Where was God at Theresienstadt?
It seems as if the Terezin ghetto never ceases to fire the imagination of creative talents around the world.
It seems as if the Terezin ghetto never ceases to fire the imagination of creative talents around the world. The contrast between the atrocities that took place between its walls before its residents were sent to Auschwitz, and the artistic and intellectual blossoming that took place there, at the initiative of the Nazis, has inspired numerous films, musical compositions and other works.
The name of the ghetto established in the town of Terezin, not far from Prague, was changed, in accord with German practice in territories occupied by the Third Reich, to a name with a more German ring to it: Theresienstadt. Operas were composed and produced there, a soccer league was formed, theater and cabaret performances were staged and poetry was written. The Jews deported there included some of the leading intellectual and creative lights of Eastern Europe, as well as top athletes - including members of national all-star squads, physicians and academics from a wide range of disciplines.
One creator who recently fell under the influence of Terezin is the Canadian violinist and composer Ruth Fazal. Her work, "Oratorio Terezin" will be staged this week for the first time in Israel (Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, Thursday, 8 P.M.; Jerusalem Theater, Friday 1 P.M.; Carmiel Cultural Center, Saturday, 9 P.M.). Since its premiere in Toronto in November 2003, the work has been performed in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and at Terezin itself.
"I grew up in England in a middle-class family that lived a quiet life, and I knew about the Holocaust - but as a child, and not a Jewish child at that, it did not really affect me," said Fazal.
She studied violin at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and then in Paris, after which she moved to Canada. She now juggles two careers, as the first violin of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and as an important singer and songwriter who has made a name for herself in the Christian music world, having released 18 CDs of religious songs she composed and sang.
"As an adult, I began to identify more with the Holocaust," she continued. "In 1999, after reading the book `I Never Saw Another Butterfly,' (by Hana Volavkova - N.B.) that contains poetry of children from the ghetto of Terezin, I was truly shaken. I was very affected by the hope, and the beauty they saw as the atrocities were going on. I asked myself over and over, where was God in all this? Did he disappear? Although I do not consider myself a composer, I felt a need to write a composition about the Holocaust, and it took over everything else in my life. I did not work for three years, and these were my three hardest years ever."
"Oratorio Terezin," which she wrote during these years, grew into a large-scale oratorio composition for an orchestra, two choirs - one children's and one adult - and three soloists - a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. Interspersed in the text are the children's poems that appeared in the book, as well as excerpts from the Bible, primarily from Psalms and the Prophets. The humanitarian perspective of the child - the terror alongside the unextinguished hope - propels large parts of the text.
For Fazal, the participation of children was an object unto itself. "Not only children from Israel will take part in the concerts here, but also from Canada - members of a choir that have also sung at concerts in Europe - and from Bratislava. The encounter between children from the different countries, the creation of a connection between them, the imparting of knowledge about the Holocaust, the increase of understanding among them and solidarity with the suffering of the other - these are primary aspects of the composition," she said. The composition had a powerful effect in Europe, and in Slovakia the parliament convened a special session after it was performed, to debate the issue of anti-Semitism there.
In addition to the New Streams choir from Canada, the Bratislava Boys Choir and members of the Slovak Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Bat Kol and Ma'ayan choirs will sing in Israel, and the Israeli Chamber Orchestra will perform, under conductor Kirk Trevor, as well as guest soloists.
"To my delight, the children like the composition and like to sing it. I had decided to write something that children would like since my own children, who sang in a children's choir in Canada, often complained about compositions that they had to sing in rehearsals and concerts."
The libretto sends a religious message, about God at first abandoning his people out of love and retribution, and about the people as a lost soul that wishes to defend itself. They form a sort of dialogue between the two sides, which is not lacking a Christian tone; they end in the prophet Isaiah's vision of comfort: "For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a torch that burneth" (Isaiah 62:1), as a sort of happy ending, circumstances notwithstanding.
When asked if she found an answer to the question that originally impelled her to write the composition - the role played by God in the Holocaust - Fazal replied, "In spite of everything, I believe that God did not abandon his people."