During World War II the Jewish inmates of the Terezin Concentration Camp (sometimes known as Theresienstadt) under the Nazis found a nonviolent way to resist, to claim their own identity and find a place of freedom amid the horrors of the Holocaust. The key was music. The initiator was Rafael Schäcter, a Czech Jewish composer and conductor who was arrested and sent to Terezin in 1941.
Schäcter recruited 150 camp inmates to learn and perform Verdi’s “Requiem.” When the camp was segregated by gender he established a male chorus, then was smuggled into the women’s section to develop a female chorus. Later the men and women were mixed together again, and Schäcter could practice with a joint choir. They met in a cellar where a piano had been smuggled in. The musicians learned the music by rote from a single smuggled score. Schäcter led them in many other works of music besides Verdi’s “Requiem.” The rehearsals followed brutal days of forced labor. The musicans performed the “Requiem” 16 times for fellow prisoners. The first performance in January 1942 was done in secret, but later permission was gained to hold the performances openly. Three times the chorus had to be rebuilt because of mass deportations to Auschwitz.
Then on June 23, 1944 a final performance was given before high ranking German S.S. officers and the International Red Cross, supposedly to show how well the prisoners were being treated. For Schächter the Requiem text was a means of resistance. He told the chorus, to “sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them.” Verdi’s text that they sang so defiantly was “Nothing shall remain unavenged….from the ashes, the guilty man to be judged….”
Terezin, established in a former Czech holiday resort in 1940, was not a death camp per se as it was used as a concentration camp before shipping inmates by train to Treblinka and Auschwitz for extermination. However, approximately 33,000 Jews perished in Terezin as the cramped and unsanitary conditions were so appalling and grueling. Malnutrition was extreme.
On October 16, 1944 Schäcter and about 1,000 others were taken by train to Auschwitz Schäcter died on the death march when Auschwitz was evacuated as the Russian Army closed in. But what Schäcter had done through his defiant music transformed those who participated. Survivor Edgar Krasa said, “These performances allowed the performers and the audiences to immerse themselves into the world of art and happiness, forget the reality of Ghetto life and deportations, and gather strength to better cope with the loss of freedom.”
The Defiant Requiem Foundation produced a documentary film, “The Defiant Requiem” with historical footage and testimonies from survivors. Here is the trailer:
Here is a performance of the Verdi “Requiem”: