we in essence were singing our own Requiem.”
Edgar writes that the Red Cross went next to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising where residents rose up to fight the Nazis supplied by the Polish underground. Edgar was one of those no longer needed at Terezin.
“In September 1944, I boarded a train of cattle wagons with 999 others. About 70 people were in each wagon, with not enough room for all to sit down, and only a small barred window in an upper corner. We did not know that this trip would last three days because military transports had priority. There was no food or drink. A ‘comfort bucket’ was in the open in one corner. There was no privacy. Two boys from one of the homes attached themselves to me. I was not old enough to be a father figure, but nonetheless we formed a trio, and tried to stay together. With people fainting or dead on the floor, there was even less space to sit.”
It was no better accommodations upon reaching their destination.
“After three days the doors were opened; aggressive men in prison uniforms came in and rushed us out without our luggage. We had arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. One asked the two boys how old they were. They responded ’15.’ Without explanation, the man said: ‘You are 18!’ A man supporting himself on a cane was also inexplicitly told to leave the cane behind… We were lined up five abreast in fron of two SS officers, who decided who would live, at least for some time, or die. One of them directed me, with a hand in a white glove, to one side. They then looked at the two boys and asked how old they were. It lit up in their brains, that this was the time to say ’18.’ They were directed to my side, and we were together again. Soon the group started to walk, again five abreast, along barbed wire. I naively asked a guard why sparks and flames were also coming out of a nearby smoke-filled chimney. He said it was the bakery, and that they must have burned a load of bread. It was only after meeting veteran prisoners that we found out the true function of those chimneys.”
Next: The forced death march…
* The photos were taken at the end of May or beginning of June 1944, either by Ernst Hofmann or by Bernhard Walter, two SS men whose task was to take ID photos and fingerprints of the inmates (not of the Jews who were sent directly to the gas chambers). The photos show the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia. Many of them came from the Berehov Ghetto, which itself was a collecting point for Jews from several other small towns. The purpose of the album is unclear. It was not intended for propaganda purposes, nor does it have any obvious personal use. One assumes that it was prepared as an official reference for a higher authority, as were photo albums from other concentration camps.Lilly never hid the album and news of its existence was published many times. She was even called to present it as testimony at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt during the 1960s. She kept it all the years until the famous Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld visited her in 1980, and convinced her to donate the album to Yad Vashem.